Two so-called “rats” were inserted at the last minute into two massive must-pass pieces of legislation introduced and passed just hours before Connecticut’s constitutionally-mandated end of legislative session on June 7th this year.
Only days later did legislators, with a few key exceptions, discover what was hidden in the 836-page budget bill and the 300-page “bond bill” on which they had voted. The rats overrode local decision-making on land use and zoning in two towns, Stamford and Middlebury. One rat was requested by a Republican, the other by a Democrat. Rats are a bipartisan problem, but a problem that only all-powerful Democrats can clean up.
State Senator Ryan Fazio (R-36), who represents part of Stamford, told the CT Examiner that “lawmakers received the 300-page bond bill less than an hour before they voted on it.”
Not only did the rats inject land use decisions into legislation about the entirely different matter of state finances and override the conventional separation of powers between the state and municipalities, but the rat’s very existence made a mockery of the democratic process.
The normal legislative process involves extensive committee meetings, often the scrutiny of public hearings and always extensive negotiations between the governor and legislative leaders which is usually covered reasonably well in the media.
If the rats cannot survive the democratic process, they shouldn’t survive at all. So, what to do about “rats.”
We can look to Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives for a general solution. After the House spent years under the tight control of former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who is famous for saying “Congress [has] to pass the bill so you can find out what’s in it,” a small group of Republicans demanded change.
For years, Pelosi ran the House by forcing members to vote blindly on massive bills just hours after their introduction – just like the recent experience in Hartford that Fazio described. After winning control in the last election, House Republicans changed House rules to require a minimum of 72 hours between introduction and a vote on a bill.
Fazio told me “I like that idea,” and later tweeted a proposal for a 24-hour period between filing and voting on bills of 100 pages or more.
Fazio’s idea of a 100-page threshold draws upon another reform instituted by the U.S. House GOP, namely an effective ban on massive legislation – what Washington often calls “omnibus bills,” in which the DC-equivalent of “rats” can be hidden quite easily. In the Fiscal Responsibility Act that ended the recent debt ceiling crisis, House Republicans mandated that Congress return to “regular order,” namely the practice of moving different sections of the massive federal budget through relevant committees as separate bills which then move individually to the House floor for a vote.
Hartford could use a reform like “regular order,” with a series of shorter bills each concerning certain types of issues. Just consider what Hartford produces in the absence of such reform. Here’s the official title of the monstrosity which the “bond bill” became on the final day of session:
AN ACT AUTHORIZING AND ADJUSTING BONDS OF THE STATE AND CONCERNING CERTAIN GRANT AND FINANCING PROGRAMS, STATE CONSTRUCTION RELATED THRESHOLDS, SCHOOL CONSTRUCTION PROJECTS, THE FAILURE TO FILE FOR CERTAIN GRAND LIST EXEMPTIONS, THE VALIDATION OF CERTAIN ACTIONS TAKEN BY CERTAIN MUNICIPALITIES, CAPITAL CITY PROJECTS, CERTAIN CONSUMER AGREEMENTS, CERTAIN MODIFICATIONS TO MUNICIPAL CHARTERS AND PETITIONS FOR CERTAIN TOWN REFERENDA, ELECTIONS ADMINISTRATION AND CAMPAIGN FINANCE, CERTAIN CASES BEFORE THE COMMISSION ON HUMAN RIGHTS AND OPPORTUNITIES AND OTHER ITEMS IMPLEMENTING THE STATE BUDGET
With shorter bills and a 24-hour period for consideration, noxious rats could be eliminated and, if something important has been genuinely overlooked, then it could be added, only tolling the process for another 24 hours.
Hartford should emulate the great experiment in genuine democratic process which has been launched by the U.S. House GOP, instead of glorifying the adrenaline-pumping pell-mell rush to the close of session on June 7th as did Connecticut House Speaker Matt Ritter (D-Hartford) who commented to News 12 “From 8[pm] to 12 [midnight] [on the last day of session], I think, is the most fascinating three or four hours in Connecticut politics.”
Of course, Ritter approved the rats, as did the Lamont Administration, according to the CT Mirror “Consent by the governor’s office and the leaders of the four legislative caucuses was required to insert [the rat].”
Ritter commented “I have to be pragmatic in my job.” Yet, Ritter and the Democrats have total power and control to “be pragmatic.”
At least Ritter acknowledges his role. Governor Lamont told reporters “You might be shocked to hear this. I found out that it was in the budget probably the same time a lot of you guys did.”
The new U.S. House rules and the “regular order” mandate are designed to force the legislative process in Washington to operate with transparency and in genuinely democratic fashion. Hartford could use a dose of the same. Over a century ago, Supreme Court Justice Lois Brandeis said “Sunshine is the best disinfectant.”
Red Jahncke is a nationally recognized columnist, who writes about politics and policy. His columns appear in numerous national publications, such as The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, USA Today, The Hill, Issues & Insights and National Review as well as many Connecticut newspapers.