New Hampshire is one of only three states with a split legislature: Republicans control the Senate, Democrats the House of Representatives. The two bodies have shown an ability to work together on some issues this session, including business tax credits and limits on lead fishing tackle.
But with the end of the legislative year fast approaching, inter-chamber gamesmanship is on the rise. It can start simple enough. A routine legislative procedure on the House floor.
“Madame Speaker, I move the adoption of amendment 2010-H,” says Ed Butler, a Democrat from Hart’s Location, asking his colleagues to add language to a bill.
But 2010-H is not just another amendment. It’s actually another complete bill.
“It’s the market rules bill that makes it possible for the insurance department to implement the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare, in New Hampshire,” Butler tells the Representatives gathered in the chamber.
The Anatomy of the 'Poison Pill'
This market rules bill is important to Democrats. They say it’s needed to align state law with Federal law, to prevent chaos in the health insurance industry, and to ensure the health exchange coming under Obamacare functions well. It sailed through the House earlier this year on a voice vote.
But the GOP-controlled Senate is not all that interested in seeing the Affordable Care Act come to New Hampshire, or yielding state authority in any way to the Federal government.
“No, what I’m saying Mr. Chairman is, the law is pretty clear,” Majority Leader Jeb Bradley told a joint committee meeting, “The law is the law is law is the law is the law. And the law says, no state based exchange.”
The Senate, along party lines, killed the market rules bill.
But remember Ed Butler’s amendment, 2010-H? That brings it back to life, sort of. Butler tagged the insurance language onto a renewable energy bill that has bi-partisan support in both chambers. And by the way, Jeb Bradley is its prime sponsor.
The energy bill is a tweak to the rules for how much renewable energy the state needs to buy. It’s seen as necessary by folks like Jason Stock, with the New Hampshire Timberland Owners Association, who says without it, six of the state’s biomass electric plants could go out of business, partly because of a certain southern neighbor. “Connecticut in particular that wants to really kind of boot the existing wood-energy plants out of their renewable law,” Stock explains.
Wood energy is controversial in other states, but in New Hampshire both parties are lining up to support the jobs connected to those plants. So the bill was cruising. That is, until the Obamacare language was tacked on, which displeased former House Speaker Bill O’Brien.
“This tit-for-tat is not honorable; it is not the way to legislate,” said O’Brien in a fiery speech from the well of the House, “Let’s win bills based on their merits, not on how much harm and discomfort we can cause on the other side of the wall.”
Of course when O’Brien held the Speaker’s gavel last year, he wasn’t afraid to cause discomfort with unrelated amendments. After failing to get a 24-hour mandatory wait for abortions through the Senate, House Republicans attached it to an R&D tax credit bill that enjoyed near unanimous support
The result: both measures failed.
"If you swallow it, you die"
And according to the Nashua Telegraph’s Kevin Landrigan, that’s the typical outcome. “It more often doesn’t work. There’s a reason why they call it the poison pill amendment. Because if you swallow it, you die. And that is usually what happens here,” the 25-year veteran of covering the New Hampshire statehouse says.
Landrigan adds even if it doesn’t often work, lawmakers are using this tactic more and more. “Ten years ago, this was even less common than it is now. Now, how did that change? It really changed because both sides wised up.” He notes the House and Senate actually changed their rules – the Senate ten years ago, the House six – to make it easier to do this sort of thing; allowing two unrelated bills to get stuck together, so that a chamber can tuck a controversial priority behind a bill with popular appeal.
And there’s still a chance this tactic could work this session. The Senate could have killed the Frankenstein bill, but it didn’t. Instead, it agreed to try to seek a compromise. House and Senate negotiators will sit down this week to see if they can work something out.
Even so, the Senate may have out-flanked the House. Knowing that this poison pill amendment was coming, the Senate quietly attached its renewable energy bill, the one it really want passed, onto yet another bill… one the House really likes.