The General Assembly in Multiple Dimensions


The astonishing impression that it’s possible for people to live literally in different worlds is core to my belief system. I’d almost come to the point of suggesting that when physicists find evidence of multiple universes, they’ve actually found the axis between the material universe and the spiritual or psychological universe. It’s how relativism comes back around to Christianity, for me.

At a much more base level, I’d apply the principle to Patrick’s post, this morning, in which he notes the inconsistency when Speaker Mattiello says he’ll put the legislators back in control of the House even as he emphasizes his own decisive role. It is possible for Mattiello to think the process he’ll be following will be legislator-driven, even as he does things that, from the outside, look contradictory.

A lot of us, out here, would call it a fact rather than an opinion that the legislature’s processes are a scam. People testify at hearings that don’t mean anything. Bills never come to the floor for a knock-down battle, but for a show of debate before the preordained votes are cast.

From the inside, however, there’s got to be a lot of psychological aversion to seeing the world that way. The processes are all in place; things just work out the way they work out when the intricacies of politics are accounted for. It’s not a scam; it’s how things are.

While Patrick was putting up his post, I was watching Mattiello record 10 News Conference. One of the more-interesting exchanges came when host Bill Rappleye probed exactly this question.

What the speaker described was a system in which three people sit down to discuss each bill. The majority leader comes to the table with the sense of the members of his or her party (i.e., the Democrats); the relevant committee chairman comes to the table with the sense of those who’ve performed at least some cursory investigation of the legislation; and the speaker takes his or her seat. When the three agree, he said, the bill will definitely get a vote. When they disagree, there has to be “a conversation.”

In a way, the speaker’s equal authority makes some theoretical sense. After all, he or she must (theoretically) take into consideration the position of the minority party (i.e., the Republicans), as well as the balancing of bills in other committees, as well as the interactions with the Senate, as well as the themes that the House has set.

Within this framework, Mattiello may intend to override the other two less often, or maybe he’s got other changes in mind. From his point of view, though, all of this can happen within the rules as they exist, and he may see those rules as an important part of the process.

It’s on another level that the process is shown to be a sham. The speaker appoints the committee members, after all; he’s very influential when it comes to the majority leader; and he has various levers, like legislative grants, to ensure that the voice of the party is what he wants it to be. It ultimately comes down to his decision to listen or not, to override or not, with the control being that he has to maintain his coalition.

There are two layers, here: process and politics. The political rules are not written into the House’s operating manual, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist… necessarily. Whether it’s formalized or not, legislators will look to their political leaders when they make decisions.

What Patrick is suggesting is that the speaker should voluntarily create a political dead space where there’s now a political process. That way, Rhode Island voters will have leverage in that space on a par with the speaker’s. The committee members will vote, and the people can hold them accountable. That’s how the system is supposed to work.

And there we see the fourth party at the table, whom it is so easy for politics-watchers to forget.

The people of Rhode Island still must consent to their government. Now, you can argue (and I do) that the game is so rigged, at this point, that the government has in effect obviated that consent. But in effect is not the same as in reality. The process has just become so opaque and difficult that real and substantive change takes so much effort that few can muster the strength to make it happen.

This means that it is the semblance of rules that focuses public consent to a point at which one person can make the legislative decisions. It looks like they’re following a process and that we have to allow our representatives to abide by it. But at the end of the day, these fabulous political rules are imaginary.

Faith in the process, among legislators and among the people, is absolutely critical in order for the speaker to maintain his ability to manipulate it. Without such faith, it would become the public’s reality that their consent does not matter, and the government that provides the speaker’s power would lose control over us. (Of course, that’s already happening, which helps to explain the exodus of the productive class.)

It’s all up to us, in other words. We can’t let the opposition within the chamber get away with saying, “Oh, we lost the levers of power, so we have to play along because it wouldn’t be safe to admit that the bad rules don’t really exist.” And the public can’t leave it up to the speaker not to use an imaginary machine that he sees very clearly right in front of him. He thinks not only that it does exist, but that it must exist.

What’s necessary is for us to make our reality his reality by leading more of our representatives to the realization not that the machine shouldn’t be used, but that it doesn’t exist. Of course, that may require changing the reality of who’s in the seats to begin with.

(I’ll have to leave it to later to explore how this can be done.)