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Open government? Senate committee creates “joint caucus” behind closed doors

Post by Peter Callaghan / The News Tribune on Jan. 13, 2011 at 4:18 pm |
January 13, 2011 4:50 pm

The Legislature is already exempt from a key provision of open meetings laws allowing for a traditional fixture of legislative bodies – the caucus.

The members of each party go behind closed doors to discuss legislation and party business. That has spread recently to committees in which all the Democrats go into one room and all the Republicans go into another. It is far more common in the House than the Senate.

In both cases, they come out and conduct debate and vote-taking in public (although sometimes it seems orchestrated).

Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe
Thursday, however, the term “caucus” took on a new meaning. Senate Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee Chairwoman Rosemary McAuliffe, a Democrat from Bothell, adjourned her public hearing and convened a “joint caucus.” That’s a term that means all members of the committee – both Republicans and Democrats – go into the same closed door to talk in private.

The only difference between a committee meeting and a “joint caucus” appears to be that the first is open to the public and the second is closed.

They were to meet for 40 minutes, until the end of the committee’s normal two-hour time block. And McAuliffe said she would do the same thing every Thursday at the end of the public meeting.

McAuliffe said the topic would be bipartisanship.

If a local government convened in private it would have to meet one of the legal exemptions to open meetings law, issues such as personnel issues, legal matters or national security. Even then, all discussion, debate, deliberation and action would have to be done in public and no votes could be taken in the closed session.

Neither majority caucuses nor “joint caucuses” would be allowed under the state open meetings law. But the Legislature is not subject to state open meetings law.

The Senate’s rules require that “during its consideration of or vote on any bill, resolution or memorial, the deliberations of any committee or subcommittee of the senate shall be open to the public.”

Senate committee staff said the joint caucus was the same as members getting together informally to talk about issues. And since no specific bills are issues will be discussed in McAuliffe’s meetings, it would not violate Senate rules.

Separate party caucuses in the committees nearly always include members debating and gather votes on bills and amendments. But because they come out and vote in public, they have been deemed to not violate the House and Senate rules.

I’ve never seen a joint caucus of a committee in 30-years of watching the Legislature. To check my memory I did a quick sample of others who have been around for a while. None said there was a precedent for all members of a committee – Democrats and Republicans both – going behind the same closed doors.

Here is McAuliffe’s written explanation of the joint caucus…

“I want to take this moment to clarify my intentions for the Thursday committee hearings. Starting today and for a few weeks into the future my intention is to have an hour long hearing on Thursdays. As we get closer to cut-off and need time to exec bills I’m sure we will need the full two hours.

“In the interests of having a more bi-partisan working environment and in recognition that we have many new members on this committee, I have been thinking that it would be helpful to have a bi-partisan caucus of the entire committee on a weekly basis.

“Unfortunately our schedules are so full, the only time I could guarantee that we would all have free is during one of our committee hearing time-slots.

“I want to reassure everyone in the audience that these meetings are not a committee hearing. There will be no bill hearings during this time or any executive action on any of the bills.

“This time is purely meant to provide all the committee members an opportunity to learn more about where everyone else on the committee is and to help me as chair understand how I can help our new members get up-to-speed on the important issues facing education in Washington. It is intended to create a more bi-partisan approach to tackling some the greatest challenges that we have faced in this state and time to work together in a collaborative fashion.

“I want the stakeholders to know that I also intend to set up similar discussion time on a regular basis with all of the stakeholders invited to ensure that we are all working together in a collaborative fashion. I want to hear your ideas and concerns as well. Since this is only the first week of session though, I simply have not yet had a chance to find an appropriate time slot for those meetings. I hope to do so soon.

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