Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture

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LEGISLATURE

The 1907 Oklahoma Constitution established a bicameral legislature as one of three equal branches of government (the other two being the judiciary branch, or state courts system, and the Governor's Cabinet, or gubernatorial branch). The legislature met in Guthrie, the home of the territorial legislature, until 1910 when it was moved to Oklahoma City. Legislative responsibilities include passing bill and resolutions, appropriating state funds, approving gubernatorial appointments, and conducting legislative oversight of state agencies.

First Legislature of Oklahoma Territory 1891

Bills proceed through the Oklahoma House of Representatives and Senate in a manner very similar to the U.S. Congress. Successful bills pass out of committee and are heard on the floor. Passing through one chamber, they are forwarded to the other body, where, again, they must pass through a committee and then go to the floor. Often amendments are added by the second chamber, sending a bill to a conference committee. When conferees resolve their differences, the bill returns for a vote in each chamber. Having passed both houses in exactly the same form, bills are forwarded to the governor for his signature. The governor's signature makes the bill a law. A gubernatorial veto sends the bill back for reconsideration by both chambers.

Thus, passage of a bill into a law requires the cooperation of many gatekeepers. The process provides opponents of a proposal many opportunities to prevail. Few bills survive the process to become law. In the Forty-seventh Legislature (1999-2000) only 816 of 3,435 bills and resolutions introduced (24 percent) were enacted.

The budget is generally one of the most contentious matters before the legislature each year. Appropriation bills are introduced into the House and pass through the process described above. They ultimately find their way to the General Conference Committee on Appropriations and Budget (GCCA). This is a very large committee. It is often said that "everyone is on it." The Senate president pro tempore usually appoints all forty-seven other senators to this conference, and often fifty or more House members are appointed. The budget is finalized through this conference committee process and brought to the floor for passage in the closing days of the session.

Written in the Progressive Movement, Oklahoma's fifty-thousand-word constitution imposes many restrictions on the legislature. Late-twentieth-century reforms added to these restrictions. The legislature meets in annual session for ninety business days between the first Monday in February and the last Friday in May. The 101 Representatives and 48 Senators are limited to twelve years combined lifetime service. To establish a new tax, three-fourths of both houses must support the measure, or it must be approved through referendum.

The legislative leadership has imposed rules to deal with these limitations. Within days following an election, members of both parties caucus to select their leaders. The designated House speaker and Senate president pro tempore organize committees, and committee hearings begin before the new year.

Strict deadlines are imposed on bill processing, some expiring before the session officially begins. Any bill that does not meet a deadline is dead, under the rules, for that legislative year. Beginning in 1999, House rules limited to eight the number of bills a member may introduce, with some exceptions.

J. Howard Edmondson addressing the Oklahoma legislature, 1959

In the dash to meet deadlines, members traditionally introduced "shell" bills--bills containing only a title. The provisions were written as the bill moved through the process and often major changes occurred in conference committee. This convenience to the author made it difficult for other members to know the contents of legislation until just prior to voting. Beginning in 2001 House rules restricted the use of shell bills and imposed a twenty-four-hour layover that guaranteed members the opportunity to review pending legislation.

The Democratic Party has dominated both chambers of the legislature since statehood, with the brief exception of the Ninth Legislature (1921-22) when there was a Republican Party majority in the House. This dominance creates a continuity that oils the legislative machinery. Legislative leaders are identified well in advance of their election, and the leadership transition is generally smooth. As a result, Democratic caucus rules are as important as legislative rules. For example, Democratic caucus rules in the House limit the majority leader to 4 years.

Many bills proceeding through the legislature are declared an emergency, taking effect immediately with the governor's signature. This requires a two-thirds vote of each chamber, but traditionally Democrats have held enough votes to declare emergency without Republican support. In the 1990s Republicans made incremental gains producing a greater balance of power. This is particularly important because of several "super majority" requirements: veto overrides, tax increases, and emergencies.

There are three distinct leadership groups in each chamber: the floor leadership, the committee leadership, and the leadership team. The formal leadership positions for the majority include the speaker or president pro tempore, majority floor leader, assistant floor leaders, whips, caucus chair, etc. Top positions are elected by the caucus. Lower positions are appointed by the leader.

The committee leadership includes the committee chairs, vice chairs, subcommittee chairs, and subcommittee vice chairs. Committee leaders are appointed by the House speaker and the Senate president pro tempore.

The leadership team is an informal brain trust that the majority leader selects. They are his inner circle or "kitchen cabinet" advisors. As an informal group, membership in the leadership team can be fluid. Yet this group is stable enough that these members are recognized as among the most powerful in the legislature.

Occasionally controversy surrounds the legislature's actions. Many citizens of Guthrie consider the capital to have been stolen when in 1910 it was removed to Oklahoma City. Two House speakers ran afoul of the law, another was deposed by the membership, two governors used the National Guard to prevent the legislature from impeaching them, and the leadership once halted the clock on the wall to create a twenty-seven-hour legislative day on the last day of the session.

SEE ALSO: DEMOCRATIC PARTY, GOVERNMENT AND POLITICS, GOVERNOR'S CABINET, JUDICIARY, OKLAHOMA CONSTITUTION, POLITICAL SCANDALS, REPUBLICAN PARTY.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Harry Holloway, Bad Times For Good Ol' Boys: The Oklahoma County Commission Scandal (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993). Samuel A. Kirkpatrick, The Legislative Process in Oklahoma: Policy Making, People, and Politics (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1978). David R. Morgan, Robert E. England, and George G. Humphreys, eds., Oklahoma Politics and Policies: Governing the Sooner State (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1991). H. Wayne Morgan and Ann H. Morgan, Oklahoma: A History (Nashville, Tenn: W. W. Norton & Co., 1984).

Rick Farmer

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