To Succeed During Session, You Have to Know the Rules

by Julie Pelegrin

There’s an old saying: “You can’t play the game if you don’t know the rules.” Although the legislative session is not a game, a legislator who doesn’t know the legislative rules has a difficult time accomplishing his or her legislative goals.

Under section 12 of article V of the state constitution, the Senate and the House of Representatives each has plenary power to set the rules for its proceedings. The Senate and the House have each  passed several resolutions over the years creating and amending the Senate Rules and the House Rules, and they have passed joint resolutions to establish the Joint Rules of the Senate and House of Representatives. Since 1957, the Legislative Council has annually published the Colorado Legislator’s Handbook, which includes the most current House, Senate, and Joint Rules. The legislative rules are also available on the Colorado General Assembly’s web site.

The legislative rules address the entire scope of procedures within each house from convening and the order of business; to introduction and hearings on bills; to debate in committees of reference; to debate in the committee of the whole and on third reading; to reconsideration by the first house and conference committees; to delivery of a bill to, and when necessary recall from, the Governor. Each house also has its own rules for addressing ethics complaints that are filed against its members. If either house is taking an action, chances are good there’s a legislative rule that applies.

In the House, if a matter arises that is not covered by the rules of the House, the Speaker of the House decides how to proceed. The Senate will first look to Mason’s Manual of Legislative Procedure for direction in matters not covered by the Senate Rules and then to the Senate President if Mason’s is silent. Both houses will also consider custom and practice in deciding how to apply the rules and how to proceed in matters that may be ambiguous in the rules.

The rules and procedures of the House and the Senate are generally very similar. One of the significant differences is in making motions: motions in a House committee of reference require a second, but they do not require a second in the Senate. Another significant difference is in the debate procedures. In the House, once a committee, including the committee of the whole, has considered and adopted a change in the language of a bill, the same committee cannot consider another change to the same language without first passing a motion to reconsider. This is known as the “settled question” rule — once a House committee has settled a question, it won’t reconsider it without a special motion. There are no settled questions in the Senate, and the same Senate committee can pass multiple amendments to the same language in a bill. If there’s a conflict, the last amendment to pass takes precedence.

The Senate and the House together have adopted joint rules to address matters that concern both houses. The legislative deadline schedule, the limitations on the number of bills that a legislator may introduce, and procedural rules for conference committees and interim committees are some of the issues addressed in the joint rules. The joint rules also include rules that regulate lobbying practices within the state capitol and the General Assembly’s sexual harassment policy.

The power that the constitution gives to the General Assembly to adopt its own rules and procedures is plenary. This means each house has the exclusive authority not only to make its rules but also to enforce them. Although someone may bring a civil lawsuit asking the court to enforce the legislative rules, the court would likely refuse to consider this type of case unless it involved a constitutional procedural requirement such as the GAVEL requirements, which we’ll discuss in the next article in this series.