The first two weeks of this year’s legislative session has been light on policy discussions, but full of dramatic disputes that have put generally-overlooked legislative committees into the limelight.
House Speaker Scott Bedke stripped Rep. Heather Scott, a Republican from Blanchard, of all three of her legislative committee assignments last week after she suggested women only move up in the Legislature by trading sexual favors. The rarely-used punishment will severely hinder what Scott can do during her time in Boise. A few days later, five lawmakers asked Bedke to also strip them of their assignments until Scott’s duties are reinstated.
Here’s a breakdown of the state’s legislative committees and the important role they play in moving legislation.
WHAT'S A LEGISLATIVE COMMITTEE?
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Legislative committees are the backbone of the Idaho Legislature. The Idaho House has 14 committees, while the Idaho Senate has 10. They are divided by subject, ranging from business, agriculture to local government. Assignments are organized every two years after the November election, typically involving an all-day process of political hustling where assignments can sometimes reveal which lawmakers are being rewarded or punished for past behavior.
HOW DO THEY WORK?
In Idaho, the House speaker and Senate president pro tem are in charge of appointing committee chairs and members. There is no appeals process for lawmakers who disagree with their own or a separate legislator’s placement.
“Normally, you would want to address concerns about placement before the assignments are made,” said Brenda Erickson, with the National Conference of State Legislatures.
According to Erickson, Idaho’s setup is similar to most states across the country. Three states – Alaska, Kentucky and Pennsylvania – have a separate committee decide who will be assigned to legislative panels.
Chairmanships are the most powerful lawmaker on the committee because they can decide which bills to kill or move forward. However, a chair can’t move legislation forward without support from committee members.
WHY SHOULD I CARE ABOUT THEM?
Your lawmakers will likely spend the most of amount time working on their committees during the legislative session. Serving on legislative committees allows legislators to have first-hand knowledge of what bills are moving through the Capitol, advocate for key issues on behalf of their constituents and gather valuable expertise on legislative subjects.
Getting kicked off a committee limits lawmaker’s activities to only voting on the House or Senate floor – where legislation rarely fails after making it out of committee.
ARE COMMITTEES ALWAYS SO POLITICAL?
When Bedke kicked Scott off her three committees, he told reporters it was one of the hardest decisions he’s ever made during his time in the top legislative seat. Yet the move isn’t unprecedented. In 2002, former House Speaker Bruce Newcomb removed Reps. Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, and Jim Clark, R-Hayden from the Joint Finance-Appropriations budget-writing committee after they challenged his authority.
A year before, former Sen. Ric Branch, R-Midvale, was stripped of his Senate Agriculture Committee chairmanship for missing too many meetings.
Removing lawmakers from committees is one of the few options legislative leaders have when they need to admonish a colleague. The Legislature can launch an ethics investigation into a member, but lawmakers typically resign in Idaho instead of undergoing an ethics review.