In 2012, the Republican Party in Indiana won enough seats in the state election to gain a supermajority in both the Senate and House of Representatives. Over the last seven years, they have managed to retain their supermajority, holding 40 of the 50 seats in the Senate, and 67 of the 100 seats in the House of Representatives. Though most people seem to have a theoretical understanding of what that means – the party has more seats therefore more votes – many people don’t understand the full scope of power that goes along with a supermajority. This post will explain the many ways that Republicans in Indiana can and do use their supermajority to exercise unlimited and unchecked power in the legislature.
Because of their supermajority, the Statehouse Republicans have the privilege of holding enough members within their own caucus to meet a quorum. A quorum refers to the number of people that must be present before legislative business can begin; in both the Senate and the House of Representatives, that requires two-thirds of the legislators. In the Indiana legislature, the Republican supermajority holds enough seats to begin session and most committees without a single Democratic legislator present. They have the means to completely exclude Democrats from the legislative process when they desire and, with it, the voices of the people who elected those officials to represent them. Holding the power to conduct business without Democrats, Republicans can and have done just that. After a heated discussion this past session over hate crimes legislation, Democrats held a press conference upon a break in session and the supermajority moved forward with session, voting on critical legislation without Senate Democrats there to weigh in.
Committee chairs and the fate of bills
One power held by the majority (or supermajority) party in a legislature is the power to appoint the chairperson (chair) of each committee. This grants a great deal of power to the majority party, as the chair of a committee sets the committee’s calendar agenda and determines when and if certain bills will even be considered that session. The chair has complete control over what bills are heard in committee, thus they have the power to block certain bills from ever being brought into the legislative process. There is a deadline for bills to be introduced in committee, and if the chair doesn’t put the bill on the agenda, it can’t move forward. This power has allowed the Republican supermajority in Indiana to block bills that they do not like from ever being heard by the full body. In 2018, 94% percent of Senate Democratic bills didn’t even receive a committee hearing, meaning a large portion of their bills never had the opportunity to be presented and debated on by legislators or the public.
Conference committees swap outs
Another way the supermajority exercises its power is by controlling conference committee appointees. A conference committee is a committee that is formed after the Senate and House of Representatives approve different versions of the same bill. A conference committee is created to reconcile those differences, if possible, so that the proposal can receive joint approval and go to the governor to be considered. Conference committees are made up of four members: two from each chamber and one from each caucus – or at least that’s what they look like before Democratic appointees are removed. When Democrats don’t agree to sign on to a bill because they object to certain changes or believe that it requires more public input, they are simply swapped out for Republican legislators who will sign the bill. This is yet another way Democrats and the Hoosiers who elect them are stripped of their voices and influence in the legislature. By putting all Republicans on a conference committee, the supermajority can guarantee that the final version of legislation is modified and approved exactly how they desire. In some cases, they even change the language of the bill so completely that it becomes an entirely different bill. These last minute changes allow the supermajority to get controversial legislation to the governor inconspicuously.
Closed door dealings
Perhaps the most advantageous part of having a supermajority is the voting power. In a legislature, having the majority of votes is necessary if legislators hope to push their legislation forward. Because of the Republican supermajority, the caucus can ensure that they always have the votes to shape legislation and its outcome. While establishing a caucus position and voting with one’s party is not an issue, making closed door legislative decisions is problematic. This legislative session, there were many reports of Republicans making decisions behind closed doors, which means Republican legislators met privately to discuss, debate and vote on issues without their constituents or their Democratic counterparts’ input. In most instances, Republicans had already come to a decision on what would happen to bills and amendments before they made it to the Senate floor. Any legislation that left Republicans divided was thrown out. If they couldn’t reach the necessary number of votes within their caucus to pass the bill without Democrats’ votes, they did not even publicly vote on the bill. By engaging in this practice, the supermajority bypassed the legislative process, shut out the voices and wishes of Hoosiers and maintained total control over the legislature.
Make the rules and break the rules
In Indiana, the Republican supermajority maintains enough power to do pretty much anything they want. They bypass legislative rules and formalities when it is convenient for them. They ignore the wishes of Hoosiers and the public by only passing bills vetted behind closed doors. They also use their position to do everything they can to maintain their power, such as blocking necessary redistricting reform (which would result in properly drawn districts and fairer state elections). It is impossible for Democratic members of the General Assembly to get any legislation introduced or passed without support from Statehouse Republicans, and this session, there was not an abundance of support. To name just a few, Senate Democratic legislation to raise teacher pay, pass gun safety laws, approve medical marijuana and get an inclusive hate crimes law on the books were rejected without ever making it past the first step of the legislative process. Not only were all these efforts blocked by the supermajority, but nearly all Democratic amendments to the budget were also either voted down in session or later inexplicably and discretely removed by the Republican supermajority.
Your voice. Your vote. Our mission
The way that the Republican supermajority uses its power in Indiana is neither democratic nor ethical. Hoosier voters are being shut out of the legislative process by a supermajority that does not feel that they have to answer to anyone. Your Senate Democrats will continue to fight against these back-room politics because we value and understand the importance of the legislative process in a democracy. Your voice. Your vote. Our mission.