The Mattiello Speakership; Past, Present and Future

We’ll work our way forward, from the challenge that faded, to what might be immediately next, then finally to the long-term future.

1. At the start of his unsuccessful campaign for speaker, Representative Michael Marcello offered some respectable positions…

Marcello said he sees a need for “dramatic change” in how the House “is staffed and run.” That means more professional staff to help with research and ideas, and a reinvigorated committee process with more up or down votes on bills.

“It makes no sense to have these groups come up to the State House year after year and hear the same bills and yet never have a vote on them,” he said.

Asked which bills he was referring to, he said the list includes restoring Ethics Commission jurisdiction over the General Assembly, removing the “master lever” from election ballots and “some of the social issues” that come up year after year. (Randal Edgar, Providence Journal, 3/21/2014)

On this platform, Rep. Marcello and his supporters tried to pitch themselves as the challengers to an old guard led by Nicholas Mattiello, but it was difficult – maybe impossible — to take the Marcello-fronted coalition seriously as reformers. The majority leader candidate associated with Marcello was the representative who last year made the motion to “nullify” a majority vote to pass an ethics reform bill out of committee (Rep. Christopher Blazejewski). Another early Marcello supporter (Rep. Edith Ajello) was the Committee chair who dutifully agreed that a majority vote should be nullified. Several other committee chairs who had been appointed by outgoing Speaker Gordon Fox indicated their support for Marcello, and multiple sources reported that the outgoing Speaker’s “powerful chief-of-staff”™, Frank Anzeveno, was working to advance the Marcello bid.

Ultimately, with all of this carryover from the current leadership in terms of both elected and staff positions, it was difficult to look at the Marcello coalition and believe they were offering reform, as much as they were offering a refashioned oligarchy to replace the old one.

2. In his first address to the Rhode Island House of Representatives following his election as Speaker with 61 of 75 possible votes, Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello struck a decidedly reformist tone of his own…

There will be a much greater emphasis on collaboration in the decision-making process among everyone in this room, Democrats and Republicans alike….This House will be run by the Representatives themselves. While I value the input of loyal staff members, all final decisions will be made by the members of this chamber.

If Speaker Mattiello is serious about a greater emphasis on important decisions being made by the membership, there are several, actually rather mild, democratizing reforms he could work with the body he leads on implementing…

  • A prohibition on members being removed from a committee, without their consent, after they’ve received their initial committee assignment from the Speaker (this is so non-radical a proposal, the Rhode Island Senate already does it).
  • Creation of a clear procedure — that everybody understands exists — for rank-and-file members to use to recall bills “held for further study” and place them on committee agendas for up-or-down votes.
  • Tidying-up the discharge petition procedure for freeing bills from committee, removing the current rule preventing their use until 50 days into the session, and removing any ambiguity about the “only one petition to be presented for a public bill or resolution during the course of a session” clause in the rules meaning one petition per bill, as opposed to one petition per year.

Unless your guiding principle of government is “the peasants must be ruled by a strong hand”, there’s not much of a serious argument against the first two of these proposals or close variations thereof. You could reasonably argue against the third on the grounds that an honest, functioning committee process shouldn’t be easily bypassed (though it shouldn’t be impossible to do so either), and you could remedy this concern by raising the threshold for discharge petition success to 2/3 of House membership.

Rules can be changed at any time, though it wouldn’t be unreasonable to wait until the start of the next session to introduce a cohesive package of changes. And if skeptics of the Mattiello regime are dissatisfied with his leadership in this session, they could use the discharge petition process under the current rules (beginning on May 14, by my unofficial calculation) to free at least one bill that a committee refuses to call a vote on, despite overwhelming support amongst the members (presuming any such bills exist, of course).

3. While the question of how the House operates is important, in our representative democracy, there are limits to how much can be fixed with process reform; the larger determinant of the government that we the people get always concerns who gets elected to do the representing.

There is some recently introduced uncertainty to consider in this area.  In conjunction with Speaker Mattiello’s elevation, the aforementioned Frank Anzeveno has departed from the chief of staff position, (“has departed…in conjunction” being a euphemism for “is quitting, but probably would have been fired if he didn’t”). An important source of Anzeveno’s oft-mentioned power was his active role in making sure that Representatives who opposed the Speaker at the statehouse faced opponents of their own at election time; it remains to be seen how adept Mattiello and his allies will be at managing this piece of the political process.  In the immediate future, it seems unlikely that Speaker Mattiello will win over ideological progressives, who can be active and proficient participants in electoral politics. Will this mean that the new Speaker will be heavily dependent on Rhode Island’s public sector union political machine to fill the gap, to get through the general election being held in just eight months and which will follow decisions be made on multiple, potentially contentious issues (e.g., 38 Studios bonds, the pension settlement, Sakonnet tolls, education)?

If Speaker Mattiello wants to be the Speaker for the long-term, barring the unlikely occurrence of an economic miracle that speaks for itself, he will need a message for himself and his allies that goes beyond just “jobs and the economy”. There will be no one actively opposed to “jobs and the economy” to run against. Progressives are for “jobs and the economy” too, they just believe that economic health is best fostered by a government that treats businesses as its subsidiaries, with the legislature acting as a set of managing directors entitled to a strong say in how any business “under” them is run; unions have their own ideas which are similar, though with rearranged priorities.

Now, Speaker Mattiello has offered some specific direction for his “jobs and the economy” agenda…

We will look at our tax structure to see how we can help reduce the tax burden on every class. That especially includes the taxes that impede our businesses and hold them back from achieving success and prosperity. This will include scrutinizing our unemployment tax and disability insurance…

We must also provide relief from our overbearing regulatory structure. There have been three reports issued by the Office of Regulatory Reform and there are recommendations for reform and repeal which I would like to see implemented this session. We must make it easier to do business and remove so much bureaucracy.

The question that will have great impact on the new Speaker’s political future is how effective will he be in advocating this vision, in intramural Democratic squabbles?

Trying to downplay the serious differences and avoid explaining the errors of progressivism and the excesses of unionism in order to ease the process of political coalition building isn’t likely to stop the progressives from immediately coming after Speaker Mattiello, or the unions from shifting their support elsewhere, if they don’t get their top agenda items. With the help of some standard-issue Rhode Island political inertia, the new Speaker may be able to maintain the coalition he has assembled for a time, but to prevent it from being whittled away, he will need to resolutely work at convincing a broad swath of Rhode Islanders about why his version of “jobs and the economy” is superior to competing versions which have strong constituencies amongst activists in the Democratic party.

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