Commentary: Binding-caucus rule safeguards democratic decision-making

In politics things are never as simple as you might wish them to be. All majority caucuses in our various state legislatures are organized with agreed-upon rules. I feel fortunate in my 20 years in the Alaska State Legislature to have been a member of the majority caucus in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. When a legislator joins a majority caucus, he or she agrees to the caucus agenda. That agenda reflects what legislators believe their constituents want them to do. The district I represent has always benefited from my being in the majority caucus. It is good for my communities and the people I represent.

In Alaska, majority caucuses in both houses have two simple rules members agree upon:

1. To vote for the negotiated budget, and;

2. To uphold the rulings of the chair.

There is nothing nefarious about this process. It ensures that timely decisions are reached, and sessions do not last any longer than necessary. Understandably Alaskans have been upset when the legislative process is longer than necessary or when members are unable to come to a decision on the budget. The Alaska Constitution allows for 121-day sessions. Anything longer than that is expensive and frowned upon by the public.

No single legislator should be allowed to hold things up until they get their way or else every legislator would do the same thing and reaching a decision would become impossible. You can see the chaos that would ensue without some basic rules. Every legislator has input into the budgetary process, either by being on the Finance Committee, serving on various Finance subcommittees on which every legislator serves, Standing Committees, and each can testify at any level. Every legislator is free to vote any way they wish on the floor understanding that if they do not choose to adhere to majority caucus rules, they can leave the majority caucus whenever they wish.

Finding common ground in the legislative process is crucial. There are 60 members of the Alaska Legislature. It is never easy to find agreement. As you can expect, there are strongly held views on virtually every issue facing us. Some members will not budge an inch. They believe they are right and everyone else is wrong. It reminds me of Dr. Seuss’s story of the Zax. Look it up online and you may recognize obstructionist politicians. The Zax refuses to compromise. When he meets another Zax they stand facing each other forever never moving to the left, never moving to the right, as the rest of the world moves on. If all of us were to say I will not budge until I get my way, then chaos ensues and timelines ceases. A minority of legislators cannot be allowed to incapacitate the legislature, to tie things up until they get their way. That is not democratic government.

I and every legislator always have free will. I can and have voted against bills supported by the majority on which I disagree. I can leave the majority caucus anytime I choose, understanding there will be repercussions, loss of chairmanships, staff, office space. I have always chosen to vote for the negotiated budget of which I have always been a part and had my say. Being in the caucus is better for my constituents than being out.

Since statehood and probably even in territorial days, Alaska has had binding caucuses, an agreement by the majority to recognize agreed-upon rules. I do not believe the legislature would be as efficient, effective, or timely without the binding caucus. Under our democratic system following parliament rules, both Mason’s Rules for legislative bodies and the Uniform Rules agreed to by the legislature, the minority has to be respected and have their say, but in the end the majority has to have the right to rule.

Those who demand an end to the binding caucus have no idea the chaos they would face without such basic rules.


Sen. Gary Stevens is the Republican senator representing District P in the Alaska state Senate. District P includes Kodiak Island, Cordova, Homer Anchor Point, Kasilof, Ninilchik, Yakutat, Seldovia and Tyonek. He can be reached at sen.gary.stevens@akleg.gov. Call him in Kodiak at 907-486-4925 or in the Capitol building at 1-800-821-4925.