State Sen. Clarence Nishihara, in a point of personal privilege Wednesday on the Senate floor, told his colleagues that he harbored no ill will over the 3-3 vote on Tuesday in the Senate Agriculture Committee that killed his procedural move to keep right-to-farm legislation alive.
But Nishihara, the committee's chairman, did not let the moment pass without a comment about Senate tradition. "When I first got here 10 years ago, there were two things I was told: And one was keeping your word, and (the other was) the courtesy of letting the chair know if you decide you can't vote with him," he said. "And those two I've always stayed with."
There is a tacit understanding in the Senate that committee chairmen and chairwomen have the prerogative over how to handle legislation before their committees. If a chairman does not have the votes, the legislation is typically held or deferred, sparing the chairman the awkwardness of losing a vote in his own committee.
This understanding has a practical as well as political application: it preserves order, since 16 of the 25 senators are committee chairmen and chairwomen and have mutual interest in retaining their individual power.
Nishihara's experience in the Senate Agriculture Committee on Tuesday was not a perfect example of the process. He could have called a recess before the vote and tracked down Sen. Glenn Wakai, who serves on the committee and would have voted with the chairman if he was present, which would have made the vote 4-3 in favor.
Nishihara could also have simply not held a vote once he realized his committee was split.
Sen. Clayton Hee told senators that Nishihara was merely asking for a procedural vote so the right-to farm legislation might be heard later at a public hearing. He said he planned similar procedural moves in his own Senate Judiciary and Labor Committee.
"These are procedural matters that have been cut at its knees -- pre-empted from having the merits debated in a public hearing," Hee said. "And that is unfortunate."
Sen. J. Kalani English, who voted against Nishihara's move, clarified that Nishihara has a right-to-farm bill that has been referred to committees for review. He said short form bills -- like the one Nishihara tried to amend -- should be used when there are no other available titles to deal with an issue.
"In this case, there was one that was square on point and it was already referred. So to my thinking, why not move the bill that was already there?" he said. "The chairs couldn't agree -- I understand -- on the hearing. But that is our process. So, you know, to say that we have not followed our process is a little bit misleading."
English said inserting the contents of the right-to-farm bill into the short form bill might be seen as circumventing the process.
But Hee said it should be the prerogative of committee chairmen.
"So if this chamber starts on its way of undercutting the chair's authority, so be it," Hee said. "Let us give notice to each other at this time. We give notice we cut you at the knees -- procedurally. That's the argument before this chamber, not the merits of the discussion."
Senate President Donna Mercado Kim said: "At the end of the day, every member has the right to exercise their right to vote, whether it's procedural or whether it's on the merit of the bill."