Organizing the Senate — Inside baseball

Question: What’s the most important number in the state Senate?

Answer: 13

Any senator who has 12 solid friends can basically run the show. Thirteen votes decide who will be Senate president, the chair of Ways and Means and the rules of the Senate.

A core majority of 13 senators determine the composition of, and consequently “control,” a majority of the seats/votes on every committee, and thus control which bills pass and which do not.

The process is not pretty, and if we replace the word “control” by the word “manage” it is somewhat more palatable. To be clear, each senator is technically independent, but within the core majority bonds are tight and loyalty to “leadership” is the norm.

“Organization” can happen at any time but typically occurs to some degree at the end of every two-year election cycle.

When the state Senate “organizes” it means 13 or more senators agree as to “who gets what” in terms of committee assignments, leadership positions and other benefits and trappings of power and position (office size/location, staffing budgets, parking spots, etc).

Negotiations (i.e. horse trading for positions and power) will occur between individuals and between “factions” or small groups of senators who have banded together out of friendship, ideology or pragmatism (survival).

The two most powerful positions in any legislative body would be its administrative head (Senate president and House speaker) and its “money chairs” (Senate Ways and Means and House Finance committees).

Historically, these two positions would be divided between two different factions, thus “balancing the power,” rather than allowing it to be concentrated in two individuals from the same faction.

The recent “re-organization” of these positions in both the House and Senate does not appear to reflect this important power-balancing dynamic.

Following election cycles or other events (deaths, scandal etc.) that disrupt the vital 13-member core, there will often be an entirely new “leadership” structure established and all/most positions impacted.

During such a full “re-org,” senators who are part of an initial 13-member “core majority” will be rewarded by a leadership position and/or a committee chairmanship. The senator who occupies that vital #13 swing vote position often achieves inordinate benefits due to his/her “leverage” (more about “leverage” in a future column).

Note: While 13 is the magic number, most “re-orgs” seek the insurance and stability that a 14 or 15 member “core majority” will offer.

Those senators not part of the “core majority” MAY get a vice-chair position, but otherwise will get assigned to various committees albeit in minority roles. They will not have positions in “leadership,” they will not chair a committee of any consequence and they will often have the smallest offices in the less desirable locations. These senators, of course, retain the important power and responsibility of being a “watch dog” that comes with any minority position. And they, of course, will continuously be seeking to form their own 13-member core majority, and if/when they are able to do so, there will be another “re-org.”

Consequently, each member of the core majority of 13 presently in power owes their personal position of power and status to the other 12. If any of the 13 loses an election or otherwise leaves the leadership faction, the entire leadership structure collapses and a new “re-org” will occur.

Thus arises the sometimes corrupting desire to “protect and reward your members” in order to preserve the entire leadership structure.

“Protecting your members” most often comes in the form of shielding them from having to vote on controversial issues.

“Rewards” may come in the form of favorable treatment for legislation the members are championing, media attention, Capital Improvement Projects (CIP) and/or Grant-In-Aid (GIA) allocations.

Re-organizations are a reality of any legislative body. They can be executed in ways that benefit the public interest, or in ways that are detrimental to that same interest.

A thoughtful, integrity-based reorganization process takes into consideration the needs of ALL members finding positions of value for each, thus minimizing dissension and maximizing talents — to the benefit of the public and our democratic system.


Gary Hooser formerly served in the state Senate, where he served as Majority Leader. He also served for eight years on the Kauai County Council and was the former drector of the state Office of Environmental Quality Control during the Neil Abercrombie administration. He serves presently in a volunteer capacity as board president of the Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action (HAPA) and is the volunteer executive director of the Pono Hawaii Initiative.


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