Facing slim majority, House Republicans beef up key committees

Katie Campbell and Ben Giles//November 30, 2018

Facing slim majority, House Republicans beef up key committees

Katie Campbell and Ben Giles//November 30, 2018


House Republicans have stacked the legislative system in their favor even now when Democrats hold nearly half the seats in the chamber.

New committee assignments in the House are largely an improvement from previous legislative terms for Democrats, but the partisan splits on three crucial committees serve as a stark reminder that the Republican Party holds the majority, and they’re not afraid to show it.

The Appropriations Committee, where the first hearings on the budget are held, is split 7-4 in favor of the GOP. It’s no doubt an improvement over previous years, when Republicans boasted a 9-5 advantage in representation on the committee.

But Democratic Minority Leader-elect Charlene Fernandez said it’s still nowhere close to representing the will of the voters. With her party holding 29 of the 60 seats in the House, Fernandez had hoped for committees that mirrored the narrow partisan divide.

Put another way, Republicans hold a 64 percent majority on the Appropriations Committee, while they hold less than 52 percent of the chamber.

“Sure doesn’t look like 29-31,” said Fernandez, D-Yuma.

Her hopes that House Speaker-elect Rusty Bowers would change his mind were dashed this week, when House Republicans announced a roster for committees that reflected the 7-4 advantage.

“I think it was probably easy to put that together, but to look at it and say this is reflective of my Legislature… I feel very hopeful that he’ll say no,” she said.

Bowers did not respond to a call for comment.

The House Education Committee, and the committee on Natural Resources, Energy and Water, will also be split 7-4 along party lines.

The committee on water issues was particularly surprising to Fernandez, as she said Bowers told her that water isn’t a political, ideologically-driven issue for Arizonans.

Nonetheless, Republicans have ensured themselves wiggle room to get their bills through committees with little resistance.

The 7-4 split on the Education Committee in particular could preface another tense round of talks about school funding and equity.

Rep. Reginald Bolding, D-Laveen, said both parties have good ideas, and the only way those ideas will be heard is through balance. Without that, he said debates around issues like charter school reform, how to resolve the teacher shortage and funding for public schools will be hindered in the upcoming session.

Bolding, who Democrats elected co-whip along with Rep. Athena Salman, D-Tempe, will serve as the ranking member of his party on the Education Committee. He also sat on that committee in the 2018 session, when the split was 8-3 and House Republicans held the majority by 10 members.

In 2019, they’ll remain in the majority with two members more than Democrats, yet the partisan split in that committee will improve for the minority party by just one member.

Bolding said that wouldn’t look fair or balanced to anyone, especially voters.

“Are we going to govern the way in which the public has asked us to do, which is in a more balanced way? Or is it still going to be a one-party rule?” Bolding said. “I don’t think that’s what the public wants, and I don’t think that’s what they asked us for.”

Minority leadership has voiced similar complaints before. In 2006, when Democrats won 27 House seats–that’s about 45 percent of the chamber–House Minority Leader Phil Lopes asked House Speaker Jim Weiers, a Republican, to split committees 5-4 and give Democrats as close to 45 percent representation in hearings, and on the floor.

Weiers did not oblige, and instead announced 6-4 committee splits that left Dems complaining that their 40 percent share of the committee wasn’t enough.

We think the wishes of the voters are being thwarted because the Democrats are not given proportional representation on committees,” Lopes said at the time.

While Lopes went on about fairness, then-House spokesman Barrett Marson noted there’s nothing obligating majority leaders to defer to Democrats: “There’s no rule to make [committee] membership match the Legislature’s membership. That’s never necessarily been a requirement or even practice.”

In theory, a 7-4 split is not so advantageous. The Republican majority on those committees can only afford to lose one vote from their own caucus and still pass bills 6-5. If another Republican were to defect, the result would be flipped and bills would fail.

In practice, a 7-4 split allows those committees to weather the absence or “present” vote – abstaining – of as many as two Republicans. It also provides cover for a Republican who, perhaps wary of voting for a certain bill, simply leaves the room to avoid the vote.

The committee arrangement also ensures Democrats will have an uphill battle of successfully moving their own bills through the legislative process. Democratic members on committees split 7-4 will have to convince at least two Republicans to support their proposals in order for them to advance.

The arrangement also empowers far-right Republicans to get their bills beyond committees and to votes on the full House floor.

It’s familiar territory for Democrats, who have been the minority party in the House for decades.

Their silver lining is the House floor, where the wiggle room for Republicans is narrower. Rep. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, is well aware of his party’s slim margin for error, and warns that full attendance by Republicans will be crucial to passing bills along party lines.

As the speaker pro tem, Shope will preside over much of the chamber’s debates and votes, and said he’ll be stressing to his fellow caucus members that they need to show up to work.

House members cannot vote present on the floor, so they often simply leave during a vote if they do not want to participate. But there is a rarely-utilized mechanism to bring those absent lawmakers back to the floor. Under House rules, any representative can make a motion for a “Call of the House,” forcing the sergeant at arms to round up absent members “until two-thirds of the members elected to the House are present.”

In the House, that motion has only successfully been made once in the past decade – by Democratic Rep. Diego Espinoza of Avondale, under former House Speaker David Gowan.