Six hundred bills passed at least one chamber of the General Assembly during the 147 days of the 2013 Legislative Session, including a flurry of activity that saw 121 bills rammed through the Senate and 96 through the House in the final five days. Denizens of the Capitol call this rat season.
Like a college freshman rushing to complete a final paper, the legislature often leaves much of its business until the waning hours of the session. The House of Representatives passed 508 bills in 2013, including an incredible 48 bills that passed on the final day of the session. In the Senate, 51 of the 553 bills passed were approved on the constitutionally mandated last day.
With so many bills and so little time, few lawmakers can read every piece of the legislation under consideration, opening the door to legislative “rats” — little bits of language that are tucked into bills with the hope that no one will read it before passage.
One unlucky rat this year, so far anyway, designated the start date for illegal immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses in the state. Originally slated to begin in 2015, the date magically changed to 2013 in one version of the bill that was actually read before the vote. House Republicans threatened to filibuster and grind all business to a halt in the lower chamber until the date was changed back.
These machinations are all thoroughly ordinary at the State Capitol. The 508 bills in the House for example was a bit better than 2011’s 443 bills, but still dwarfed by the legislating orgy that produced 666 bills from the House in 2009. The Senate just missed its 2009 tally, passing 553 bills this year compared to 561 four years ago.
As I write in this space each year after the legislative session, this is a crazy way to make laws. The still-rolling Donovan scandal highlights the recklessness of it all. It empowers the well connected and offers cover to those who perpetrate misdeeds at the expense of the state.
The details of the case surrounding former Speaker Chris Donovan suggest that legislators should consider fewer bills at a slower pace in the last days of the session. The speaker’s ability to control which legislation comes up for a vote is particularly valuable during the final sprint. At very least, a slowdown would give lawmakers a chance to read more bills before they vote.
One strategy with a demonstrated ability to reduce the number of bills considered is to shorten the legislative session. Compared to 2013, the House passed 123 fewer bills while the Senate tally decreased by 166 fewer bills during the shorter 2012 session. Shorter legislative sessions would put downward pressure on the number of bills considered and increase the importance of those bills that did get a vote.
There are numerous proposals for a broader institutional reform floated each year, like the unicameral legislature idea. Ideas that should receive more serious scrutiny include four-year terms for senators and term limits for everyone. Only 14 other states require legislators to serve two-year terms regardless of chamber while 27 states let senators serve four-year terms. It is time to catch up.
The hectic pace of the final days rewards long-serving legislators who learn the process and then figure out how to game it. Term limits would send the longest-serving legislators home.
Rat season is a good example of Hartford’s dysfunctions. Getting the rats out of the Capitol should be a priority.
Heath W. Fahle is the Policy Director of the Yankee Institute for Public Policy and a former Executive Director of the Connecticut Republican Party. Contact Heath about this article by visiting www.heathwfahle.com