Niki Kelly: New rule stifles debate in the Indiana Senate

The Indiana Senate recently changed a rule related to floor decorum that threatens to shut down debate in the chamber, especially the voice of the minority party.

Up until now, generally, any legislator who speaks on a bill can be questioned about what he or she said at the microphone.

So, if a senator supports or opposes a bill and states their position during debate another senator can ask the first senator to yield to questions. And then there is a back-and-forth between the two. Generally – but not always – it is Democrats in the minority asking questions.

A senator can simply decline to take questions, but there is some unwritten rule that it is disrespectful. I have only seen it happen a few times in more than 20 years.

I will be the first to admit that many of these dialogues are tedious and full of leading questions whose sole purpose is to score political points in a debate. They generally don’t add to the discourse.

But every once in a while, the questions elicit information that was not clear about the bill to start with. I have seen concerns raised that have caused an author to withdraw the bill while more investigation is conducted to ensure a bill is doing what it is supposed to.

But under this new rule, many of those questions will no longer be allowed.

“During debate, members of the body may only question the author or sponsor who calls the question under debate, or the member yielded to by the author or sponsor to present the question under debate,” the rule reads.

What this means is senators can no longer question everyone who comes to the microphone — even if they have made a false or confusing statement. Only the author or sponsor can be queried (or someone yielded to present the bill under a rare circumstance).

The problem is lots of senators in the chamber have expertise on topics other than the author. Senators who are also trained lawyers regularly get up and offer their knowledge on bills. If they can answer a question, why limit that? Same with doctors or insurance agents or teachers.

The rule also reduces the amount of time allowed to speak. Before, a person speaking on a bill was limited to 30 minutes. But questions were not counted toward that. Now it will be a collective 30-minute limit.

Democrats are already a minority in the chamber. In fact, they are not even needed to achieve a quorum – meaning Republicans can act without them. And the GOP members generally do all their talking in private in caucus, therefore limiting debate on the floor.

The questions back and forth are often the only times other Senators pay attention. They tune out speeches – leaving the chamber to take calls or get popcorn.

With this rule change, the minority party will get even less chance to influence debate and legislation.

I understand these debates sometimes extend for hours, but I believe you have to take the good and bad together to keep the dialogue open.

Niki Kelly is editor-in-chief of indianacapitalchronicle.com, where this commentary first appeared. She has covered Indiana politics and the Indiana Statehouse since 1999 for publications including the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette. Send comments to [email protected]