Rules committee: A summary

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Friday's Republican National Convention rules committee meeting heralded major changes in the way Republicans will select a presidential nominee in years to come, although exactly what those changes may be are yet to be determined. The primary process was one of several thorny issues debated in a six-hour meeting by pairs of representatives from each state and territory.

Several attempts have been made in the past to reform the primary process, to address front-loading and to have a process long enough that the flaws of a candidate have time to surface. Such a proposal would normally pass through the permanent Republican National Committee (RNC) rules subcommittee, then through the RNC as a whole, then through the convention rules committee, then through the convention as a whole.

Reform proposals in the past have been killed by the presumptive nominee's campaign team, either at the RNC stage or the convention rules committee stage. This is for two reasons: (1) The nominee wants to avoid any substantive debate at the convention, because it keeps the convention from being a coherent, four-day infomercial for the nominee and his platform. (2) Any modification to the primary calendar is bound to make some states very unhappy, and some of those unhappy states may be swing states. Better to punt the problem down the road.

The Democrats are doing just that. Their rules committee, co-chaired by former Oklahoma Gov. David Walters, recommended the establishment of a "Democratic Change Commission" which will examine the primary schedule (and how schedule violations are enforced), the role of superdelegates, and the conduct of caucuses (caucus presidential preference votes are binding in the Democratic Party). The committee will be appointed by the DNC chairman, will convene in early 2009, and will submit a report back to the DNC by the end of the year. The DNC will then debate whether to adopt the plan for the 2012 election cycle. The plan was approved by the Democratic delegates last week in Denver.

That approach has not been an option for Republicans, as only the quadrennial convention has the power under the party rules to change the rules. This year, however, the rules committee approved, with the blessing of the McCain campaign, an amendment that authorizes a commission to study the primary schedule and to report back to the RNC by the summer of 2010. The RNC would then be authorized to vote up or down on the recommendation (no amendments), and if it passes by a two-thirds margin, it becomes a part of the rules. This approach is similar to that used for military base closures -- the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) commission makes a recommendation and Congress votes up or down on the recommendation as a whole.

This commission proposal will come before the convention for approval on Monday embedded in the rules committee report. The rules report is usually accepted, without debate, by a voice vote of the delegates. Blink, and you'll miss it.

This commission proposal is a major departure from Republican tradition, which holds that only the convention can change the rules, a fact often repeated by the rules committee veterans who opposed the change.

The composition of the RNC is very different from that of the national convention. Every state and territory has three members on the RNC -- chairman, national committeeman, national committeewoman. The size of the delegations to the national convention are weighted by population and by the state party's success in winning support for Republican candidates. This makes the national convention far more representative of the party as a whole, while the RNC gives undue influence to officials from unsuccessful, small-state party organizations. Texas, Massachusetts, and the Northern Marianas are all equal on the RNC. An RNC vote on the commission proposal which weighted votes in accordance with national convention delegate strength would be more representative of party sentiment.

A long-time RNC member told me that the two-thirds hurdle would be easily surmounted by a commission report with powerful backing. Assuming a Republican is in the White House, the President has only to send one of his minions to the RNC with the message, "The President wants this approved," and two-thirds of the RNC members will fall right in line. (Think back to the RNC's approval of Mel Martinez as chairman.)

Commission opponent Morton Blackwell from Virginia said during the rules committee debate that the Democratic "flexibility" on rules leads to intraparty struggles that purport to be about high-minded principle but are, in reality, about prospective presidential candidates trying to gain an advantage. And as we saw last week, even when Democrats change their rules late in the game, they still don't enforce them -- Michigan and Florida delegates were seated at the convention.

I'm told that the commission proposal was not approved by the RNC's permanent rules committee or by the RNC as a whole. Instead, it was brought as a floor amendment on Friday by Ron Kaufman, the RNC committeeman and rules committee member from Massachusetts. RNC members who might have opposed the idea didn't know about it in time to alert their convention rules committee members or to organize opposition in advance of the committee meeting.

There were enough dissenters on this issue that there may be a minority report, which would be presented to the convention for a vote prior to the majority report. Bettye Fine Collins, a rules committee member from Alabama, was circulating a minority report petition, which would needed 28 signatures to meet the 25% requirement to be presented to the convention. I heard tonight that she had 26, but the number slipped to 25. It's likely that pressure is being applied to rules committee members behind the scenes to keep this issue off the floor.

Even if the minority report gets the signatures, there's no guarantee that it will get a hearing or that it will be handled in accordance with parliamentary procedure, which would require the delegates to deal with the report of a committee minority before they address the majority's committee report. The most important work of a convention happens in the first few hours on Monday afternoon, when the credentials, rules, and platform committee reports are heard. The chair rushes through the agenda as quickly as possible, while the delegates are still dazzled at being on the floor of the convention. If some attentive delegate were to try to raise a point of order, the only chance of getting a hearing is if someone turns on the delegation's microphone.

Expect this major change to fly through right under the radar on Monday.

Minor changes to the primary calendar

The rules committee made changes to the primary calendar over and above the creation of the commission. The recommendation from the RNC to the rules committee would have put the official primary start date on the first Tuesday in March, except for New Hampshire and South Carolina, which would have been allowed to hold a primary as early as the first Tuesday in February.

The change would have penalized more than 20 states which had moved their primaries into February. Committee members from two of those Tsunami Tuesday states, Oklahoma chairman Gary Jones and Tennessee national committeeman John Ryder, proposed a simple amendment to move those dates back by a month. The amendment passed, but a later amendment adjusted the exception to make the third Tuesday in January the earliest primary date for New Hampshire and South Carolina.

These calendar changes would be superseded by anything that the primary process commission comes up with, assuming the RNC votes to approve it.

There was an interesting proposal to discourage but allow February primaries and to help lengthen the primary season by making it harder for one candidate to roll up a huge lead during that month. Under the proposal, primaries held before the first Tuesday in March would have to allocate delegates proportionally -- no "winner-take-all." The motion failed overwhelmingly. Opponents argued that the national party shouldn't impose proportional representation on the state parties.

Military participation in delegate selection

A proposal to guarantee members of the military the right to participate in the delegate selection process drew opposition from rules committee members concerned about logistics and legal exposure. Military personnel are already guaranteed the right to vote in a presidential primary, and most states have special provisions for getting absentee ballots to and from military personnel stationed overseas.

Caucuses and conventions are a different matter. With few exceptions, Republicans don't do anything meaningful to bind delegates at their precinct caucuses. They may hold a straw poll, as they do in Iowa, and the results may boost the profile and fundraising efforts of the straw poll winner, but the straw poll results have no bearing on who is elected to represent the state at the national convention and which presidential candidate those national delegates will support. A small number of Republican caucus/convention states do bind delegates based on a precinct caucus straw poll -- Kansas and Montana come to mind.

(The Democrats are different. Presidential preference polls conducted at precinct caucuses are considered a "first determining step" toward binding delegates to presidential candidates, and the delegates to the next step in the process -- county or state conventions -- are allocated in proportion to the support for each candidate at the precinct level.)

Even though caucuses and conventions rarely bind delegates, they still, in most states, play a role in determining who will represent the state at the national convention, where delegates not only vote for a presidential and vice presidential nominee, but for the rules that will govern the party for the next four years. (In a few states, like Illinois, primary voters vote directly for delegates and alternates.) Because the caucuses and conventions are part of the "process... for selecting delegates," simply giving the military the ability to cast an absentee ballot in a straw poll or a presidential primary is not sufficient to meet the requirement in the proposed rule.

For example, Oklahoma binds its delegates based on the statewide and congressional district primary vote. This year, Mike Huckabee won two congressional districts and six delegates, while John McCain won three districts and the statewide vote to get 32 delegates.

Although all these delegates were bound to McCain or Huckabee, there was still a mighty struggle at each of the congressional district conventions and the state convention as Ron Paul supporters tried to elect delegates from among their number in hopes of influencing the platform, rules, VP selection, and possibly even the presidential nomination itself. (See my April 16 Urban Tulsa Weekly column, "Paul Plot," but please note that since that column was published, I have resigned from both the state and county GOP executive committees and no longer hold any party offices.)

The delegates to Oklahoma's district and state conventions were chosen at the county conventions, and the county delegates were chosen at the precinct caucuses.

So the process of selecting delegates and alternates in nearly every state involves face-to-face meetings in living rooms, school auditoriums, and convention halls. How, practically, do you include active-duty military stationed half a world away in making these decisions?

Two solutions come to mind that would allow greater military participation in the process while meeting the logistical concerns of party officials' concerns. Here's the original language of the proposed amendment:

Any process authorized or implemented by a state party for selecting delegates and alternates or for binding the presidential preference of such delegates shall guarantee the right to vote in that process, by absentee ballot, of individuals who are serving in the United States Armed Forces.

One way to allow military participation while retaining the face-to-face qualities of caucuses and conventions would be to authorize a "Republicans Deployed" delegation at the national convention. The members would be selected at caucuses held at bases around the world.

There may be problems with this idea. Active-duty military aren't free to come and go as they please, so it might not be possible for the delegates elected by Republicans Deployed to travel to the national convention. I also don't know to what extent active-duty military can participate in partisan political activity, beyond casting a ballot. Do we really want soldiers at a forward base in Afghanistan arguing with each other over a platform plank or who gets to be chairman?

Another approach would avoid those obstacles: While a deployed soldier or sailor wouldn't be able to attend a precinct caucus or a district convention back home, he could be allowed to vote in elections for delegate and alternate. This would require candidates for delegate and alternate to file well in advance of the district or state convention, rather than filing the morning of the convention as is sometimes done, so that absentee ballots could be sent to deployed members of the military who request them.

How would runoffs be handled? The same way states like Arkansas are already handling military votes in state primary runoff elections: With "instant runoff" ballots, where voters rank their preferences. In Oklahoma's 1st Congressional District, we've been using that voting technique to elect delegates and alternates since 2000.

Given the hour they had to deal with the issue, the rules committee only managed to come up with a compromise that turned the "shall" to a "may" and added a few more qualifiers:

Any process authorized or implemented by a state party for selecting delegates and alternates or for binding the presidential preference of such delegates may use every means practicable, in the sole discretion of the state party, to encourage active military personnel the opportunity to exercise their right to vote.

The compromise satisfied state party leaders, concerned about how to implement the proposed mandate, and McCain campaign officials, who wanted to avoid the embarrassment of the appearance of a rules committee vote against our troops overseas, but it did nothing to address the original concern.

In its one-day meeting, the rules committee simply doesn't have enough time to work through a four-year backlog of reform ideas. But meeting longer than a day has its own problems. Many committee members are ordinary delegates, elected by the members of their state delegations, who take extra days off from work and pay for some extra pre-convention days in a hotel so they can participate.

There's no doubt that the rules of the Republican Party are in need of review and reform. There has to be a better way than, on the one hand, handing the issue over to an unelected commission and, on the other hand, restricting debate and discussion to one day every four years.

MORE: National Review's Stephen Spruiell covered the rules committee meeting and posted several entries in NRO's "The Corner" regarding the debate over military participation in delegate selection: post 1, post 2, post 3, post 4.

For my liveblogging notes from the committee meeting see these entries:

Rules committee: A Republican commission on the primary/caucus process
Rules committee: Palin applause, long-distance caucusing
Rules committee: Primary calendar changes
Rules committee: Palin buzz

You may also be interested in my coverage of the 2004 convention -- scroll down to read my posts about that year's rules committee deliberations.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on August 31, 2008 2:49 PM.

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