After four hours of argument over changes to Rhode Island Senate rules Wednesday night, the senators voted to approve a bill that will effectively end filibusters and increase the Senate President’s power over committee assignments.
Under the new rules, all floor speeches will be limited to five minutes, eliminating the filibuster as a political tactic moving forward. Over the course of the debate, Sen. Sam Bell, PhD ’16, D-Providence took the liberty of filibustering for the last time. Toward the end of the session, he proposed an amendment to remove the five-minute limit from the bill.
Bell “says he is going to keep speaking on his amendment to strike the 5-minute rule until there’s a motion to stop him,” tweeted the Providence Journal’s Patrick Anderson.
Sen. Erin Lynch Prata, D-Warwick and Cranston, eventually brought that motion to the floor, which the Senate voted in favor of 31-2. Sen. Donna Nesselbush ’84, D-Pawtucket and North Providence, and Sen. Adam Satchell, D-West Warwick, were the only two who voted to let Bell keep talking. Bell’s amendment then failed 5-30.
“This rule would make legitimate, transparent legislative debate far more difficult. Even more seriously, it constitutes an effort to eliminate the filibuster,” activist group Rhode Islanders For Reform wrote in an official statement.
The updated rules bill will now allow the Senate president to “change the committee assignment of a member without the member’s consent, for cause only.”
The definition of “cause” remains unclear and has sparked criticism from Bell. Bell tweeted last month that the proposed rules bill was “a shameless power grab, a naked attempt to legalize the worst kind of retribution and political bullying.”
Senate spokesman Greg Pare told the Providence Journal that the change comes after former Sen. Nicholas Kettle, R-Coventry, Foster, Scituate and West Greenwich remained on the Senate Finance Committee after he violated campaign finance rules.
The new rule will allow the Senate president to remove those who have committed serious crimes like Kettle’s, Pare told the Providence Journal, adding that “the intent is that such serious finance violations could constitute cause for removal from the finance committee.”
The new rules also stipulated that any heavily rewritten legislation must be posted at least 24 hours before Senate consideration.
Current Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, D-Providence, introduced the rewritten bill of rules along with Sens. Lombardi, McCaffrey, Algiere and Goodwin. Lombardi called it “a significant movement in the direction towards transparency.”
Bell, Nesselbush and Satchell were the only senators to oppose the bill.