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Diminished debate: Limits on floor discussion put Senate in quandary

The Arizona Senate has shortened debate by imposing time limits on speeches, partially in response to filibusters used last year. Sen. Ken Cheuvront, shown in this file photo, was one of many lawmakers who employed parliamentary maneuvers last year in an attempt to block legislation.

The Arizona Senate has shortened debate by imposing time limits on speeches, partially in response to filibusters used last year. Sen. Ken Cheuvront, shown in this file photo, was one of many lawmakers who employed parliamentary maneuvers last year in an attempt to block legislation.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines debate as a “formal contest of argumentation in which two opposing teams defend and attack a given proposition.” Other dictionaries say it is to consider reasons for or against or to deliberate on a subject.

In the Arizona Legislature, debate usually refers to the Committee of the Whole, a crucial part of lawmaking that facilitates adjustments to legislation. More importantly for some, it is the last chance to thoroughly examine proposed legislation and to sway people’s opinion for or against it.

The picture that comes to mind is two animated lawmakers vigorously exchanging ideas. The practice is less dramatic than that. Debate on the floor of the Arizona Senate usually means two lawmakers who are engaged in a question-and-answer type of discussion designed to highlight a bill’s strengths or flaws. In most cases, emotions are checked and the tone is primarily civil.

But in the last two years, senators have adopted temporary rules to limit debate during the Committee of the Whole so debate is now but a shadow of its dictionary meaning. In short, the limitation on debate happened when lawmakers discussed subjects that directly impacted the state during a crucial part of the budget process.

To be clear: Senators still were able to defend and criticize proposals, but a procedural motion has so limited their timeframe to speak that some lawmakers complained it had stifled debate.

Sen. Ron Gould, a Lake Havasu Republican, said the limitation on debate is an improper interpretation of Senate rules.

“A lot of times I am trying to ask questions to show people that what they are doing is illogical and irrational, and I can’t do that when you limit me to two minutes speaking once on a motion,” Gould said. “If you are going to limit the debate on the floor, why bother having debate?”

Several times this year, the Senate adopted a motion to limit debate to two or three minutes. During one of the last budget deliberations, senators went further. They adopted a rule that gave each senator only two minutes of speaking time. Additionally, senators were limited to speaking once per motion.

The practical effect of the rule was this: A lawmaker could ask as many questions as he or she wanted within two minutes, but that person was barred from asking follow-up questions.

Some lawmakers complained that, as a result, no real debate takes place; the rule doesn’t allow for an extensive exchange of ideas. If a question was raised and the answer was inadequate, the senator who made the query could not pursue the subject. Supporters of the limitations, however, said it helps ensure that the business of the Senate is completed.

This temporary rule so frustrated Gould during a budget debate in August that after he couldn’t field a follow-up question, he muttered, “I don’t even know why I’m here.”

“Essentially, what you do when you limit debate is you move the business of the people off the floor of the Senate and into a formerly smoke-filled room. It is all taking place behind closed doors,” Gould told the Arizona Capitol Times.

But in a manner of speaking, that’s generally true of most legislation. On many occasions, the Committee of the Whole deliberation is a mere formality. Usually, compromises have been made, votes counted and the work done long before a bill reaches the floor.

Lawmakers defend or attack the legislation, but the arguments hardly change anyone’s mind. That is why legislation that reaches the floor usually passes. If it did not have the votes, it wouldn’t be on the
day’s calendar.

Yet every now and then, a controversial piece of legislation is up for debate, and a fierce discussion ensues between members. Senate President Bob Burns blamed dilatory tactics and threats of filibuster for the debate limitation.

“There is the action, and (there is the) reaction,” Burns said. “If a prolonged delaying tactic had not been put in place or exercised, then I suspect we would not have ever gone to this two-minute limit.”

A long discussion is acceptable if it results in clarifying a subject or educating people, Burns said. But that is not the case when people deliberately delay the process and questions become repetitive, even
“duplicitous,” he said.

In one instance, members engaged in a dilatory tactic hoping that if they could hold the floor long enough, a colleague whose support for legislation they opposed would leave the Senate building, dooming the
legislation, Burns said. The Peoria lawmaker likely was referring to the debate last year over a constitutional amendment to define marriage as between one man and one woman.

Burns made another point: The motion to limit debate in response to dilatory tactics must be approved by a majority of the lawmakers in each chamber. This year, senators approved the motions, but no such rule was enacted in the Arizona House.

“If the people on the floor decide that the two-minute limit is unreasonable, they can vote it down. I mean that is the balance,” Burns said.

Many Capitol observers said this technique of limiting debate by time is novel.

In fact, there are several ways to limit a debate. One maneuver is to call for the previous question, a parliamentary motion that, if approved by the majority of members present, has the practical effect of cutting off debate and immediately putting the motion being debated up for a vote.

There is a caveat: A member wishing to call for the previous question has to be recognized first by the chairperson of the debate proceeding. But if another member has the floor and a filibuster is underway, there is no way to stop the filibuster. The Senate rulebook states that no “senator shall interrupt another senator in debate without the senator’s consent.”

The chairperson of the debate also has the power to call out a member who has veered off topic, and if that member continued to be off topic, the chairperson can rule him or her to be out of order.

But limiting speaking time is probably the most effective maneuver since it stops a filibuster from happening in the first place.

Additionally, the time limit also prods the process along if scores of amendments were offered.

Kevin DeMenna, a long-time lobbyist, said he not seen this limitation to the degree that it has was employed in the Senate during the past two sessions.

Indeed, the motion to limit debate to a few minutes was hatched last year in response to fears of filibuster and dilatory tactics during the debate for the fiscal 2009 budget.

Former Sen. Tom O’Halleran, a Republican from Sedona, offered the motion during the 2008 session, and a majority of members supported it. The intent was not necessarily to limit debate but to cap how long
people could speak on an issue and still allow them to ask as many questions as they needed, O’Halleran said.

There had been successful attempts to derail legislation by offering scores of “poison” amendments, the object of which was to delay passage and wear down supporters or to try and tack on a provision to the legislation that would turn off some people’s support, killing the bill.

O’Halleran said as many as 60 amendments were going to be offered during a Committee of the Whole debate on the budget last year. At the time, a small number of Republicans, including O’Halleran and Senate President Tim Bee, had negotiated the budget with Democratic legislators and then-Gov. Janet Napolitano. But, a majority of the Republicans opposed that spending plan. A small group of conservative Republicans, led by Gould and Sen. Jack Harper of Surprise, employed one parliamentary maneuver after another in an attempt to derail its passage, resulting in a duel of floor tactics between them and the coalition of Republicans and Democrats led by Ken Cheuvront of Phoenix and Paula Aboud of Tucson.

“We felt we needed some level of ability to move the process along,” O’Halleran said. Lawmakers say the genesis of the limitation can be traced back to last year’s budget debate and to the attempted filibuster by Aboud and Cheuvront that same week to stall the passage of a constitutional amendment to define marriage as the union between a man and a woman.

Yet O’Halleran said in retrospect that lawmakers always should be able to ask any amount of questions necessary for him or her to vote learnedly. “If my motion was one where it also said that you couldn’t ask questions then I feel that that is wrong and it was wrong of me to do,” he said.

In fact, careful thought was devoted to the motion to limit the speaking time before it was employed this year, the Arizona Capitol Times was told. A staff member had gone through dozens of speeches, including instances when members asked questions and got answers, to time how long each senator spoke.The staff member, who had initially thought that three minutes might be too limiting, found out that three minutes is actually a very long time for a floor speech, and that during the review, only one speech had lasted longer than that time. The sentiment was that if speeches were confined to a reasonable time, it wouldn’t stifle debate.

But Senate Minority Leader Jorge Garcia said he thinks the practice of limiting debate is “destroying” the Senate as an institution. He also noted that in several instances, there was little time to review legislation because of a suspension of the rules that the agenda must be distributed five days prior to the committee meeting and that proposed strike-everything amendments must be delivered to committee members two days before the hearing. This meant that an amendment can be offered right before the start of the hearing, limiting panel members’ time to study the proposal.

Garcia defended those who have at times displayed a readiness to delay proceedings or to filibuster. Gould, for example, brought a phone book to his desk last year, presumably to indicate that he was ready to read names from it, and then attempted to read aloud the entire text of proposed legislation.

“(But) has he ever gone beyond two minutes? In making any speech and any comment, has he exceeded that?” Garcia asked rhetorically. “I know that there was a lengthy discussion between him and Senator Harper (in one of the debates) but I see that as fair play.”

Garcia said he thinks a lot of the driving force behind the limitation is “just paranoia.” The ability to offer amendments, even numerous ones, is a member’s privilege, he said.

As to assigning blame to Aboud and Cheuvront for their filibuster attempt last year, Garcia said he sees it as members’ obligation to represent their constituents within the rules of the Senate. Indeed, a filibuster, while rarely used, is a legitimate parliamentary tactic often employed by the minority side of an issue.

But Sen. John Huppenthal, a Republican from Chandler, saw a “fracturing” of the filibuster tradition during the marriage-amendment debate last year.

“It almost seemed like it finished off the filibuster as a working tool to help mediate severe disputes,” he said.

Once a maneuver is tried and proves successful, it is likely to be employed again and again. This is probably going to be the case with the motion to limit debate during the Committee of the Whole.

But one challenge will be to ensure that the minority opinion is heard in a system that is structured for the majority opinion to rule.

Another challenge is to balance people’s ability to fully scrutinize legislation and still complete the business at hand. The time limitation is obviously one tool, but many years ago, senators who faced a similar situation handled it differently. They simply let the filibusters talk.

In 1982, a group of Democrats staged a filibuster against a proposed 5-cent increase in the gasoline tax. Before that, Republicans during a closed-door caucus rejected suggestions to change the Senate rules and
limit the debate.

“Our people believe… (open debate) is a right and that nobody has ever abused it before,” then-Senate President Leo Corbet said, according to a newspaper account. “Just because they want to abuse it is no reason to change the rules.”

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