By Lydia Lulkin
April 24, 2012
Last week, in a creative and strategic legislative maneuver, Sen. Hinda Miller of the Senate Health and Welfare committee gave new life to the controversial death with dignity bill. Working within the rules of the Senate legislative process, Sen. Miller attached the bill as an amendment to an unrelated bill that would place restrictions on the usage of tanning beds by minors. Like many senators who expressed their outrage at Sen. Miller’s unorthodox legislative move, I initially thought what she had done was a flagrant disregard for the legislative process … and just not fair. But, actually, it was not Senate rules that Sen. Miller was breaking; rather, she made the mistake of violating the norms of the Vermont Senate to the chagrin of many of her colleagues.
In writing the Vermont State Constitution, its authors foresaw the need to create strategic safety valves in the rules process that allow minority interests a chance against those with more power. Sen. Miller’s amendment proposal is an example of one of these minority protections and her actions were within the bounds of the legislative process. Frustrated that the death with dignity bill did not make it to the Senate floor in yet another legislative session, Sen. Miller employed creative legislative tactics in order to serve her constituents who had been waiting years for this debate to take place regardless. No rules were broken and the discussion on the floor took place within the rules — just not within the typical fashion Vermont senators were comfortable with.
I understand why Sen. Sears was so aggravated last week that the death with dignity bill was “hijacked” from his committee. His committee had heard testimony, thoroughly vetted the bill, and when the committee voted, they were gridlocked, leaving the bill to remain hanging on the committee wall. That could have been the end of death with dignity this session. What happened last week did indeed appear disrespectful to the work Senator Sears and his committee did on this bill. But are these legislators really serving their constituents if they do not allow debate to take place on an issue that is so important to so many? The rules provided the means through which the discussion could take place. The process had not broken down as Sears claimed … the process was functioning quite well actually, albeit in a manner that was strange and uncomfortable for many of the legislators and some constituents. This afforded an opportunity for this bill to be debated on the floor — which is really all Sen. Miller had wanted.
Legislating is not a pretty process, and that is why there are important procedural rules. But do not forget that Sen. Miller was not breaking the rules; she was working well within them. She broke Vermont Senate norms and the two should not be conflated. I for one thank her for resuscitating a significant piece of legislation before the session ends in order to best serve those who elected her.