The Power of Presence

The unique circumstances surrounding New Hampshire’s legislature often culminate in surprise
July 23 Cap Off Final

Illustration by Peter Noonan

The most contentious bill of the New Hampshire legislative session came up for a vote in May. The results preserved the most unique situation for any legislative chamber in the entire country. Nothing like it comes remotely close.

The bill was a so-called “parental rights” legislation that would have required public school teachers and administrators to inform parents of their child exploring a gender identity different from the one they were assigned at birth. 

Similar bills were filed in just about every state house around the country this year. The fate of each bill in each state house was usually a foregone conclusion before the bill was even debated. All one had to do was count the number of Republicans or Democrats (and factor in some defections) to get a pretty good sense on whether the bill would become law.

Except in the New Hampshire House, especially this year. There are two reasons why. 

First, the Republican majority is extremely thin. As of this writing, the current breakdown of the 400-member House is 200 to 197, with three vacancies. 

Second, the New Hampshire legislature is a completely volunteer organization. Elected members make $100 a year and most have no staff to assist them. So, members miss votes all the time for all kinds of reasons — and mainly because they keep their day jobs. 

And what happened with the “parental rights” bill? Even though Republicans have a majority in the chamber, it lost 195-190. But let’s break that down.

Yes, some didn’t even vote. One Democrat was at Disney World with his fiancée. Another, David Cote, a Nashua Democrat, has yet to even get sworn in because he is dealing with an illness and refuses to resign. Two Republicans did vote with Democrats. 

Add it up and it is clear: None of the endless letter writing and protests for or against the bill were really about persuading representatives to vote a certain way. It was about persuading them to show up. This bill may be the most high-profile example, but it’s been the norm this year.

Republicans have been theoretically opposed to expanding Medicaid, which was part of Obamacare. However, when re-authorizing the program and making it permanent came up for a vote this year, more Democrats showed up than Republicans in the House. Republicans attempted to slow down and poison the bill with a lot of amendments. They failed. Medicaid expansion passed. 

The narrow margin even led to a wild situation on the most important thing the legislature does every two years: pass a budget. 

House Republican leaders decided that the unpredictable nature of the institution meant that squeaking a Republican budget bill through the House would be quite difficult, despite its surface-level probability. They decided to work directly with Democrats to come up with a budget that would pass easily — and it did, by a margin of 326 to 63. 

Here’s the thing: All 192 Democrats who showed up that day voted for it in the Republican-led chamber. Only 134 Republicans voted for it, while 63 did not. 

To be sure, other states also have close margins between parties in their legislature. In Pennsylvania, Democrats hold a 102 to 101 majority. But the sheer size of their 203-person House is half the size of New Hampshire and showing up is always expected. No one schedules a vacation to Disney World during a session day.

In New Hampshire, however, it’s an odd regularity — one that makes politics in the Granite State one of the most interesting phenomena to watch in the nation. 

Categories: Politics