By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
The past two weeks revealed the vast differences between the House and Senate and how they conduct their business.
As most people know, New Hampshire has the largest House of any state in the union, and second only to the U.S. House in this country.
Each of the House’s 400 — usually a little less with resignations, illnesses, moves or deaths — members represent a little over 3,375 citizens in a theoretical sense, which makes it one of the most representative bodies in the country.
The state passed a constitutional amendment before the last redistricting in 2012 that requires a town “with sufficient population” to have its own representative.
While such local representation is good, control is something else.
Former House Speaker Donna Sytek often said trying to control 400 members is “like herding cats.”
The committee system is foundational to the House, as they do all the heavy lifting, the public hearings, the rewriting of bills and eventually a recommendation on every piece of legislation introduced into the House.
Committee members develop expertise in their subject areas such as Science, Technology and Energy, or Judiciary, or Election Law, etc.
Because of the nature of the House and respect for committees’ expertise, very few committee recommendations are overturned.
But two weeks ago in a historic House session at the Whittemore Center at the University of New Hampshire’s campus in Durham, the system’s foundation crumbled under partisan politics as Republicans voted as a block denying a rule change that would have allowed the remaining House bills to be voted on without needing a two-thirds majority to pass.
The deadlines for all House action had passed requiring a two-thirds majority vote for any bill to pass, or be amended, except for voting on Senate changes to House bills.
That action ended most of the House’s work for the remainder of the session. Democrats hold the majority but are well short of the two-thirds they would need to pass any bill.
In contrast you have the 24-member Senate, one of the smallest Senates in the country.
There is another old adage that you can disagree without being disagreeable because you may need that lawmaker’s vote the next day.
That is especially true in the Senate where you cannot afford to make enemies if you want to be effective and have your priority legislation approved.
By its nature, the Senate tends to be more bipartisan with members more willing to compromise, but it can certainly be as partisan as Washington at times on voting issues for example.
The Senators serve on more than one committee, so they don’t develop the deep expertise they do in the House, but have a broader range of issues to absorb.
Often public hearings are held without a full committee, during the height of the legislative session which for the Senate is after crossover when all the House bills have to have public hearings.
The Senate is more a club than the House and the camaraderie is evident watching the Senate in session.
Unlike the House, the Senate can turn on a dime if the day’s plan breaks down. Any senator may call for a “two-minute” recess that can last an hour at times as the senators caucus.
The Senate can afford to take a broader view of issues, while the House is more localized.
With different outlooks and serving different constituencies, the end of a session is often a battle between the House and Senate and less a battle between political parties.
Perhaps, but maybe not, the unintended consequences of what the House Republicans accomplished two weeks ago, is to give the Senate all the leverage at the end of the session.
Given the nature of the Senate, it should not surprise anyone that leaders of the two parties worked together to reach agreements on about a dozen omnibus bills containing much of what could be salvaged from this unique session interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.
At this point, the Senate controls the agenda, not just the Democratic majority.
New Public Hearings
And the Senate has not stopped working holding remote public hearings on six House bills and several amendments Wednesday and Thursday.
The Senate will meet June 29 to act on the bills, one day before the House meets June 30.
Some of the bills will be familiar to legislature followers.
House Bill 687 or the “red flag” protective order will be before the Judiciary Committee Wednesday morning. The bill passed the House Jan. 8 on a 201-176 vote.
House Bill 1665 to create an independent redistricting committee to redraw the state’s political boundaries will be heard Thursday afternoon before the Election Law and Municipal Affairs Committee.
That bill passed the House on the last session day for the House before legislative business was suspended in March due to the coronavirus pandemic. The bill passed the House on a 203-121 vote.
Also to be heard this week are amendments to temporarily put into law expanded absentee voting due to the COVID-19 epidemic, and on-line voter registrations agreed to by an election commission earlier this month. The changes would be for this year only.
The bill also allows for processing of absentee ballots during election day, but not counting them which would be done with the regular ballots later that evening.
Another amendment would require insurance companies to pay for a patient’s medical monitoring if the injury is the result of negligence and makes the person more at risk for other diseases.
Another proposal would allow the Chief Justice of the Superior Courts to convene multi-county grand juries and another would provide $375,000 for “Safe Station” programs in Manchester and Nashua.
The House will likely have to decide on these bills as well June 30.
The House has two choices on the more than two dozen bills the Senate approved last week and the six more it is likely to approve next Monday.
One choice for the House is to agree with the Senate on its bills loaded with the content of Senate and House bills, and some things the governor wants.
Needing just a majority vote, the Democrats have enough votes to approve all the bills sent from the Senate.
If they do approve the bills, they are headed eventually to the governor’s desk after going through the enrolling process.
The other choice for the House is to not agree to the changes, which normally would mean a committee of conference to negotiate differences, but not this session.
If the House does not go along with the changes, the bill and all of the other bills attached to it, will die.
The House cannot negotiate with the Senate and that is not a position the House — no matter who controls it — wants to be in.
Perhaps some of the House’s priorities are in the omnibus bills, but if they are not, the House has no way to resurrect those bills except through the good graces of a dozen or more senators.
No House member wants to be in that position, but that is reality as the historic 2020 session draws to a close.
Garry Rayno may be reached at email@example.com
Distant Dome by veteran journalist Garry Rayno explores a broader perspective on the State House and state happenings for InDepthNH.org. Over his three-decade career, Rayno covered the NH State House for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Foster’s Daily Democrat. During his career, his coverage spanned the news spectrum, from local planning, school and select boards, to national issues such as electric industry deregulation and Presidential primaries. Rayno lives with his wife Carolyn in New London.
InDepthNH.org is New Hampshire’s only nonprofit, online news outlet dedicated to reporting ethical, unbiased news and diverse opinions and columns.