Utah may well face that interesting reality if next Tuesday’s Utah House and Senate races end up as some insiders predict.
It is quite likely that the current seven Senate Democrats could be reduced to five come Nov. 6 – their lowest numbers since the mid-1980s.
House Democrats could drop from 17 to 13, or even 12. If there are only 12 House Democrats, that would be a new low in modern history; there were 13 House Democrats in the mid-1980s.
Democrats could find themselves stretched thin in the House and just able to put a minority member on several important Senate committees.
Any Democratic absentees would mean no minority party members would be voting during those committees.
The Utah Legislature has a number of committees, subcommittees and special committees, some more important than others.
The core committees meet regularly both during the 45-day annual general session and once monthly during the interim.
A UtahPolicy review of the current committee make-ups and normal meeting schedules shows that with only 12 Democrats in the 75-member House, the minority party should still be able to staff at least one Democrat on both standing committees (which hear bills) and appropriation committees (which set budgets) during the general session.
However, if House Democrats had a member or two out sick or otherwise missing a day or two during the session, or missing a committee meeting for some other reason (which is a normal occurrence), some House committees may take action with no Democrats in attendance.
The real scheduling/attendance problem happens in the 29-member Senate.
There are nine Senate standing committees that regularly meet in daily rotations during the Legislature. Those standing committees normally meet in three blocks of three committees.
If Democrats have only five senators over the next two years, they could still staff those nine committees – one or two Democrats on each set of three.
But sometimes the GOP chairman of a committee may call for a special meeting, especially if there is extra work as the 45-day session rushes to the close.
There are eight joint appropriation subcommittees (the budget committees) that meet in two blocks of four committees on the days when standing committees aren’t in session.
There would be only five Democrats who would have to be in four budget committees that are meeting at the same time.
“We only have so many options,” said Senate Chief of Staff Ric Cantrell. Cantrell said it will be up to the new GOP leadership team, in consultation with new Democratic leaders, to work out a solution and to assign the 29 senators to the committees.
Ironically, it was the often-missed joint budget meetings by both Republican and Democratic senators that caused leaders to change the meeting schedules several years ago.
At the same time, legislative leaders – especially in the Senate – had to change the rules for quorums in budget committees because while there were enough House members in the joint meetings to form a voting quorum, there often weren’t enough senators present.
By simple math – not to mention egos – senators have greater weight in the joint budget committees than do House members.
It is not unusual that by one senator’s vote an action in a joint budget committee can be stopped or postponed.
If there are three senators on a budget committee, and two are absent (and there are all kinds of odd rules about not counting Senate leaders in a quorum and such), even though there are enough House members to take an official vote, no quorum in the Senate means action can’t be taken.
With only five Democratic senators, in theory all Senate standing and budget committees can have one minority member. But in reality there could often be meetings where for whatever the reason that Democrat doesn’t show up, or shows up for only part of the votes.
There is no internal rule that says there must be a Democratic senator appointed to any committee – other than Legislative Management, Executive Appropriations and Senate confirmation committees. By rule there must be a certain number of minority party members assigned to those three.
“Under our rules,” says Senate Chief of Staff Ric Cantrell, “there are no requirements that there be a partisan make-up in most committees – it’s up to the Senate president and House speaker.”
Tradition says the all-powerful House and Senate Rules Committees – which decide which bills get a required public hearing and committee vote – is split according to the percent of minority party members in each body.
Come 2013, that could mean there is only a single Democratic senator along with five majority Republicans on the Senate Rules Committee. To get two Democrats on Senate Rules would mean 10 GOP senators, and it’s unlikely the majority party would want a third of the body on one committee.
Besides all the official staffing and voting, such low numbers of Democrats in both the House and Senate brings on more subtle – but important – issues: Particularly in how a two-party state is supposed to operate in what is a functioning one-party state.
“That’s an interesting question,” says Lindsay Zizumbo of the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics.
Going down two Democratic senators and five House members likely wouldn’t change the day-to-day operations of the Utah Legislature much, says Zizumbo, who specializes in watching legislative politics for the institute. “We are so close to one-party rule in Utah already; it would just mean less of a voice for the minority members.”
Another oddity of this year’s elections: By rule there are four members of Senate minority leadership – minority leader, whip, assistant whip and caucus manager. All of those minority senators have offices in the Capitol, on the fourth floor above the Senate Chambers.
With just five minority members, that means – as one Capitol wag put it – “there are four leaders and one guy being led.”
The offices of non-leaders in both parties are in the Senate Office Building – the East building whose main floor houses the cafeteria and special meeting rooms.
The Democratic non-leader would be housed there – “feeling maybe a bit isolated,” said Cantrell.
A lot of the political cross-pollination between GOP and Democratic senators takes place inside the closed-door offices in the East building, several staffers told UtahPolicy – since the senators caucus separately, eat their meals separately, and Senate GOP leaders’ offices are on the third floor by the Chambers while Democratic leaders’ offices are on the fourth floor.
Many congressional historians say one reason for the severe partisanship seen in Washington, D.C., is, in part, because the 435 House members and 100 senators no longer live and socialize together in Washington, but travel home each weekend to visit their families while Congress is in session.
Many House members don’t know each other, only see each other at formal committee meetings.
The remodeled office layout of the Utah Capitol has also separated Democrats and Republicans – especially the leaders who used to have offices that connected with each other just off the chambers’ floors – and now find each other at least one floor apart.
Finally, a minor but interesting internal problem is found in the Senate: The majority caucus room (the old Utah Supreme Court justice conference room located behind the Capitol’s Supreme Court Chamber) was designed with a table that holds 22 chairs and room for 22 people to sit comfortably and eat caucus lunches (held on Tuesdays and Thursdays during the general session and during interim days).
Cantrell tells UtahPolicy he is now working with Capitol building officials to somehow expand that impressive large caucus table to fit 24 people – the number of GOP senators likely after next Tuesday’s election.
“I’m not going to expand the table beyond 24. We’ll just deal with any more (Republican) senators after the next election, or any future elections,” says Cantrell.
There is also a pending issue of Senate staffing.
“No one wants to grow government – we sure don’t,” says Cantrell.
“But we will have one full time administrative assistant for five Democratic senators. We have a half-time person and myself for 24 Republican senators. What do we do, if anything?” On the majority side “we are maxed out” with partisan staffers having to take care of so many senators, he added.