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WTF: Why does the Legislature Vote Twice on Bills?


Published April 25, 2018 at 10:00 a.m.


Why do the state's Senate and House of Representatives vote twice on a given bill before it can move on to either the other chamber or the governor's desk? Isn't one trip through the legislative sausage grinder sufficient to smooth out the unpalatable gristle and satisfy the principles of representative democracy?

Short answer to the latter: No. This seemingly redundant practice, which dates back several centuries, serves as a procedural speed bump to slow the wheels of government and prevent it from running over its own citizens.

For a more nuanced explanation, we contacted Bill MaGill, clerk of the Vermont House, and John Bloomer, secretary of the Vermont Senate. They are the state's constitutionally designated parliamentarians, legislative historians, publishers and keepers of their respective chambers.

"I believe what you are talking about relates to bills having to be read three times," MaGill explained via email. This procedure, which originated in English common law, was incorporated by Thomas Jefferson into the parliamentary rules of Congress and, later, of individual state legislatures.

Here's how it works: When a bill is introduced, it's read once on the floor of the House or Senate and is then referred to a committee. If the committee acts on the bill, it hears testimony, debates the merits and then votes it out of committee, recommending that the bill either be passed as introduced or be amended. Next, the bill is read a second time on the floor, where the full chamber votes to either amend the bill further or advance it to a third and final reading, followed by a final vote. Second and third readings must be held on different days.

"Upon second reading, the question [for lawmakers] isn't 'Shall the bill pass?' but 'Shall the bill be read a third time?'" Bloomer said. "Meaning, 'We're happy with what we've done, so let's sleep on it and think it over.'"

Where is this safeguard against legislative buyer's remorse spelled out? Not in the Vermont Constitution but in Mason's Manual of Legislative Procedure, a parliamentary guidebook used by 77 of the 99 state legislative chambers across the country, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. (Why 99 chambers and not 100? Nebraska has a unicameral system.)

Specifically, section 720.2 of Mason's Manual provides the justification for the three-readings rule: "to prevent hasty and ill-considered legislation, surprise or fraud, and to inform the legislators and the public of the contents of the bill."

Paul Mason (1898-1985), the parliamentarian, historian and assistant secretary of the California state senate who penned the eponymous manual's first edition in 1935, didn't coin the expression "hasty and ill-considered legislation." That phrase had been kicking around in parliamentary parlance since at least the early 1800s. It's also been used to justify the executive veto and bicameral legislatures, whereby the upper house — that is, the senate — checks the passions and whims of the so-called "people's house."

How often does the thrice-read/twice-voted-on rule actually prevent rushed or poorly crafted laws? In Vermont, it's uncommon for the House or Senate to approve a bill on second reading only to kill it on third.

"Unfortunately, I can't think of any examples off the top of my head," reported Mike O'Grady, deputy director of Vermont's Office of Legislative Council, who's worked in the legislature for 15 years. "A bill passing second reading but failing on third reading is rare."

Far more common are bills that undergo major reconstructive surgery late in the legislative process, only to die ignoble deaths before making it to a third reading. Such was the case in 2013 when then-senator Peter Galbraith (D-Windham) proposed an amendment to a comprehensive campaign finance reform bill that would have banned corporate and union campaign contributions. As Seven Days' Paul Heintz reported at the time, Galbraith's Senate colleagues voted 21 to 8 in favor of his amendment — only to deep-six the entire bill one week later.

Also commonplace are bills that get passed speedily in times of crisis. Recently retired University of Vermont political science professor Garrison Nelson cited the example of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who, shortly after being sworn in in March 1933, convinced Congress to pass the Emergency Banking Relief Act — in one day— to stop the run on the banks. It worked.

More recently, and controversially, one month after the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the New York Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act of 2013 to prevent criminals and mentally ill individuals from purchasing guns. That bill underwent no public hearings or testimony and became law less than 24 hours after it was introduced, Mason's Manual notwithstanding.

So, is the three-readings rule a mere parliamentary nicety, like the manual's guidelines against lawmakers interrupting their colleagues on the floor or referring to one another by name rather than by district? Though the manual is not binding like a constitutional or statutory provision, it still serves a vital role in the lawmaking process.

"Mason's is not a rule book," noted Alfred Speer, clerk of the Louisiana House of Representatives, in a video produced by the 2020 Mason's Manual Commission. "It does not have a definitive answer to every potential issue. Think of it as a guidebook that takes fundamental principles and applies those principles to the legislative process."

Incidentally, Mason's Manual doesn't define "ill-considered legislation," either. That's determined by each citizen, according to his or her own political persuasion.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Why Do the Vermont House and Senate Vote Twice to Pass a Bill?"

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