House committee considers formalizing gallery rules

by Logan Finney, Idaho Reports

A proposed House rule change is continuing the debate over safety versus political expression.

The House Judiciary, Rules and Administration Committee introduced a resolution last Friday that would incorporate decorum guidelines for the chamber gallery and committee rooms into the House rules. The proposal was presented by committee chairman Rep. Greg Chaney, R-Caldwell.

“This is the criteria by which the respective Speakers of the House have held visitors to our gallery to, at least since the renovation of the capitol,” Chaney said. “This is basically just a writing down of what you see on that large placard outside of the gallery entrance.”

Chaney told the committee that the existing gallery policies were agreed upon by the House and Senate many years ago, and that the Senate is working to incorporate them into their own rules this session as well.

“I think it’s good to put things in writing that are unwritten as a means to equal treatment, and more importantly as a means to the perception of equal treatment, as opposed to being treated in an arbitrary way,” Chaney said.

House Resolution 1 (additions underlined)

Rep. Ron Nate, R-Rexburg, asked whether changing the rule by giving committee chairs the authority to clear a room during disturbances or disorderly conduct, rather than singling out individuals, had the potential to stifle public comment or testimony.

Chaney responded by saying that committees already have discretion on whether or not to accept public testimony at all, and that individuals who are causing a disturbance can be removed from a meeting under the current rules.

“I would cite this committee’s experience in the special session,” Chaney said. “To stop and discern from a room of 150 people which individuals were part of the disturbance and which weren’t, frankly could be a safety issue. Not to mention an enormous drain on our ability to proceed with the legislative process.”

Disruption in a House Judiciary, Rules & Administration meeting during the 2020 special session.

“That having been said, there is naturally a philosophical and a political price for overusing any of these criteria,” Chaney said.

Disruptive protests during the August special legislative session resulted in a broken glass door in the House, a postponed committee meeting, and two arrests. 

In newsletters sent to their constituents this week, Nate and Rep. Priscilla Giddings, R-White Bird, expressed concern over the clause about visual bag inspections.

“In a rushed meeting the House Judiciary and Rule committee (with many members absent) met Friday to introduce a new House Rule change that will give the Speaker of the House and a committee chairman the authority to search the public’s bags any time they come into the capitol,” Giddings wrote. “4th Amendment? Metal detectors?”

“This proposed rule change, if approved by a majority of the committee, and then if approved by a majority of House members, will give the Speaker of the House and Committee Chairmen the authority, within the Capitol, to search the public’s bags of all types, prohibit clothing promoting political platforms, and allow committee rooms, lobbies, halls, and even the House gallery to be cleared upon ‘any disturbance’ deemed so by the Speaker or the Chairman,” Nate wrote. “I’ve always appreciated the open, welcoming atmosphere of our Idaho Capitol building.  These rules changes could lead to a more closed and shut-off capitol.”

The committee moved to print the resolution on a voice vote. This legislative session the Judiciary, Rules and Administration Committee plans to accept remote testimony and is requiring people to sign up on the legislature’s website in advance of meetings in order to testify, with assistance at the Legislative Services Office for those who come to the statehouse in person.

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