The minority party in the Oklahoma House of Representatives for the first time has a voice in determining which bills will be heard on the House floor.
A new rule approved easily last week by the Republican-controlled chamber establishes the House of Representatives Calendar committee, which reviews all bills that were heard by other committees and recommended to advance to the House.
While Democrats make up about one fourth of the 18-member committee, they at least will be part of the process to set the House agenda, and can take part in the discussion on whether a bill should be heard on the House floor, be sent back to committee, or take no action.
Previously, bills were assigned by a handful of leaders of the majority party, and usually just the House speaker and the floor leader.
House Speaker T.W. Shannon, elected to the post last month, said it's part of his goal to give all voices in the House a chance to be heard.
Shannon was elected state representative in 2006, two years after Republicans gained control of the House.
The calendar committee is part of the House rules approved last week on the first day of this year's session. Monday kicked off the first session of the 54th Legislature, which runs for the next two years.
Membership on the committee should reflect the approximate partisan composition of the House. Republicans outnumber Democrats 72-29 in the House.
Shannon said it's good for Republicans to have checks and balances on themselves as their majority has gotten to be a super majority.
About one third of the legislatures in the country have a similar calendar committee, Shannon said.
Members have the authority to schedule legislation on the House floor. If committee members agree that a measure requires additional consideration, it may be returned to the standing or special committee.
If two-thirds of them agree, they can designate a measure as a special order, which means it will be taken up on a specific date or a specific time.
“Members of that committee have the opportunity to make amendments within committee for the first time ever,” Shannon said.
The committee is to provide at least 24 hours notice of a meeting. All meetings are to be open to the public.
The calendar committee also is responsible for proposing a regular order of business for the House at the beginning of each regular session. That primarily was the sole duty of the floor leader.
Rep. Eric Proctor, the deputy minority floor leader, said the calendar committee provides more openness, but he didn't like the change was made when a woman is serving as floor leader for the first time in state history. Shannon named Rep. Pam Peterson, R-Tulsa, to the post in December.
“In the past, that job has had immense power,” said Proctor, D-Tulsa. “The first time we have a woman floor leader, they take it away from her, which I don't like. I would have liked to have seen Rep. Peterson, of course from my same hometown of Tulsa, have that authority and still make the same decisions that male floor leaders made for us since the beginning of the state.”
“We've got a capable floor leader,” Shannon said.
“But we all recognize that when we have as much authority we have as the governing party, I think having some type of check and balance on yourself, opening up the process and allowing the members to have a lot more input, it's the way to go.”
The rules were approved easily, 67-27. Rep. Mike Reynolds, R-Oklahoma City, was the only Republican to vote against the rules. It takes 51 votes to pass a bill.
“Our team stuck together,” Shannon said.
Former House Speaker Kris Steele, R-Shawnee, struggled during his two years in the leadership post with constitutional conservative members who last year resorted to working with House Democrats to derail or at least mire down the GOP leadership's measures. Some in that faction of the House Republican caucus take credit for Shannon's election last year as speaker-elect. Steele's preferred successor lost in a close caucus vote.
The feud in the House GOP chamber caucus has been characterized as a difference between those who support issues by The State Chamber, the largest group representing businesses, and constitutional conservative lawmakers who have been labeled anti-chamber.
Shannon has downplayed talk that a fringe element exists among his caucus.
The calendar committee is a factor why there was less tension during the first week of a House session, he said.
“People felt like I've got a voice, I'm involved,” Shannon said “That was my commitment when I ran for speaker and I want to keep that commitment.”