Caucuses: My Perspective
The conversation about caucuses in the Alaska Legislature must start with a look at the constitutional authority the legislature derives its power from. Below are excerpts from the state constitution followed by my perspective on caucuses in Alaska. At the bottom of the post is a list of legislators and the caucus they belong to in the 32nd Legislature.
The Constitution of the State of Alaska
The legislative power of the State is vested in a legislature consisting of a senate with a membership of twenty and a house of representatives with a membership of forty.
The houses of each legislature shall adopt uniform rules of procedure. Each house may choose its officers and employees. Each is the judge of the election and qualifications of its members and may expel a member with the concurrence of two-thirds of its members… A majority of the membership of each house constitutes a quorum to do business, but a smaller number may adjourn from day to day and may compel attendance of absent members…
The legislature shall establish the procedure for enactment of bills into law. No bill may become law unless it has passed three readings in each house on three separate days, except that any bill may be advanced from second to third reading on the same day by concurrence of three-fourths of the house considering it. No bill may become law without an affirmative vote of a majority of the membership of each house…
House Majority Caucus Formation
The creation of a majority caucus must occur following each General Election. This is the process of deciding which group of twenty-one (or more) legislators will control the agenda of the legislature. Re-organization may occur any time twenty-one or more members decide to create a new majority caucus. Each chamber has its own majority caucus.
Members select from among the body politic those members who will make up the majority caucus. This is usually a highly partisan activity based upon political party affiliation, seniority, the shared vision and goals of the members, and other considerations.
The members excluded from the majority caucus, if a large enough number, may form their own minority caucus, or caucuses. The size of committee membership is determined by the size of the largest minority caucus as set out in the Uniform Rules. Minority caucus members are entitled to minority membership on most committees.
No member is required to be a member of a caucus.
Once the majority caucus is formed, leaders, committee chairs, and committee assignments are selected by members of the majority caucus.
The “Binding Caucus”
There are two main ways to make decisions in any group. Unanimous consent or majority consent. A caucus that is “binding” on one or more things means that the caucus members agree to support the will of the caucus on those things. If decisions within the majority caucus were made by unanimous consent, there would be no need for a binding caucus rule. Obtaining unanimous consent is not always easy, or practical, and so the binding caucus rule is a tool used to ensure that the majority caucus can make decisions by majority consent.
For example, the majority caucus must pass an annual appropriation bill (the budget) and the binding caucus rule is used to do so. Art. 2, Sec. 14 of the Alaska State Constitution prescribes that at least twenty-one members of the House must affirmatively vote to pass the budget bill. The passage of the budget is to be made by majority consent of the entire membership of the House.
Continuing the example and using the numerical makeup of the current majority caucus, the binding caucus rule allows the twenty-one-member majority caucus to decide on the budget with majority consent of the majority caucus membership. The significance of that statement may not be readily apparent and demands further explanation because it allows the majority caucus leadership to skirt the constitutionally required number of votes to pass a bill.
In practice, the budget bill must receive enough support within the majority caucus to pass before it is brought to the floor for a vote by the full membership of the House. The majority caucus will not bring the budget bill to a vote if it doesn’t have enough votes for the bill to pass. Considering that minority members are unlikely to support the majority’s budget, the easiest way to obtain twenty-one votes is to ensure all members of the majority caucus vote for the budget bill.
Majority consent of a twenty-one-member “binding” caucus means only twelve members are needed to vote in the affirmative to pass the budget bill. The other nine members of the majority caucus, regardless of their view of the budget bill, are “bound” to vote for it as a condition of remaining in good favor with the majority caucus. When the budget bill comes to the floor to be voted on by the full membership of the House, all twenty-one members of the majority “binding” caucus vote in the affirmative… twelve of them because they like the budget, and nine of them because they are bound to the (majority consent) decision of their caucus.
In practice, when the majority caucus leadership secures twelve majority caucus members willing to support the budget, the binding caucus rule allows them to pass the budget.
The binding caucus rule requires legislators to choose between voting their conscience and maintaining power, either in the form of continued caucus membership, powerful committee chair positions, choice committee assignments, plush offices, or some combination. It allows legislative leaders to pass a budget bill with twelve affirmative votes and a façade of support from everyone who wants to remain in power. The binding caucus rule allows unscrupulous legislators to engage in compromise with as few as twelve caucus members and coerce the remaining members into supporting the budget bill, a direct violation of the Constitutional requirement that compromise be found with at least twenty-one members.
The numerical makeup of the current majority caucus makes it impossible for any of their members to leave the caucus… or be removed from it. Losing a single person from the caucus would jeopardize the organization itself. This makes the binding caucus rule less effective because there are fewer teeth associated with a demand for compliance. It’s often said that a majority caucus with only twenty-one members is practically unable to get much accomplished.
A majority caucus of twenty-four or more members would allow for a couple members to dissent or to leave without jeopardizing the organization and power structure. A larger caucus membership may make the binding caucus rule less necessary because there is numerical allowance for dissention. However, more majority members also means that there is room for punishing members who violate the binding caucus rule.
The bottom line is that when the organizational culture allows the easy wrong over the hard right, ethical drift occurs. Members will continue using the tools that make their job easier. It’s up to voters to send representatives who know when to compromise and have the character to do so, especially when it means more work.
32nd Legislature House of Representatives
Louise Stutes (R) – Speaker of the House
Chris Tuck (D) – Majority Leader
Matt Claman (D)
Harriet Drummond (D)
Bryce Edgmon (I)
Zack Fields (D)
Neal Foster (D)
Sara Hannan (D)
Grier Hopkins (D)
Andy Josephson (D)
Jonathon Kreiss-Tompkins (D)
Kelly Merrick (R)
Dan Ortiz (NA)
Josiah Patkotak (NA)
Calvin Schrage (NA)
Liz Snyder (D)
Ivy Sponholtz (D)
Andy Story (D)
Geran Tarr (D)
Adam Wool (D)
Tiffany Zulkosky (D)
Cathy Tilton (R) – Minority Leader
Ben Carpenter (R)
Mike Cronk (R)
David Eastman (R)
Ronald Gillham (R)
Delana Johnson (R)
James Kaufman (R)
Christopher Kurka (R)
Bart LeBon (R)
Kevin McCabe (R)
Ken McCarty (R)
Tom McKay (R)
David Nelson (R)
Mike Prax (R)
George Rauscher (R)
Laddie Shaw (R)
Steve Thompson (R)
Sarah Vance (R)
|Sara Rasmussen (R) – Not a member of either caucus|
D-Democrat Party R-Republican Party I-Independent NA-Not Affiliated