Following impassioned Rules Committee testimony and floor debate, the Wyoming House voted Monday to expand the authorities of its two top officers, effectively cementing the power of its newly elevated leadership and curbing rank-and-file members’ influence over the agenda.
Typically a sleepy procedural formality, the Legislature’s biennial rules setting took on new weight and heightened attention this session amid the freshening power struggle between the Wyoming Freedom Caucus and its intra-party establishment Republican rivals.
House Majority Floor Leader Rep. Chip Neiman (R-Hulett) inadvertently opened a can of worms, he said, when he did “too good of a job trying to figure out” the powers of his new role, and brought to light a longstanding but little used or understood rule that held potential to undermine his authority.
Neiman, a member of the anti-establishment Wyoming Freedom Caucus, secured the No. 2 leadership role by a single vote in his second term, earning him command over the order of bills heard on the House floor. Legislation that fails to meet any number of procedural deadlines dies by default, a fact that makes the majority floor leader a powerful gatekeeper.
Prior to Monday’s rule change, if the rank-and-file body was eager to move legislation buried near the bottom of the list, representatives could, theoretically, overrule the majority floor leader with a simple majority vote. That option was rarely invoked, however, and Neiman said many members were unaware it existed, because it was essentially forbidden by the chamber’s “unwritten rules.”
But times, and the Legislature, have changed. Facing the specter of a closely divided House with a large contingent of new lawmakers who could potentially break with tradition and use the low override standard to sow discord and undermine authority, Neiman proposed a rules change requiring a two-thirds majority to overrule the speaker or majority floor leader. At least some of the details of the proposed change were hashed out in a closed-door caucus prior to the House Rules Committee meeting.
“I don’t want to have the position that I have been elected to diminished nor elevated,” Neiman said on the floor. “All I ask is the majority floor leader have the same amount of respect and authority that he’s been afforded previously to this new majority floor leader.”
A voice vote on the controversial measure was too close to call. It passed on a subsequent standing vote with approximately 36 in favor and 26 opposed.
The Wyoming Constitution grants each legislative chamber the power to write its own rules. Each must do so by close of business on the fifth day of the general session. The 67th Legislature, for example, had been using the rules of the 66th Legislature until Monday.
Under the previous rules — with some exceptions — a simple majority was required to change the order of bills on general file set by the majority floor leader, according to the Legislative Service Office. The same simple majority was required to pull bills out of the House speaker’s drawer. This was new information to some lawmakers, according to Neiman.
“That was evidently something that was not understood by members of this body for some amount of time,” Neiman told lawmakers. “In fact, everybody that I looked at or talked to, it was quite a revelation that that was even available.”
While the simple majority override was a longstanding rule, there was an unspoken agreement not to use it.
“When I started here it was a different time,” Rep. Dan Zwonitzer (R-Cheyenne) told the Rules Committee. “There were just unwritten rules that you didn’t dare question the speaker, you didn’t dare question the majority floor leader.”
Zwonitzer began his tenure in 2005 and is currently the second-longest serving member in the House. Being an effective lawmaker in years past, according to Zwonitzer, required spending a couple of terms earning the trust of your colleagues and gaining seniority before making a splash. But times have changed.
“A lot of our voters have demands on us as legislators and they actually don’t trust the [lawmaking] process,” Zwonitzer said. “And maybe that’s right because the process was geared to not allow your freshman or sophomore members a whole lot of power for a while.”
It was typical to have five or six freshmen lawmakers each election cycle, Zwonitzer said. But now that almost half the House is brand new — 27 of 62 representatives have never served before — the power dynamics have shifted, leaving some lawmakers wondering how, without adherence to those unwritten rules, the House would get anything done.
Neiman proposed the two-thirds majority override threshold during a House Rules Committee meeting as a way to enforce the traditional pecking order. Others saw it as a way to head-off potential “chaos,” and keep the session’s process from being choked up by individual legislators using the new-to-them rules.
“It’s out there now and it will change the way our session progresses,” Rep. Mark Jennings (R-Sheridan) said of the revelation that a simple majority could overrule House leadership.
Not everyone at the meeting shared Jennings’ concern. Rep. Jared Olsen (R-Cheyenne) said rank-and-file representatives may try to flex their muscles once or twice to no success, but would soon realize it was a waste of precious, constitutionally limited time.
The floor debate
“I’m not saying by bringing this amendment that the previous rules didn’t work, or that they were unfair,” said Rep. Barry Crago (R-Buffalo), who co-sponsored the proposed change with Neiman. “What I’m saying with this amendment is that it’s an attempt at compromise, which sometimes we need to do more of.” Crago’s support of the measure and call for cooperation were notable as he typically aligns more often with the body’s establishment Republicans.
The amendment went too far for Rep. Clark Stith (R-Rock Springs) because, he said, it gives both the speaker and house majority floor leader “essentially a veto over what bills get heard.”
“If you vote for this rule, it’s not a conservative vote. It’s not being conservative. It’s being authoritarian,” Stith said before House Speaker Rep. Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale) forbade members from making such judgements on the floor.
Rep. Steve Harshman (R-Casper), the chamber’s longest-serving member and a former two-term speaker, made similar warnings against the amendment, saying he’d never seen anything like it in his 20 years as a representative.
“Don’t fix what’s not broken. We have a beautiful system,” Harshman said. “I’m duly elected, just like the rest of ya. I’m not gonna give that up to him or him,” pointing at Sommers and Neiman.
Speaking in favor of the amendment, Rep. John Bear (R-Gillette), chair of the Freedom Caucus, said he appreciated learning about the traditions of years past through the rules discussion but ultimately, “we have two different worldviews in this body as to how we move the state forward.”
Closer to the vote, Neiman elaborated on his original intentions. He said he had set out to bring “more balanced leadership representation” since recent legislative elections have been “very close” between the two House factions.
“We didn’t want any perception out there that one person has got the advantage over the other,” Neiman said. “Because that just breeds resentment and problems.”
Before the House voted to adopt the amendment, Sommers asked Neiman to take the chair so he could approach the microphone.
“I want to tell you it was a good-faith effort by those that brought this to find a compromise,” Sommers told the body from the lectern. “I think there’s great debate on both sides of this. So I’m not going to bail you out and tell you which way to vote.”