It's The Committee Chairs, Not The Speaker, That Hold The Power In The Hawaii House - Honolulu Civil Beat

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About the Author

Amy Perruso

Amy Perruso is an educator who represents House District 46 (Wahiawa, Whitmore Village, Launani Valley) in the Hawaii Legislature.

Under the current structure of the leadership alliance, the committee chairs have far more opportunity to derail bills.

In a recent opinion piece, Gary Hooser shared his analysis of the power structure of the Hawaii House of Representatives, specifically focusing on the power of the speaker, and made some recommendations to improve the process in the House.

I agree with his recommendations, but not Hooser’s analysis.

Specifically, his laser focus on Speaker Scott Saiki elides the power held by committee chairs. Chairs, who are recommended by the speaker but voted on by the entire House, have far more opportunity to derail a bill’s progress, and as a chairperson myself, I would like to see these powers checked so that we can democratize the legislative process in the House.

I have had a rocky road establishing relationships with House leadership because I come from a more leftist, more aggressive part of the Democratic Party that seeks more immediate and dramatic change than we’ve seen over the past few decades around economic justice and democratization of our institutions.

The speaker and I, as a result, disagree in pretty serious ways about desired outcomes of the political process. But viewing the process from outside the House gives Mr. Hooser, I believe, a misguided impression of the speaker’s power.

House members gather at the beginning of the first public in person floor session.
Speaker of the House Scott Saiki does not use his power in the way a recent commentary in Civil Beat argued. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

I do not think that Speaker Saiki uses his power dictatorially. I think Mr. Hooser underestimates the extent to which the majority caucus supports the speaker, and why.

With the current structure of the House leadership alliance, the committee chairs have all the actual power. If a committee chair wants to hear or defer a bill, that is their prerogative.

It may be true, in a very rare case, that the speaker or others in leadership may express concerns about an action a committee chair is taking with a bill, but usually all deference is paid to chairs.

Recently, we were having a very heated debate in caucus about what to do with one very important bill. Leadership and the speaker had a very specific recommendation, which almost everyone followed, but because one chair was not in agreement, the speaker moved the body away from that path of action so that we could act on the basis of consensus.

That’s just one example of an approach that seems to be more about listening to the body than imposing critical decisions from the top down. It is also an example of the power that chairs hold.

Hooser’s recommendations could provide important steps toward democratizing power.

Mr. Hooser points to the triple referral of Senate Bill 669 regarding the use of cannabis as evidence of Speaker Saiki flexing his power to sentence a bill to “death by referral.” And while there is truth to this, complicated assignments do not necessarily and singularly signify death for a bill.

We’ve gotten multiple bills through the House this session with complicated referrals. Referrals are a form of signaling, but can be overcome if chairs schedule bills for hearings.

Multiple hearings can actually be good for the process, I think, as they enable more representatives on different committees to ask questions about the bills. Hooser’s recommendation to require chairs to justify, in writing, their decision not to hear a bill, would help to address concerns about this process.

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Despite our different understandings of the speaker’s power, I think that Mr. Hooser’s recommendations could provide important steps toward democratizing power in the House.
So why is the underlying analysis so important?

Because, in my opinion, focusing on the heroification or villainization of individuals distracts from a deeper structural analysis and creates the conditions for scapegoating.

At a time when so many are looking for a place to put their anger and frustration, we should be diligent in our commitment to transforming the broader structures that keep inequality embedded in our institutions.

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About the Author

Amy Perruso

Amy Perruso is an educator who represents House District 46 (Wahiawa, Whitmore Village, Launani Valley) in the Hawaii Legislature.

Latest Comments (0)

Appreciate your opinion and insight, so both the speaker and the chairs hold significant power over bills and there is a purpose for that, however, it would be nice for the public to know how committees and chairs arrive at their decisions to hear or not to hear, to let die without debate, etc. on all bills. There is little transparency to the process and that leads us to assume politics are involved, which it is. I am also curious to know of meetings, or conversations outside of committee with the speaker and other legislatures as this is how bills get passed, or not. It's the discussion and political support of bills between chairs and politicians, that ultimately lead to passage, or not.

wailani1961 · 7 months ago

I don't know Amy if you're being totally honest and truthful here, or if your kow towing to the Speaker to get in his good graces. Nothing will get passed unless Scott wants it to be passed, there's no ifs ands or buts about it. There is too much power in the chairs of committees and in the speaker of both houses.

Scotty_Poppins · 8 months ago

I had an HOA (Home Owners Association) voting rights Bill introduced last year. The cognizant Chair it was assigned to deferred it, and not one single Committee member spoke up to question why he did that. So, now I regard that particular fellow as ‘Representative Payola’ (this as he got 3 monetary donations from an Aiea attorney who opposes normal voting rights in HOAs. Ditto for our certain dizzy Senate Chairs. Oh, got enough donations from an unregistered lobbyist who opposes normal voting rights in HOAs. No problem, just refuse to schedule a Hearing thereby killing the Bill. I get it. In spite of being elected by voters in public elections, screw taxpayers who are lower income and can only afford a home in a condominium complex. ‘Dark Money’ fuels our pathetic Legislature, otherwise it could be regarded as a Crossroads of Greed & Graft. Sure, we have honest people down there, but, they are kept out of leadership positions.

Dale.Head · 8 months ago

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