Robert McKnight: Winning while losing


Published: Friday, June 14, 2013 at 2:55 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, June 14, 2013 at 2:55 p.m.

Casual observers of politics often ask me, “If they lost the majority last election, how are they able to block everything the new majority does now?” It does sounds odd — how can you still win, when you have lost?

The answer in a word is “rules.” Whether it is at the federal, state or local level of government, learning explicitly the rules is my strongest recommendation to any candidate, student, or holder of public office.

Let’s look at some of the rules that the minority can typical use to best the majority in a legislative context:

Use extra-majority vote: It is typical for a legislative body to require more than a majority vote to take certain action, like hearing a bill on final passage, or to waive the rules, or to advice or consent. In effect, this gives the minority a real numeric chance to win a vote, even though the other party has a 50 percent-plus majority.

Use chamber privileges: This rule will vary from federal to state to local governments, but it is one that is used frequently. For example, in the U. S. Senate, a senator can place an “indefinite hold” on taking up a presidential appointment, regardless of being in the majority or minority. Most will recognize “five hands” or “a quorum call” from any members, to require a roll call vote, if the majority rules against the minority on a voice vote.

Required committee referral: Virtually all governments require a fiscal impact analysis of any pending bill. If the party in control attempts to bypass this critical requirement to expedite controversial passage, the minority party can call a point of order, citing the rule calling for required committee referral. This will often divert the bill’s path and could very well result in killing it for the session.

Cite precedents: As in the courts, legislative rules have great regard for precedent. By studying rule precedents, any member has a powerful weapon for parity in debate. The precedents of a body are also recognized in ligation resolving legislative intent.

Motions: One often used motion to derail a measure, even if you do not have adequate votes to stop it, is to vote on the prevailing side, and then turn around and move to reconsider the measure, leaving it pending indefinitely. Another is to move to lay a defeated motion on the table, which kills it for the session, a tactic available to any member.

If adroit use of these rules can be so effective, why are they and others like them not used more? Inexperience and ignorance of the rules are the general reasons members do not afford themselves all tools members are granted. These protections of our due process in lawmaking are what make the work of the framers of our government documents so incredible.

As I outlined in my book, “The Golden Years … The Florida Legislature,” fellow senator once said to me, “A law should not be easy to enact. We should labor long and hard on bills, and make every effort to get it right.”

Good stuff. The more we look at our governance model, the more we marvel.

Robert W. McKnight is a former Florida state senator and representative.

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