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Every Game Has Rules: The 2023 House Rules Compromise

David Iverson, January 18, 2023

Every game has rules.  The knight is the only piece that can jump others.  Only the goalie can touch the ball with his hands.  Pass interference will earn you half the distance to the goal and three strikes is all you get.  Rules exist so that the playing field is fair—each team must follow the same set of edicts.  Try as they might, neither team is allowed to alter the ground rules half-way through the contest.  While there may be few rules in politics, there are some that do exist.  Every deliberative body must follow parliamentary procedure of one form or another.  

In no small part, procedure accounts for much of the political maneuvering, wrangling and strategy we so often see in politics; or at the very least, the procedure sets the rules of the game.  Two weeks prior, and in the entire first five days of the Legislative Session, Representatives were embroiled in a rules fight that is entirely about power, who wields it or even if it should be employed in the first place.  It all finally came to a head and was settled Monday in what ended up being over an hour debate, the result of which was one of the most unlikely and unheard-of compromises.  Truthfully, it is a compromise that could only come from the Cowboy State.  The Wyoming House of Representatives passed and agreed to a leadership rule that balances power between the two real parties that make up the House. 

Most of the media in Wyoming claim that Republicans make up the vast majority of the legislature.  While this is technically true, it isn’t reality.  In most of Wyoming’s twenty-three counties, it is virtually impossible for a Democrat to get elected.  Liberally minded politicians often register as Republicans so that they have some chance at election.  By any quantifiable measure, the Wyoming House of Representatives is nearly evenly split between conservatives and liberal, Democrat- leaning politicians.  There are three websites that rate legislators according to how conservative or liberal they vote.  All three of them indicate that the House has a more liberal majority. 

The House rules debate has roots that date far earlier than just the week or so that the legislature has been in session.  Really, this story begins in the 2022 legislative session with a bill called the Fairness in Women’s Sports Act.  Senator Wendy Schuler’s bill, which passed the Wyoming Senate, attempted to ban men from competing in women’s high school and college athletics.  Though the bill passed the Senate, then Majority Floor Leader, Albert Sommers, using his authority, prevented the bill from being discussed in the House. 

Members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus attempted to use a procedural maneuver to override the Majority Floor Leader.  In order to bring the bill up for debate a two-thirds majority was required.  That vote failed, and a bill that is overwhelmingly supported by Wyoming Citizens was never brought up for discussion. 

This single bill became a campaign issue for numerous candidates running in the 2022 Primary Election.  In total, the House Freedom Caucus supported 30 plus conservative candidates, many of whom were challengers to liberal incumbent legislators.  In Democrat-esque fashion, seated legislators tried repeatedly to downplay the threat to their power.  Rep. Dan Zwonitzer told the Wyoming Tribune Eagle “Wyoming Legislature can’t afford any more ultraconservative ideologues who don’t understand the complexities of writing law.” 

When all the votes had been counted, seven incumbents were replaced and the House Freedom Caucus almost doubled in size.  This set up a leadership fight between conservative legislators and their more liberal counterparts.  In Wyoming, the party in power is the liberal wing of the Republican Party.  In other words, the two sides of the aisle in Wyoming are all members of the same party. The first thing the liberals in the House tried to do was minimize the many conservative victories.  Even though it was clear that conservatives made major gains in the election, Zwonitzer told the Tribune Eagle that the House Freedom Caucus may have gained two or three seats.  The truth, as it usually is, was very different than the Cheyenne lawmaker’s characterization: conservatives gained 16 seats. 

It had been decades, perhaps never, since conservatives had the numbers to even think about gaining control of a house of the Wyoming legislature.  There was not a single Republican at the 1890 Wyoming Constitutional Convention.  And since that time, the legislature has, for all intents and purposes, been run by liberally minded Republicans.  The reason for this is simple: it is very difficult to get elected in Wyoming if you are a Democrat.  The most conservative state in the country has historically had a legislature dominated by Democrats who became Republicans for no other reason than to get elected.  That is until this past election.    

Jessie Rubino, State Director for Wyoming for the State Freedom Caucus Network, had this to say, “Establishment legislators have [become] so comfortable with the status quo that they have fallen asleep at the wheel.  While they were asleep, the electorate woke up, the conservatives got organized and our legislature became more reflective of our state.” The 2022 election set up a leadership fight that neither the liberals in power nor hardly anyone in the media thought possible.  The House Freedom Caucus set up a slate of candidates for Speaker of the House, Majority Floor Leader and Speaker Pro-Tempore.  Rep Mark Jennings, one of the more senior members of the Wyoming House would run for Speaker.  Rep Chip Neiman, a legislator with only two years of experience, ran for Majority Leader.  Rep Rachel Rodriguez-Williams, who also only had two years of experience, would run for Speaker Pro-Tempore. 

Legislators who had been in power for decades were incensed at the idea that a group of new, upstart legislators would dare threaten their grip on power.  Prior to the House Republican Caucus meeting in November, a barrage of media attacks were aimed directly at Freedom Caucus members.  They ranged from a simple lack of experience to as Rep Dan Zwonitzer told the Wyoming Tribune Eagle: they’re a threat to democracy.  Sources told Cowboy State Politics that now Speaker of the House Albert Sommers said if conservatives lose the leadership vote, it will be “scorched earth on conservatives.” 

Given all the rhetoric of the previous 2 months, the stage was set for a November 19 vote, the stakes of which could be the direction of the entire state.  Behind the scenes, however, the liberal establishment was already deep into a plan to shore up their power.  After their stunning defeat in the primary, a power shift became a real possibility.  Should Rep Mark Jennings be elected Speaker of the House, Wyoming’s lower house would take a decisive turn to the right.  Spending bills would scrutinized, the size and scope of government would be reduced and, if you listened to the media, Wyoming education faced serious cuts. 

The plan was simple: change the rules to mute the power of potential conservative leadership.  Legislatures past required a two-thirds vote to override leadership—that had been the custom and precedent.  It was this procedure that prevented the Fairness in Women’s Sports act from getting a fair hearing in last year’s session.  A series of changes to the House rules and the ‘Wyoming Manual of Legislative Procedure” were proposed shortly after the primary election.  Though the changes were subtle, essentially, they would allow virtually anything to be overruled by a simple majority.  Potentially, any decision of a conservative Speaker of the House or conservative Majority Floor Leader could be rendered moot.  Five Democrats could push the minority liberal establishment over the simple majority threshold for any measure.  If these changes were approved, it wouldn’t matter who was elected to House leadership.  

On November 19, 2022 the House Republican Caucus met in Casper to decide which side of the aisle would lead the chamber for the next two years.  Rep Mark Jennings was narrowly defeated by two votes.  For those who closely watch the legislature, the Speaker’s race was a toss-up.  What was a surprise to everyone was the election of conservative member of the House Freedom Caucus Chip Neiman as Majority Floor Leader.  Usually, whichever side controls the gavel also has the Majority Floor Leader position.  Neiman’s win, by a single vote, left many in the meeting speechless.  The liberals would control the speaker’s gavel and the conservatives would control the agenda of the House. 

After Neiman’s stunning election, the rules plan became all the more important for both sides.  House conservatives knew that if the House rules were changed, the Majority Floor Leader position would become largely symbolic.  For liberal Republicans, whom the Wyoming media euphemistically call moderates, the stakes were just as high—Neiman, as Majority Floor Leader, could stall any legislative agenda he wished to.  It was at this point that the “non-partisan” Legislative Service Office found an existing, convenient, previously unknown parliamentary maneuver.  Apparently, given the right circumstances, any member could change the legislative agenda for the following day by a simple majority vote.  

This came as a complete shock to conservatives.  In the previous legislative session, they had attempted to do that very thing with the Fairness in Women’s Sports Act and were held to a two-thirds standard.  LSO had given Albert Sommers’ slim majority the answer they had been looking for.  They didn’t need to change the rules after all; just enshrine a parliamentary procedure from Mason’s Manual into them.  A slight difference to be sure, but if their new rule was a direct quotation from Mason’s, the likelihood of passage would be greatly increased. 

It was at the point that Chip Neiman and Albert Sommers began working on a compromise that could possibly satisfy both sides: change existing rules so that neither the Majority Floor Leader nor the Speaker of the House could be overridden without a two-thirds vote.  It also eliminated the rule forcing the Speaker of the House to assign a bill to a committee.  It could still be done but the deal would require a motion and a 2/3 vote.  When the House rules committee met, however, this bipartisan deal fell apart in a late-night meeting. 

On Monday, January 16 the House convened for their 5th day of the legislature—the last day that changes to the rules could be discussed.  The floor debate lasted for nearly an hour.  Speaker Pro Tempore Clark Stith accused the bringers of the rule change of being authoritarians.  Casper Representative Steve Harshman likened the rule compromise to creating a king and a duke.  After the hyperbole subsided, Majority Floor Leader Neiman and Speaker of the House Albert Sommers emphasized to the entire House that the rule deal was an attempt at compromise—to create fairness between both sides of the aisle. 

In an overwhelming and unprecedented vote of 36-26, the Wyoming House of Representatives approved the rule change for the 67th Wyoming Legislature.  What began as an attempt to subvert any attempt by conservatives to gain ground in the Wyoming legislature ended with deal that neither side could have seen coming.  Two sides of the political aisle from the same party came to a power-sharing compromise in a time that no one thought compromise was possible.