Kansas Senate could boost its new president’s power

12/15/2012 7:21 AM

12/15/2012 7:23 AM

Top Republicans in the Kansas Senate are considering a proposal to concentrate the power over committee assignments in the chamber’s president, and the idea has bipartisan support.

Incoming Majority Leader Terry Bruce of Hutchinson said Thursday that some fellow Republicans view the Senate’s current method of handling committee assignments as “somewhat clunky.” The chamber’s rules dictate that a nine-member, all-GOP panel makes the assignments.

The practice, in place in some form since the late 1950s, is a legacy of past Republican infighting and voters sometimes electing Democratic lieutenant governors to preside over a Republican-controlled Senate. In contrast, the House gives its speaker control over committee assignments.

Republicans kept large majorities in both chambers in this year’s elections, but Bruce’s fellow conservative Republicans ousted the Senate’s moderate GOP leaders, and he said he expects the chamber to set up a special group to thoroughly review its rules. Bruce and Senate President Susan Wagle, a conservative Wichita Republican, take over when lawmakers convene their 2013 session Jan. 14.

The Senate will have 12 new members who previously served in the House, and Bruce said the group generally sees the House’s custom as superior.

“There are some things that are awfully hard to govern by committee,” Bruce said. “Sometimes, the buck needs to stop with just one person.”

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, favors abolishing the all-GOP appointing group, the Organization, Calendar and Rules Committee. Hensley’s support is tied to another proposal Republicans are considering, to create a standing committee to arbitrate rules disputes, mimicking another long-standing practice in the House.

In the House, when rules questions occur during debate, its rules committee immediately huddles, and the chairman issues a decision, though it can be overturned by the chamber. In the Senate, the member presiding over debate makes the ruling.

“I like the way the House operates because you have a bipartisan rules committee,” said Hensley, who served in the House before his 1992 election to the Senate. “Right now … it depends on who is in the chair.”

Bruce noted that the Organization, Calendar and Rules Committee often follows recommendations on assignments from the group’s leader, the Senate president.

Decades ago, Senate rules vested the power to make appointments with the lieutenant governor, who presided over the chamber. GOP senators accepted the practice when a Republican held the office, but the 1950s saw internal GOP strife and in 1956, a Democrat was elected lieutenant governor.

The GOP majority in 1957 formed a committee to make assignments. A 1972 change in the state constitution removed the lieutenant governor from presiding over the Senate, but a committee remained.

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