A longtime Democratic state legislator suggested Wednesday that the House Rules Committee once again be closed to the public and press.
Rep. Neal Hendrickson's idea carries some irony with it since it has been legislative Democrats 25 years in the minority who have tried to make an election issue out of the majority Republicans closing their caucus meetings.
By legislative rule, both party caucuses and the House and Senate rules committees can be closed by a vote of each group's members.
But by practice, both houses' rules committees have been open for at least 10 years, maybe longer.
"I personally want to keep it open," the House rules chairman, Rep. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, said following an open Rules Committee Wednesday afternoon where Hendrickson, a Rules Committee member, made his suggestion. "But we'll discuss it" with other committee members at a later date, Urquhart added. The 2008 Legislature starts Monday, and the House Rules Committee will meet at least once a day, sometimes more often than that.
House Speaker Greg Curtis, R-Sandy, said while a debate may come, "I personally prefer our Rules (Committee) remain open, and I will vehemently oppose closing it. I think I can say that Rules will remain open as it has for some time."
House Minority Assistant Whip David Litvack, D-Salt Lake, said House minority leaders also don't believe the Rules Committee should be closed. "We stand for more transparency in government. Neal has his own ideas, and we don't tell our caucus members what to do. But (a closed Rules Committee) does not make for good decision-making."
The House and Senate rules committees are some of the most powerful committees in the Legislature. Most of the time they meet as sifting committees, where members decided whether proposed bills will go to a standing committee for a public hearing, or will die a quiet death.
In the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, the rules committees met in secret behind closed doors. It was even outlawed for a committee member or staffer to talk about what went on in committee, and a legislator could be kicked off the committee and brought before an ethics committee for violating the oath of secrecy.
Hendrickson, D-West Valley, is one of two Democrats on the House Rules Committee. There are six Republicans on it.
In the old days of closed rules committees, wheeler-and-dealer members of both bodies were put on the committees where various secret agreements were made about whether this or that controversial bill would be killed or let out for a public hearing. And those committee members were some of the most powerful lawmakers in the Legislature.
In recent years, any House or Senate member may come into an open Rules Committee and stare down committee members voting to hold up his bill and not letting it out for debate. And that kind of pressure is warping the sifting process, some legislators complain.
House Rules Committee member Kevin Garn, R-Layton, said in recent legislatures the House Rules Committee has not been doing its job as well as it should. Too many questionable bills are coming out of the committee, he said.
Urquhart agreed, saying this 45-day session, "We have to kill some bills in Rules."
The real problem, added Garn, is that the 13 standing committees, which do meet in open and take public comment on bills, are not doing their real jobs of killing unworthy bills. So it falls to the Rules Committee.
It has become "almost automatic" that bills are passed in standing committee and then go to the House floor, Garn said.
Too many bills on the House calendar means important bills get bogged down with frivolous bills and the whole legislative process cramps up because committees are not killing bad bills, Rules Committee members complained.
Hendrickson, first elected in 1990, said he's talked with former Democratic legislators who sat on the Rules Committee when it was closed, and the legislators said it was a much more efficient committee in the old days.
But what about doing the public's business in public?
Hendrickson said all the bills that come out of the Rules Committee are still heard in a public standing committee, and that wouldn't change.
"Please point out this was a Democrat's suggestion," Curtis said.Democratic legislators and that party's legislative candidates have been some of the most vocal opponents to the closed rules committees and closed party caucuses, professing the majority Republicans were playing games, doing special interests' bidding in the closed meetings.