It didn’t go well when Republican and Democratic leaders in the House of Representatives met on February 27.
There was a joke, an angry outburst, and they have not met since, ending a tradition observed under the previous House speaker.
House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma, said House Majority Leader Warren Petersen, a Gilbert Republican, had a short fuse.
“He got really angry at something I asked or said,” Fernandez said, later recalling she had commented to House Speaker Rusty Bowers that she’d be a lot nicer if – or when – she was in the speaker’s seat.
Fernandez said Bowers grinned at the comment, but she hit a nerve with Petersen, who agreed the meeting ended on a sour note. Bowers declined to comment.
“I did not appreciate the comment. I believe in being respectful, and I think it matters even when you’re joking,” Petersen said. “I found it offensive, so I shared that. I don’t know why she’d share that with others.”
In any case, the leaders finished their business and left.
“Needless to say, we’re not going to meet with them because we don’t think it’s productive at all,” Fernandez said.
That’s fine by Petersen. The leaders have had several positive informal conversations, he said, and if there’s a need to meet more formally, they will. But without an actual agenda to discuss, he doesn’t see much point in weekly meetings anyway.
Whatever value may or may not be lost in that regard, the swift downfall of those weekly meetings speaks to a greater sense of turmoil in the House of Representatives in the 2019 legislative session.
Slim voting margins have led to short tempers.
And short tempers have been a hazard to the normal order of business.
The February 27 meeting, coupled with other incidents and some Republican and Democratic complaints over one committee chairman’s use of his discretion contrasts with Bowers’ counsel to members in January to be respectful, be professional, and to “cut inflammatory rhetoric or bills or ideas that you know will be incendiary.”
In short, as Fernandez put it, “there’s a lot of chaos.”
Signs of emerging partisanship in the House were already apparent even before the Democrat and GOP leaders’ last meeting in February.
A week earlier, the House Judiciary Committee was packed with dozens of pro-life demonstrators for the much-anticipated downfall of HB2696, a bill Democrats asked not to be heard.
Freshman Rep. Raquel Terán, D-Phoenix, sponsored the bill that would have repealed a 2017 law that put requirements on what doctors have to do if a baby is born alive during an abortion, which she said was not her intention.
Her goal was to repeal a law requiring a physician performing an abortion to use any means necessary to keep alive a fetus that is delivered alive, Terán said.
She sought to have the bill held from the committee hearing after realizing her mistake, and for two hours her pleas went ignored
Rep. John Allen, R-Scottsdale, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, gave the bill a hearing anyway. He understood Terán had made a mistake with the language of her bill, but said he objected to it in any case.
“I’ve used it to demonstrate our different world views,” he said.
Though 16 other Democrats co-sponsored the flawed legislation, two Democratic members of the committee voted “no” on the bill, and two voted present in protest, including Rep. Kirsten Engel, D-Tucson, who also sought unsuccessfully to amend the bill to prevent its overreach.
“I feel that it is a slap in the face to our colleague Representative Terán that you are not taking into account her deeply held wishes that this bill be held and that her very personal experience be turned into a political show,” Engel said.
The bill was defeated as everyone knew it would be, with zero votes in support.
RULE OF RULES
Republicans argued that Terán got exactly what Democrats ask for their bills each year – a hearing, a chance.
As the minority party, Democrats in the House
routinely have their ideas blocked by committee chairs. This year, some GOP-sponsored bills have faced a similar fate thanks to a fellow Republican, Rep. Anthony Kern.
As chairman of the House Rules Committee, Kern, R-Glendale, blocked or stalled dozens of bills from advancing through a committee that’s not designed to debate bills on their political merit. The Rules Committee is an opportunity for lawmakers to get advice from their staff attorneys to determine if a bill is constitutional and “proper for consideration.”
This year, 37 House bills have been blocked by Kern. Weeks ago, the number exceeded 70 bills, and led to some Republican complaints that Kern was abusing his authority.
Kern said that characterization isn’t fair, saying he’s tried to be flexible and hear his colleagues out about their proposals.
“Unless you’re a rules chairman, I don’t know if a lot of the members understand what we’re looking at,” he said. “Thirty-seven might be a little high, but it is what it is.”
Frustration with Kern has extended to Bowers, since the speaker blessed Kern with his position in the first place. Bowers acknowledged as much on the floor on March 5, when Fernandez accused Kern of being vindictive and holding Democratic bills hostage in his committee.
Every chairman is an extension of the speaker, Bowers said.
And Bowers did shake a handful of bills loose from the grip of the Rules Committee. If his leaders come calling for the release of a bill, Kern said he’d always be willing. But the prerogative as chair still rests with him.
“I ultimately make that decision, so I take full responsibility,” Kern said.
The bottleneck in the Rules Committee angered more than a few representatives – and senators – on both sides of the aisle and inspired at least one to take action.
Rep. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, took her frustration over her held bills to the House floor.
On the morning of February 27, Townsend voted “no” on every bill that came up for a final House vote. Her quiet protest could have tipped the odds in the Democrats’ favor if they voted in a bloc, so the Republicans recessed in the middle of floor action.
With the 31-29 party split, Republicans need all 31 members to pass legislation important to their party.
If even one Republican representative is missing, a pattern has emerged.
Votes are delayed – sometimes for a few minutes, sometimes days.
Even when all members are present, a few may be empowered.
Townsend disappeared from the floor when members returned that afternoon. Democrats seized on the opportunity to make an example of several Republican bills and withheld their “aye” votes on measures they otherwise would support to ensure the measures fell short of the 31 votes needed for approval.
Some lawmakers, like Townsend, are simply too attached to their bills and take their failure personally, said Rep. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, the speaker pro tem.
“I try not to sweat it out too much. … Unfortunately, the flip side of my attitude is often ‘well, I’m just going to vote against all of your bills,’” he said, referring to Townsend’s demonstration on the floor. “Everybody would do best to have a more nuanced approach.”
And blame has been misplaced on Kern, he said.
“Mr. Kern went above and beyond what I even would have done,” said Shope, who chaired the House Rules Committee last year.
He may not have held up quite as many bills–19 House bills were left to die waiting for a rules hearing in the 2018 legislative session–but Shope said he held more hot-button proposals.
Townsend’s protest was only effective because of the way House Republicans have chosen to operate. Amid a 31-29 split, they’ve stuck to the standard GOP operating procedure and mostly tried to pass bills without seeking cooperation from Democrats.
With no votes to spare, Bowers and GOP leaders are at the mercy of any Republican who chooses to vote against a bill on the House floor.
“They need every one of their members. There is no room for error,” Fernandez said.
But the Republicans should also trust the Democrats to vote on the merits of bills, she said. If their ideas are good for Arizonans, her caucus will see to it they pass despite any malcontents.
If the chamber cannot agree on the easy things, there will be no room for error when it comes to the budget.
“They’ve never been in this position, and they better get ready,” Fernandez said. “2020 is going to be different.”