Legislature's caucus system out of control; citizens on losing side

Posted: Tuesday, January 27, 2004

Nobody elected a caucus.

Alaskans elected legislators. We elect them to represent us.

We rightfully expect that their allegiance be to us, the people of their districts and state.

Such an allegiance demands that our representatives be free to cast the votes that they believe best represent us.

Any entity that usurps this allegiance, commanding votes contrary to a representative's belief, must be considered a serious obstacle to if not a dangerous foe of representative democracy.

In saying this, we can already hear tittering behind the closed doors of the Alaska House of Representatives' Republican Majority Caucus.

''How naive,'' caucus leaders must be saying, shaking their heads at our lack of political sophistication.


Consider the GOP caucus' smackdown of Rep. Bob Lynn earlier this month.

The majority caucus booted the freshman Anchorage Republican from positions on two House committees in a blunt reprisal for not voting how the caucus told him to vote.

Instead of meekly following caucus marching orders, Lynn had voted in support of restoring the $45 million Longevity Bonus Program for senior citizens that had been vetoed last year by Gov. Frank Murkowski.

Lynn wasn't the only GOP representative who wanted to override the veto, said House Majority Leader John Coghill, R-North Pole.

But he was the only one with the guts to vote his conscience.

''Some of (the others) had chairmanships they weren't willing to give up,'' Coghill told The Associated Press.

The episode is tremendously revealing.

Lynn knew the potential consequence of voting against the majority, says Coghill.

This indicates that reprisals are built into the caucus system to keep members in lockstep with the majority leadership. The practical effect in this case was that elected representatives voted against their own beliefs at the insistence of the majority leadership for fear of losing positions. That's defined as coercion in any dictionary.

And where is it written that caucus members must vote with the majority leadership on the type of budget and procedural votes such as the one taken on the longevity bonus?

Nowhere. This and most other ''rules'' for majority caucus behavior don't exist on paper.

It's a ''gentleman's agreement,'' says Coghill.

So who decides these agreements and where are these decisions made? Certainly not the public, nor through a public process, and especially not in a public place, as this caucus works almost exclusively behind closed doors.

It's a shame then that these agreements have such a profound effect on the shaping of public laws and public policy.

Another disturbing aspect of this episode is that Lynn was ''disciplined'' even though the Republicans have a tremendous majority in the House 28 to 12.

We're not completely blind to the benefits of party-line discipline in legislatures. But even such immensely powerful and control-conscious legislative leaders such as the former U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Sam Rayburn and one-time U.S. Senate Democratic Leader Lyndon B. Johnson could count votes and allow individual legislators some room for differences.

The Alaska House majority leadership didn't need Lynn's vote to get what it wanted. Yet it can accept no dissent and is punishing Lynn as an example to ensure that no other representatives disobey in the future.

We elected the representatives. Nobody elected a caucus to make representatives' decisions for them.

Alaska's caucus system is out of control, and open government by and for Alaskans is suffering.

Ketchikan Daily News

Jan. 16

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