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We Build Alaska

Why we need a binding caucus

Finding common ground in the legislative process is crucial. There are 60 members of the Alaska Legislature. It is always difficult to find agreement. This has always required compromise. Compromise is not a bad word as it gets us to a conclusion. There are often strongly held views on virtually every issue.

Some members will not budge an inch. They believe they are right. They believe in ‘my way or the highway.’

This reminds me of a Dr. Seuss story about a character, the Zax, who refused to compromise. He meets another individual like himself who has his mind made up and will not change. They stand facing each other forever. Never moving to the left, never moving to the right, as the rest of civilization moves on. You can see the story told here.

Let’s take the Permanent Fund Dividend as an example. There are widely varying views on this issue. Some demand a full $3,000 PFD. Others demand an affordable and sustainable PFD. How can we ever get to common ground? Clearly a compromise is needed.

If everyone refused to budge until they got their way – chaos would ensue. 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. One way – maybe the only way – is a binding caucus. It brings issues to a conclusion. This is my 20th year in a binding caucus. I chose to belong to the caucus. It is good for my communities and for the people I represent. You join a caucus because you agree with the caucus agenda. That agenda is a reflection of its members, so it is a reflection of the Alaskans they represent.

The Majority caucus represents the majority of Alaskans. Caucus members don’t agree on everything. They have an opportunity to present their case and to convince the caucus as to the direction we should be headed. If a legislator does not agree with the caucus agenda it’s probably best for all if they remove themselves from the caucus.

Since Statehood in 1959, we have had binding caucuses in the legislature. I suspect the Territorial Legislature did the same. Even John Adams in colonial days spoke about the caucuses he attended. He complained they were held in smoke filled rooms. The U.S. Senate adopted a binding caucus in 1903. Democrats had been unable to control or hold control of the Senate since the Civil War. They were able to shape legislation by adopting a binding caucus rule. To maintain party unity the binding caucus has been in effect here in Alaska through control by Republicans, Democrats and bi-partisan organizations:

Traditionally we have agreed to:

  1. Vote for the negotiated budget.
  2. Support the rulings of the Senate president on the floor.

I have had input on budget subcommittees – usually Education, University, Fisheries, and the Court System. Everyone has input into the budget process through these subcommittees.

If the caucus did not agree to support the rulings of the chair, chaos would ensue during legislative sessions.

I personally opposed any deviation from this agreement. I am comfortable with the understanding that anyone who votes against the budget or overruling the chair will place themselves out of the Majority caucus.

I was uncomfortable with the decision to allow legislators to vote against the budget and only lose their chairmanships while remaining in the caucus. The current situation is a result of some members not being able to support caucus rules. I still have free will. I can and have voted against bills supported by the majority on which I disagree. For example, I voted against SB 21, which gave what I believe are excessive credits to the oil industry. I can leave the Majority caucus anytime I choose. But there will be repercussions such as the loss of chairmanships, staff, and office space. I have always chosen to vote for the negotiated budget at the end of the day even though there have been things in it I disagree with.

Being in the caucus is better for my constituents than being out. A binding caucus brings finality to major issues. Most importantly, a budget is agreed to. Otherwise we could be here much longer than we are presently. We are able to conclude by fulfilling the constitutional requirement. The only thing the Alaska Constitution requires of the legislature is that we pass a budget. We don’t have to pass bills or resolutions. We do have to pass a budget. This insures sessions do not last interminably.

The public has rightly been outraged when past legislatures went on for months and months. I don’t believe the legislature would act as efficiently, effectively or timely without the binding caucus. Our democratic system follows parliamentary rules. The minority has to be respected and have their say, but in the end the majority has to have the right to rule.

Senator Gary Stevens was elected to the Alaska House of Representatives in 2001. He was appointed to a vacant State Senate seat in 2003, where he has served since. He served four years as Senate President from 2009-2013. He lives in Kodiak and represents Senate District P.

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Michael Chambers
4 years ago

So, given this position, please explain to us Alaskans why Senator Mia Costello who voted for every budget the caucus put forward was taken from her position as Majority Chair and replaced with Democtat Senator Lyman Hoffman who voted against the Capital Budget? Waiting for response…

4 years ago

The binding caucus model takes a big dump on democracy. Think about it. You create this model where regions of the state vote for a representative tasked with carrying out their idea of how to run the government. Then leadership in the two party system swoops in and says “join me or you get nothing!”. Under this model we may as well just cast votes for the party instead of the individual and whoever wins runs the legislative branch.

Lynn Willis
4 years ago

If it is such an essential element of government, why isn’t the word “caucus” found in either the State Constitution or the Joint Uniform Legislative Rules? No Senator, the standing caucus is a “government within the government” specifically intended to deny equal representation to Alaskans by closing the forum of debate . This is usually done by granting defacto veto power over legislation to committee chair persons who can simply refuse to hold hearings. This defacto veto power is what Bill Allen was purchasing in Room 604 of the Baranoff (as you must remember). Couple that power with the legislative… Read more »

Kathleen Stack
4 years ago
Reply to  Lynn Willis

Thank You for explaing , im trying to understand now i want more info .

4 years ago

We as a state should consider decreasing the super majority requirements for overturning a veto. This would reduce the pressure legislators feel to have a binding caucus.

A binding caucus strategy wasn’t created in a vacuum, once we take a closer look as to why it exists we will have the keys to reducing it’s relevance in our system of governance.

Neil DeWitt
4 years ago

The binding caucus is a scam. I am so glad my representative didnt sign up. I sent mine to Juneau to represent me not your party. I run you not the other way around. In my opinion this caucus is both illegal and unconstitutional. You need to break it up and I will tell my representative to vote to do so any chance they get. Yes I see your point on why but it is a bad point. You all should be ashamed of yourselves. This is a democracy not a coup to overthrow out system of government. Brake up… Read more »