Commentary: Despite bipartisan budget, party power and procedural plays rising in NH House

Party leaders are wielding more power behind the scenes in the House of Representatives
Chris Sununu Ap Photo

This year New Hampshire lawmakers made history with a bipartisan budget vote, but metrics show that party leaders are wielding more power behind the scenes in the House of Representatives. 

Over the years the changes have been subtle: More bills are put off or buried beneath higher priority legislation. Representatives gather less often to vote. More policy ideas are moved to the grand bargain of the state budget. When legislators do vote on a bill, there are glaring party divisions. 

These changes are not inherently bad; legislative leaders must use their power to wrangle 400 representatives and roughly 1,000 bills each year. Former House Speaker Donna Sytek notably described her role as “herding cats.” Nonetheless, the New Hampshire House is certainly doing business differently than it used to. 

Partisanship measure higher than previous decades

One clear sign of partisan power is party unity, a measure of voting behavior. Party unity is the percentage of roll call votes in each legislative session in which a majority of one party opposed a majority of the other party. This reflects how often legislators drew a sharp line in the sand based on party, with few legislators crossing party lines. A high party unity score may indicate hyperpartisanship; it can also show how successfully party leaders martial their troops to accomplish their policy goals.

In 2023, 84% of roll call votes in the New Hampshire House of Representatives were party unity votes. That’s a moderate decrease from 2020 and 2021, when party unity peaked at 91%. (As we all witnessed, COVID-19 was a divisive time.) However, 84% is still high compared to the last two decades. From 2011-2020, party unity averaged 78%. From 2001-2010, party unity averaged 71%. 

In short, the two parties in New Hampshire are very far apart, and they have a long way to go to get back to previous norms. 

Representatives want to get each other on the record

It’s worth noting here that the New Hampshire House is also using roll call votes more frequently than in previous decades. Roll call votes assign a “yea” or “nay” to each legislator by name; voice votes and division votes, on the other hand, allow legislators to cast their vote without revealing their name. Voice votes and division votes tend to be more bipartisan than roll call votes. Roll call votes are often used on contentious bills so that legislators can get each other on the record either for or against a policy.

This year a little over 30% of bills voted on in the House of Representatives got roll call votes. That’s higher than the average from 2011-2020, when about one in every four bills in the House got a roll call vote. From 2001-2010, only about one in five bills in the House got a roll call vote. 

Once again, the use of roll call votes is not inherently bad. After all, without roll call votes, there would be no way to know how your individual representative voted on important legislation. However, the increased use of roll call votes over time suggests that representatives are more intent on getting each other on the record for each “yea” and “nay.”

“Tabling” used to limit debate

2023 legislative leaders also frequently used “tabling” motions to cull legislation without lengthy partisan floor fights. Tabling a bill sets it aside without further debate. Legislators can vote later to take a bill off the table and continue debate, but the vote threshold goes up over time. Eventually the bill just dies on the table. Voting to table a bill can be a tidy way to scuttle a bill without requiring legislators to take a position for or against it, and without taking the time for debate.

New Hampshire Representatives voted to table 68 bills this year. Tabling that many bills was common during the COVID-19 years, when legislators suspended normal legislative activity. Before that, however, tabling a bill was relatively rare. From 2011-2019, representatives voted to table an average of 25 bills per year. From 2001-2010, legislators voted to table just 7 bills per year, on average.

Fewer voting days for the House

House leaders also have some power to shape debate through scheduling. For example, if many important bills are scheduled for a vote on the same day, other bills get less attention (and may be more likely to get tabled).

There were just 15 days with roll call votes in 2023. In the 2010s, the first year of the House session included 20 voting days, on average. In the 2000s the average was 19 days. 

With roughly five fewer voting days in 2023 and roughly the same amount of legislation, representatives were no doubt under pressure from leaders to focus on a limited number of bills deemed “high priority.”

More policy legislation included in state budget

The last indicator of changing norms is the length of HB 2, the policy bill that accompanies the state budget. Historically the policy in HB 2 was directly related to the budget: transferring funds, changing tax rates, and creating new state employee positions. Over time legislators have added more and more policy to HB 2. 

In the 2000s, HB 2 was roughly 28,000 words on average. In the 2010s the average crept up to 51,000 words. In 2023, HB 2 was over 80,000 words.  

The recent policy changes inflating HB 2 are not so clearly related to the state budget. For example, in 2019 the Legislature used the budget process to raise the age to buy e-cigarettes. In 2021 the Legislature included a ban on abortion after 24 weeks. This year’s budget tweaked Gov. Sununu’s emergency powers. 

What are these policies doing in the state budget? Legislative leaders know their colleagues and the governor are under a lot of pressure to approve the state budget. The state government can’t operate without a budget. Plus, every town, every government agency, and some nonprofits are all eager for access to government grants. So, the budget bill becomes a bargaining tool, a vehicle to pass policy that might not muster enough support on its own. 

According to some observers, this is simply “how the sausage gets made in a democracy.” As noted throughout this article, none of these changes are innately bad – they may even be good, if the result is less partisan bickering on the House floor. 

Nonetheless, we should not take for granted that our New Hampshire democracy is immune from the hyperpartisanship and disfunction running rampant at the federal level. As Mary Catherine Bateson wrote, “The capacity to combine commitment with skepticism is essential to democracy.” 

If you want to learn more about your representatives’ activities in the New Hampshire House, visit citizenscount.org/elected-officials, select your town, and then click to view detailed profiles of each of your representatives. Citizens Count shows attendance, party unity, key votes, and more information for each elected official. 

Citizens Count is a nonprofit serving the New Hampshire community by providing objective information about issues, elected officials, bills, elections, and candidates.  These articles are being shared with partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.

Categories: Government, Politics