A woman hasn’t led a North Dakota House committee in a decade. This bill would change that.
Wide gender disparities exist across the Legislature. Only about a quarter of North Dakota’s lawmakers are women, ranking the state in the bottom 10 nationally for female legislative representation.
BISMARCK — A tussle between conservative women serving in the North Dakota House of Representatives and their historically male-dominated leadership ranks has morphed into legislation that could shake up the power structure of the Capitol.
Six Republican women representatives led by Dickinson Rep. Vicky Steiner have backed House Bill 1311, which would require the House majority leader to tap female members to chair two of the chamber’s 11 standing committees each biennial session.
A provision in the legislation would set a standard that the women appointed to chair committees hold anti-abortion views “if the majority party's platform includes support for the right to life of unborn babies.”
The proposal also would give women representatives the opportunity to elect two of their own to Legislative Management, a powerful panel that oversees the Legislature’s work between sessions.
Steiner told the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, Jan. 25, the bill would address male leaders’ consistent failure to elevate women into positions of authority.
No woman has chaired a standing committee in the House since 2013 “even though there are senior Republican women with more experience than junior legislators who are men who have advanced into those chair spots,” Steiner said.
Legislative Management has only included GOP women representatives two out of the last 20 years, she noted.
Wide gender disparities exist across the Legislature. Only about a quarter of North Dakota’s lawmakers are women, ranking the state in the bottom 10 nationally for female legislative representation, according to the Center for American Women and Politics.
But the total lack of women at the helm of committees is unique to the House, Steiner said.
The Senate has a lower proportion of women than the House, but three standing committees — Human Services; Judiciary; and State and Local Government — are chaired by female GOP legislators. (Democrats, who hold a small minority of seats in the Legislature, frequently have women serving in preeminent roles.)
Steiner said new House Majority Leader Mike Lefor, R-Dickinson, followed his predecessors’ example when selecting committee chairs.
“This leader we have now is exactly like the other two leaders I’ve served under,” Steiner said. “They pick their own team, their own inner circle of men who are their friends.”
Lefor said he chose chairmen based on their abilities and his comfort level working with them. The lawmaker who hails from the same district as Steiner added in a statement that he supports diversity, but Steiner’s bill would tie the hands of future leaders.
“Frankly, I believe it sets us backwards by carving out groups based on gender instead of working together as equal colleagues,” Lefor said in the statement.
Steiner, who was first elected in 2010, specifically criticized Lefor’s decision to “pass over” experienced women lawmakers in favor of a less tenured male legislator to lead the House Government and Veterans Affairs Committee.
Lefor selected Rep. Austen Schauer, a West Fargo Republican first elected in 2018, to run the panel.
Rep. Karen Rohr, a Mandan Republican who has been a member of the committee since 2011 and previously served as its vice chair, confirmed that she was not asked if she wanted to lead the panel.
Rohr said seniority should be part of a leader’s assessment when assigning committee chairs, adding that it seemingly wasn’t even considered in the case of the Government and Veteran Affairs post.
Steiner, also a longtime member of the committee, said she did not want to chair the panel.
Lefor noted he strongly considered two women legislators to chair committees: Rep. Emily O’Brien, R-Grand Forks, for the Industry, Business and Labor Committee; and Rep. Brandy Pyle, R-Casselton, for the Political Subdivisions Committee.
Both representatives instead opted for spots on the influential House Appropriations Committee, which oversees budgetary matters.
The House Judiciary Committee that heard the bill Wednesday voted 8-5 to give the proposal a “do-not-pass” recommendation.
Committee Chairman Larry Klemin, R-Bismarck, said the bill tackled an issue that would probably be better addressed through the internal rules process. Other opponents said creating a gender-related quota would go against conservative values.
Several women on the committee noted the bill was not perfect, but it addressed a meaningful and persistent disparity in the House.
Five of the seven women on the committee voted against giving the bill a thumbs-down recommendation — a signal that they favor the bill.
The whole House will vote on the bill when it appears on the floor in the coming days.