Monday, May 21, 2007

Loyal Opposition in Student Assembly

Travis and I were talking the other day, and we started to explore this idea. He had me type up some notes and I came up with this.

A Brief on Legislative Opposition in Student Assembly
For Travis Green, President
By Nathan L. Bruschi

Current State:
In the current legislative process, a standing committee passes a bill before it is placed on the docket by the executive committee and presented to the General Assembly. At GA, the bill is shown on the main screen, read aloud by one of its sponsor, and further crystallized before opened to questions. Once all questions are answered, the bill passes into debate, starting with amendment or opposition. Oftentimes, members are intimidated to speak against a particular measure on ideological grounds – the proper role of SA, oftentimes – for fear of chastisement from their friends. This is particularly true regarding bills that address the sensitive issues of race, gender, sexual assault, non-binding statements of support, and large allocations of money.

The result is a system where nearly every bill presented before the General Assembly is passed regardless of merit. The funding bills for co-sponsorship or SA events, that are presented to and passed by GA, tax the treasury and may prevent SA from taking on major student service and student life initiatives. Because committees are liberal in their endorsement of bills and because a failed bill can be presented again to a different committee, the committee approval process presently provides an insufficient filter.

The U.S. congress lacks this problem because the legislation approval process consists of many steps which each have the power to shoot down the bill. The two party system, and the parliamentary system in Great Britain, ensures that there will be at least some organized opposition to any bill and that all legislation with be scrutinized by a critical eye.

First proposed solution:
The creation of a ‘”loyal opposition,” “devil’s advocate,” or “skeptical respondent” would help fix this problem. In the proposed system, the committee would first present its legislation to GA and explain why they believe it should be passed. The opposition would then make a presentation on areas of rational concern within the bill: the amount or breakdown of funding within the bill, the way the bill plays into the desired role of SA, the details of the event or function, etc. The opposition does not need to explain why the bill should not be passed, but just explain the weaknesses of the bill and present a skeptical viewpoint for GA to consider. This would be followed by a factual questions period and finally debate.

The opposition could consist of one of three things. First, it could be another committee and its Vice President presenting on flaws within the bill. GA is more scrutinizing of bills when executives make critical statements, and the position of the VP on the executive committee would enable him or her to have a fuller perspective to draw upon. Second, an appointed or elected “skeptic” would have the job of finding flaws with all bills presented before GA. Members of the parliamentary debate society are expected to mount entire cases against imaginary propositions without any prior knowledge of the issue or the argument at hand. This solution is problematic just because the person who fills the position would likely garner the wrath of his or her colleagues and may not be able to effectively present against all kinds of bills. Third, a committee of skeptics could be formed and various members would be assigned to lead the opposition for various bills. If one committee member felt that they could not for personal reasons present an effective opposition, another member would take on the task. The committee would ease the burden of the job, help dilute potential rebuke from members in GA, and could increase the quality of oppositions as members specialize in different areas.

Second proposed solution:

As there would be two VP’s for every committee, one of them would serve as the skeptic for any bill while it is in the committee approval process or in GA. This would encourage committees to question their actions and foster debate among the members. It would also make the infighting less public, but deny GA the benefit of seeing the reasons for the ultimate actions. At the very least it would free up more time in GA as less bills make it to the floor, and require less opposition once they do.

Third Proposed solution:
Before a bill may pass into debate, the President would call upon one member of the executive committee who would have to give at least one reason why the bill should not be passed or otherwise take a stance against it. The fact that a VP is chosen to do it would help start debate and encourage critical review by the General Assembly, following the VP’s lead. Unlike in the first solution, this opposition does not need to be organized and instead could just be a few remarks made by a randomly chosen person. No matter how good a bill is, there has to be some flaws, and no matter how much a VP wants to see a bill through, he or she should be able to say something.


It is particularly important that skepticism be drawn towards spending bills. I would strongly advise that a system be build in which the treasurer or a committee chaired by the treasurer must sign off on the spending breakdowns of funding bills before they may be presented to GA. It is problematic when GA attempts to adjust the budgets of spending projects as it is a complicated, difficult, approximate, and often messy task. If all spending bills were researched and approved by the treasurer, the bills could be considered on their face value and a simpler judgment could be made by GA whether to fund it in full, in half, or not at all.

The organization of an opposition preserves and enhances the ideal in the current SA procedure that calls upon opposition or amendment before debate can take place. For bills that have broad support and no general problems, the opposition could merely point out ideological/logical flaws or negative ways the bill could be perceived by the press or campus at large. It is important for SA to examine how it will look by passing certain bills and what kinds of messages it would be sending to campus. Failure to consider popular sentiment may result in loss of faith in SA by the student body.


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