Down in Concord

“To lodge all power in one party and keep it there is to insure bad government and the sure and gradual deterioration of the public morals.”
– Mark Twain

The House and Senate are winding down. The House meets in a short session May 29 to deal with a dozen bills it did not get to last week due to lengthy debate on bills such as the casino gambling bill. You probably heard that it was defeated by a large margin. I had thought the vote would be close.

Of the roughly 800 bills at the start of the year, the Governor has signed 32. Another 137 have passed both the House and Senate and are on their way to or on the Governor’s desk awaiting her signature.

House and Senate committees are still considering some 30 bills, including the two huge budget bills. The deadline for the House or Senate to vote on all bills is June 6. Then they have three weeks to resolve differences between House versions and Senate versions. June 27th, if everything goes according to plan, the legislature will have finished all its business and the people will again be safe. (“No Man’s life liberty or property is safe while the legislature is in session.”)

Technically, the legislature is in session 24/7. It never adjourns; it goes into recess. Huh?  “Wait a minute,” you say. “I’ve heard motions to adjourn.” Ah, but you only think you heard motions to adjourn. They weren’t really motions to adjourn. Well, sort of.

One of the surprising things the House does as the first item of business every session day is a motion to adjourn. Huh? At the beginning of the day it adjourns??? Yep. And at the end of the day there is a second motion to adjourn, but it doesn’t really adjourn. What you see when hundreds of members are present and conducting business, that is what is called the “early” session. At the end of the day, the House adjourns from the early session, only to enter the “late” session.

When the House meets, usually on a Wednesday, the first thing it does is adjourn from the previous late session. Then it begins the early session. At the end of the day, the House adjourns from the early session, and enters the late session. At that time, you may occasionally hear a speech or two on “unanimous consent”, often to memorialize some person(s).

Last week, members spoke about Memorial Day. By all appearances those speeches were part of that day’s session. But the early session had actually adjourned; those remarks were part of the late session. At the end of the day, the House recessed. As of this writing, the House is still in the late session of May 22, and will continue that day’s session until it adjourns at the beginning of May 29, to begin a new session day.

So why is there a late session? Why is the House still in session on a Sunday? The House actually conducts legislative business during the late session. If you listen carefully at the end of day (when the House has adjourned from the early session, and is in the late session) there is a motion to recess for “purposes of … enrolled bill amendments, enrolled bill reports …”.

After a bill has passed both the House and Senate, it goes through the enrolled bill process. A team of lawyers in the Office of Legislative Services (OLS), carefully examines every word, every piece of punctuation. On occasion there is a misspelling, wrong punctuation, two words run together, or some sort of tiny error. If they find an error, they write an amendment to fix it. The OLS staff cannot fix substantive errors but they can fix tiny errors that do not affect the meaning of a bill.

To be more precise, the OLS staff cannot by themselves even dot an “i” or cross a “t”. They can draft an amendment but only the legislature can approve the amendment. The House and the Senate have to vote on the amendment. Even if the OLS staff find no errors, the House and Senate have to vote on the report that there are no errors.

One of the neat things about the late session is that a mere two members can act for the entire body of 400 Representatives (or 24 Senators). One member acts as the Speaker of the House, the other member acts for the entire House. One day I happened to be in the Legislative Office Building (LOB) after most other Reps had left, when a staff member and one of my colleagues entered with some paperwork and said, “Oh, there’s a member.” My colleague told me I was about to be the House; he was the temporary Speaker. He called the House (i.e. me) to order, recognized me to offer an Enrolled Bill Amendment, and then to vote on it. Then he declared the House in recess. The same thing happened on the Senate side, then the bill headed to the Governor’s desk.

The late session allows for small but important business to be conducted between “real” sessions.

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