Dorso Column: Keep A Close Eye On North Dakota’s Legislative Committees


If you really want to see how a car is built you must go past the assembly line to the factories where the component parts are manufactured. The same is true of legislation.

What a citizen sees being voted on during the regular floor sessions is the work of the standing committees. Most of the time what the committee recommends for the disposition of a bill becomes the result. I covered the topic in chapter four of my book When Governance Worked.

When I was Majority Leader I had all of the amendments to bills that were on the legislative calendar voted on in one motion. Before taking that vote I would ask if anyone wanted any amendment removed from the consent calendar so that it could be discussed and voted on separately. Seldom did that happen except in the case of appropriations amendments. My reasoning was that we were speeding up the process without infringing on the members right to voice their opinion. If an amendment was to be rejected by the full assembly surely those wishing to see it defeated would pull it off the consent calendar.

Most of the appropriations bills are amended and almost always the Appropriations Committee’s recommendations are accepted by the full House or Senate. That is why it is so critical that the majority leaders put the right people on those committees. By rule any bill that carries a fiscal note affecting the budget must have a hearing in Appropriations.

When committee assignments are made during the organizational session many factors are weighed by the Leader. Remember, as the saying goes, “you’ve got to dance with whom you came with.” Senior members expect to get their preferred assignments. I never put two people from the same legislative district on a committee together. I tried not to put two people from the same city on a committee. I also wanted to put people who had experience in certain fields on committees where their expertise would be of use.

This last criteria could sometimes come back to bite us. As an example, if a teacher was on Education or a lawyer on the Judiciary committee you may get votes that favored the profession more than the citizens. I tried to balance that bias by putting more people on the committee who weren’t tied to an agenda. I also found it important to make sure the committee chair was committed to the agenda that we, as a Republican caucus, were supporting. If I found a chair to be ineffective in moving legislation or not fully committed to the direction we as a caucus were headed I didn’t hesitate to replace them the next legislative session. As you made adjustments or replaced people you would have to call in the effected legislators and explain the reasoning behind the moves you made. Those were not always pleasant conversations.

After reviewing this session’s committee assignments I found some interesting moves. As an example Rep. Hawken was moved from the Education section of Appropriations to Government Operations. Hawken was on the Fargo School Board and is an avid supporter of NDSU. If House Majority Leader Al Carlson was concerned about having the correct number of votes down in committee for an agenda that wouldn’t fit Rep. Hawken’s leanings he did her a favor. She will probably continue to vote her way but hopefully the amendments out of committee will fit the caucus agenda.

There are other examples but I will leave them for discussions of other legislation as the session unfolds.

In chapter 3 of my book I describe sacred cows. A constant theme in this blog are the controversies surrounding Higher Education governance and the amount of money the state spends supporting the institutions. There’s not anyone in the legislature who doesn’t think there are issues that need to be dealt with. The problem is that the only hammer the legislature has is the funding. Because of the Constitutional provisions the Board of Higher Ed operates under, and some moves the legislature made back in 2001, any influence the legislature has is minimal.

If the legislature wants to effect change in Higher Education it is going to have to play hard ball. The only game in town will be taking place down in the Education section of Appropriation in the House. You will want to keep a very close watch on those committee member’s votes as they deal with all of the education issues.

John Dorso represented District 46 in the North Dakota state legislature from 1985 to 1999 and as served as House Majority Leader from 1994 to 1999. He is also the author of When Governance Worked: It’s Time to Chart a New Course.

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