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Posted on: Sunday, January 21, 2001

State GOP must wield its power carefully

By Jerry Burris
Editoral Page Editor

State GOP must wield its power carefully

If you happen to be a Democrat, perhaps the most chilling words heard during opening day ceremonies for the 2001 Legislature were the first that came out of the mouth of newly-installed House Minority Leader Galen Fox.

"You have on this floor the largest group of Republicans ever to sit in the Hawaii State House," he began.

Chilling words. Not just because this is the greatest number of Republican votes in the House since statehood, but because those 19 votes are more than enough to throw around some serious parliamentary weight.

Anything that requires a super-majority, or two-thirds vote in the House is now impossible without Republican cooperation. That includes lifting the debt ceiling, bottling bills in committee and more.

Fox, who is working closely with Republican Party Chair Linda Lingle (who might be dubbed "the 20th member of the GOP caucus), has made it clear he intends to use that clout freely.

But the Republicans will have to remember that their size gives them, essentially, a negative power, not a positive power. That is, they still don’t have the votes to take things their way without the cooperation of at least six Democrats.

In some instances, that could happen. Already, Democratic Rep. Ed Case has signaled he would enlist the support of the Republican caucus if he feels the Democratic majority isn’t responding to the issues he feels are important. That could cover anything from union pay raises to civil service reform issues.

As they move forward, House Republicans might wish to seek counsel from their political kĘpuna - Fred Rohlfing on Maui or Wadsworth Yee, for instance. Rohlfing and Yee were there the last time the Republicans had this kind of numerical clout in the state House - the statehood session of 1959.

In fact, the Republicans were more powerful then than today. They had 18 members in the House - enough to make parliamentary mischief - and they controlled the state Senate with 14 members.

But those were the first heady days of statehood, and everyone in the Legislature had more on their minds than seizing political advantage.

That 1959-60 Legislature represented the high-water mark for Republicans in the state Legislature. Democrats rapidly took control of both House and Senate (as well as the governorship) and never looked back.

During the subsequent decades, Republican successes usually were built around the personalities and talents of GOP lawmakers as individuals, rather than through their voting power. For a brief period in the 1970’s, Republicans in the Senate emerged in the power limelight when they cut an organizational deal with dissident Democrats to gave them a few committee chairmanships and power to get bills passed.

So Fox was right to point to the historic nature of the 2001 session and the impact that 19 Republicans might have. But it will only be history worth remembering if something positive comes out of this new legislative lineup.

In politics, having clout is only half the battle. What truly counts is how well you use it.

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