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Port: Bill would require female leadership of some standing committees in North Dakota's House

"The legislation would mandate at least two women as chairs of House committees, but only if they support their party's political platform, including being pro-life, if that's a part of the platform."

Reps. Mike Lefor and Vicky Steiner, R-District 37, watched the votes come in on the House floor Monday. Photo by Ellie Potter/The Dickinson Press
Dickinson Republican Rep. Vicky Steiner, right, watches the votes come in on the House floor.
Ellie Potter/Forum News Service
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MINOT, N.D. — Back in December, as North Dakota's lawmakers wrapped up their organizational session, and as committee assignments were doled out by legislative leaders, I reported that it had been a decade since a woman was appointed to chair one of the standing committees in the state's House of Representatives.

The Senate, by contrast, has routinely seen female leadership on committees during that interval, but not the House.

"I wasn't aware of that," House Majority Leader Mike Lefor, who is in charge of committee assignments, told me when I asked him about the disparity. "I should have been."

After that story was published, Rep. Vicki Steiner, a Republican who represents the same Dickinson-area district Lefor does, called me. "Can you read my mind or something?" she asked. "Did you get a tip?"

She asked because even before I wrote that piece, she had legislation in the works to address this disparity.

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Steiner's bill has now been introduced, and it seeks to mandate that at least some of the Legislature's committees in the House are always led by women.

"The majority leader shall appoint two female members from the majority party a chairmen of standing committees," House Bill 1311, backed by five other Republican women in the House, states. It also puts some prerequisites in place for the possible appointees.

The women must have seniority, and they have to support their party's platform, and if their party's platform opposes abortion, they have to support that too.

"To be appointed, the female members must have seniority as evidenced by the member's previous voting history or through support of the platform of the majority party," the bill states. "If the majority party's platform includes support for the right to life of unborn babies, the member must support the right to life of unborn babies."

The bill also requires that the majority party appoint two women to the powerful Legislative Management committee, with those appointments to be decided by the female members of the majority party. Also, these mandates would only apply to House committees, and not the Senate.

The bill is scheduled for a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee today, Jan. 25, at 9:30 am.

While the paucity of female leadership on committees in the legislature is problematic, is this bill the right solution?

The bill's ideological litmus test — that women must hold a certain policy position before being considered for committee leadership — seems like a nonstarter.

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Whatever your feelings about abortion, writing something like that into state law would be unprecedented and seems like a Rubicon we ought not to cross.

The bill's mandates also apply only to the House of Representatives and not the Senate, which seems curious. Certainly, the House is the legislative chamber where there's been a want for female committee leadership, but if we're going to create a mandate for the House, why not the Senate too?

What's good for the goose, after all, is good for the gander.

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If I were in charge of amending this bill, I'd strip out the ideological requirements, and even the seniority requirements, and leave the bill as a straight mandate for a certain quota of female leadership on legislative committees in both chambers, as well as on the Legislative Management Committee.

But even with those amendments, is this something we should want?

I'm not so sure.

We elect political representatives to use their judgment to make the best decisions for our state. Trying to mandate decisions for our elected officials to follow seems like an exercise in treating the symptoms and not the disease.

If our elected leaders aren't making good decisions, then we ought to elect better leaders, not try to curtail the decisions they can make.

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The majority and minority leaders in the House and the Senate are elected not just by their constituents but also by their caucuses. If female leadership on committees is important to voters, then they ought to speak out about it. And, even closer to the problem, if female lawmakers want to see more female leadership on committees, they should talk to their caucus leader about it, or consider supporting another of their colleagues for leadership.

The lack of female leadership on committees in the state House of Representatives is a problem, but we don't need a law to fix it. We need our elected representatives to understand that the disparity exists and then make different choices.

Besides, do we want to create a situation where female leaders in the legislature are perceived as having been appointed committee chairs because it's the law and not because they earned it?

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at rport@forumcomm.com. Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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