Why Not Send All Colorado Bills to a Floor Vote?

Yesterday I waded into the middle of the conflict between Rocky Mountain Gun Owners RMGO and the Independence Institute regarding strategy over gun magazine restrictions. (This morning Mandy Connell discussed my article on KHOW, and Dudley Brown called in to explain his position.) Related, yesterday RMGO* also tried a bizarre procedural move to force a floor vote of the bill to repeal the magazine restrictions.

The leftist ColoradoPols has a write-up about this. According to a Democratic media release it quotes, “Rep. Everett moved to amend the journal to overturn the work of the committee and show that SB15-175 passed.” That is certainly an, uh, interesting tactic. Obviously if a Democrat tried that with Republican leadership, Republicans would explode in anger. (I’ve emailed Everett about this and will update this article if he replies.)*

But, RMGO* antics aside, the episode gave me an idea: Why not send all bills to a floor-wide vote? The legislature would still have committees, and the committees would still hear testimony. But, rather than vote a bill up or down, a committee would offer a recommendation on a bill and send it on to the entire body for a vote.

The idea behind the committee vote, presumably, is that a small group of legislators can specialize in a certain area and weed out the unworthy bills. But, in practice, legislative leadership routinely use committees to kill bills they don’t like. Certain committees are informally known as “kill committees”; they are where leadership sends bills so that their reliable colleagues in safe seats can vote them down. Yes, committees hear testimony, but in many or most cases this testimony is entirely irrelevant to the outcome of the bill: Often legislators know how they will vote, and how each of the other committee members will vote, before the hearing even starts.

One purpose of “kill committees” is to shield other members of the leadership’s party from having to take uncomfortable positions on controversial topics. This is good for the party in power, but it is bad for constituents, and it is bad for the democratic process. (I’m not a democrat, but I do see value in citizen oversight of government.)

Of course, if every bill were brought to a floor vote, each legislator would have to vote on many more bills than is currently the case. I regard that as a benefit of the plan, not a bug. It might discourage legislators from introducing so damn many bills.

If this plan were implemented, it might also make sense to change how floor votes are conducted. Here is one possibility: Once a bill made it through committee, legislators could register their vote for a bill whenever they wanted. They could vote yes, no, or abstain. Once every legislator cast a vote, the bill would be declared passed or failed. If, by the end of the session, a legislator had not cast a vote, his vote would be “abstain” by default.

At this point, my proposal is preliminary. I’d want to learn some additional facts before committing to it, including these: Is this done in any other state government? [April 20 Update: Paul Jacob tells me that New Hampshire does this. Rob Natelson tells me North Dakota does, too.] Is there any consequence to the system I’m not foreseeing? Would this require a citizens’ initiative to implement? Offhand, though, putting every bill to a floor vote seems like a great idea.

April 20 Update: This plan is compatible with floor debate for each vote. Then voting would start at the end of the floor debate. Also, I’m not sure how the legislature works now on this issue, but it seems to me that a bill should pass only if a majority plus one vote to pass it, counting all the “abstain” votes. Another variant: Rather than send all bills to the floor, committees could rule, unless a third (plus one) of a body’s members called for a floor vote, in which case a bill would go to the floor even if the committee voted no.

* April 17 Update: Representative Justin Everett emailed me and stated that, contrary to the claims of ColoradoPols, “RMGO wasn’t involved” in the floor action. (RMGO PAC endorsed Everett last year.) He further states “it was a legit way to get the mag ban to the floor.” April 18 Update: RMGO’s Dudley Brown, however, explicitly claims participation in the legislative move.