So, what is the Binding Caucus Rule?
The Binding Caucus Rule is a rule set up by the majority caucus in both the House and Senate which "binds" the vote of legislators to vote in support of the chair on all procedural votes, and the final Operating, Capital and PFD appropriation prior to formulation.
If a legislator agrees to the Binding Caucus Rule they may be appointed to committees and may receive a Chairmanship of a committee. Also, additional staff will be assigned and upgraded offices are assigned to some of those playing by the rules.
Any legislator who votes against any of the final budget bills or procedural votes will stand to lose committee assignments, Chairmanships, staff and may be relocated to a smaller office.
Plain and simple, the Binding Caucus Rule is a form of bribery and coercion in order to control the vote of respective legislators. It undermines representative government and hands financial control of the State of Alaska to 6 legislative leaders instead of the 60 we elect.
Alaska happens to be the only state in the nation which employs a Binding Caucus. On it's face value it is illegal, and should be challenged in court.
This is an ongoing list of legislators who, in some form, support the elimination of the "Binding Caucus Rule."
Legislators have been solicited with these three options.
1.) Sign a document in support of the elimination of the Binding Caucus Rule.
2.) Write a small statement in support of elimination.
3.) Indicate they support the elimination of the Binding Caucus Rule.
Legislators signed documents
Representative Ron Gillham Republican District 30
Senator Robb Myers
Representative David Eastman
Representative Kevin McCabe
Senator Shelley Hughes
Senator Bill Wielechowski
Senator Roger Holland
Senator Mike Shower
Representative Mike Cronk
Representative Christopher Kurka
ALASKA - A MODERN DAY
By Senator Mike Shower
How does the legislature in every state, except Alaska, manage to function without forcing their legislators to pledge votes in advance through a quid pro quo to join a majority caucus, and be punished for voting as their constituents wish vs. what leadership demands? In your state it is likely unconstitutional, illegal or considered unethical to “bind” a legislator’s vote. Not in Alaska.
Imagine your elected representative being unable to vote in a way they believe follows the law or vote on budgets and other important issues in the best interest of their constituents for fear of being punished by political colleagues in leadership positions. Is such a coercive tactic ethical? Is political bribery and coercion even legal?
The Binding Caucus Rule - what is it?
The unethical binding caucus rule is an arbitrarily binding political “agreement” utilized in Alaskan politics by legislators to consolidate their financial and political power into the hands of a select few. It is quietly schemed behind closed doors and implemented out of sight of voters to coercively strong-arm and silence politicians from within. It gives a false impression of cooperation and allows a select few to override the will of voters in Alaska by controlling how your legislator can vote. It does so through the coercive use of “punishment” to keep legislators in line.
How it Works – a “Sold Legislator”
A candidate gets elected or appointed. A system of benefits is created when a majority of politicians from either party come together as a group - a “Caucus”. The "Majority" can be a mix of political parties or composed of members of a single political party. In Alaska it takes 11 of 20 senators or 21 of 40 representatives to “form” a majority - simple math. Whoever is able to organize that 11 or 21 gets to be “in charge”. The majority party chairs committees and “leads” the House or Senate as it should represent the values of a majority of the party, and hence citizens, which voters elected. The caucus often demonstrates favoritism. First, the “offer”. Members of the majority who agree to "join" this binding majority caucus, are rewarded with positions and assignments, committee chairmanships, choice committees, larger offices and extra staff based on how much authority and position(s) are bestowed upon them. Those are coveted items because great power comes with them. But then, the “hammer”. A legislator must vote the way of leadership on all procedural votes and every budget item for the entire 2-year legislative cycle, no exceptions. Through this Quid Pro Quo a legislator is promising their votes in advance with no idea what those votes will entail. If a legislator votes against leadership? Punishment follows. Why is this so important?
Votes on the Budget(s) & Fiscal Policy
Passing a budget is a constitutional mandate of the legislature. A legislator may have “input” to the process throughout the regular session but that input is often ignored. At the end of the session a small group of 6 legislators go into a room and determine what the final budget will be. Statutory PFD? Maybe, maybe not. Reductions or large increases to spending? Don’t know until they come out. A legislator under the binding caucus rule has promised they will vote yes on that final budget no matter what it is. The increasingly unsustainable budgets, taking ever more of the PFD for government, draining $14 billion dollars from the CBR (savings)? All happened under the binding caucus. Legislators who may have voted no on those items and forced a better outcome did not. Why? The coercive threat of punishment! A legislator who wishes to represent their district and the state well wants the power of those committee chairmanships, committees and extra staff as it affords them great power & resources to accomplish the work. If a legislator votes no, perhaps following the statutory PFD is important in their district, they will and have been stripped of some or all of those resources for doing their legislative job. Often, they may be completely kicked out of the majority caucus and be left with almost no resources to represent their district. No legislator wants this so they are ethically conflicted. Do what they believe is right or vote as told to keep those benefits. Sound like a smart & ethical way to do business?
Votes on Procedural Items
The binding caucus rule also demands legislators vote yes on all "procedural" items. Sometimes procedural votes are simple housekeeping on the floor of each chamber and on the surface can appear harmless. But the truth is much darker. The Senate President and House Speaker along with their leadership teams determine what “procedural” votes will be. A powerful tool. For example, when Alaskan’s overwhelmingly demanded a repeal of SB91 (crime bill), procedural votes were used to block repeal efforts by legislators. When legislators brought forth amendments to protect and pay the statutory PFD, procedural votes were used to block their movement. You see the problem? Procedural votes can be used as a political weapon, by a handful of leadership, to move or block virtually any item. And your legislator, if a member of the majority caucus, has committed their vote to leadership with no idea of the impacts their Quid Pro Quo promised vote may mean. They’ve effectively handed their vote - your vote - over to leadership. It matters so much more than people realize.
The Ethics and Legality of Coercive Tactics
A legislator should never be coerced to vote for issues which violate their oath of office, pledge to constituents, constitutional or statutory provisions, or their own conscience. But they are in Alaska through the unethical binding caucus rule. The use of the binding caucus rule, imposed by a small group of legislators, places it above the rights & voice of voters.
What if a legislator does not agree with leadership? They are reminded to "go along to get along." If you choose to stand for what you believe and represent your constituents, in lieu of going along with the "majority cabal", you are punished by members of your own party!
Members of the legislature should be treated equally. A majority should be formed based on ideas and vision, not my way or the highway. If leadership must utilize coercion to foist their agenda to ensure their way goes, that’s not leadership, it’s a dictatorship.
It is unethical (or daresay illegal) for a legislator from one district to limit the ability of another legislator from being able to fully represent their constituents by using the coercive binding caucus rule in order to get their way. In fact, bribery and coercion are felonies under Alaska Statutes.
Criminal Statute References AS 11.41.530 Coercion (a) A person commits the crime of coercion if the person compels another to engage in conduct from which there is a legal right to abstain or abstain from conduct in which there is a legal right to engage, by means of instilling in the person who is compelled a fear that, if the demand is not complied with, the person who makes the demand on another may: (4) take or withhold action as a public servant or cause a public servant to take or withhold action. AS 11.56.100 Bribery (a) A person commits the crime of bribery if the person confers, offers to confer, or agrees to confer a benefit upon a servant with the intent to influence the public servant's vote, opinion, judgment, action, decision, or for any other reason.
Seems clear. But in Alaska? Not so much. Remember the legislature has essentially exempted itself from the open meetings act so this type of skullduggery can take place out of the spotlight behind closed doors. This is a key point to how & why this can take place.
The binding caucus is a root cause to how Alaska vastly increased the size of its budget over the past decade while revenue was declining. Majority caucus legislators were required to vote for the budget as a member of the majority, one stuffed with pork from other majority members and special interests, or face punishment and expulsion. A primary reason we consistently deficit spend which is in essence generational theft. If you disagree and buck leadership, well, we've already discussed what happens to legislators in that case. Other legislators see the results loud and clear, who wants to be the next victim of the binding caucus rule?
Have you ever wondered what happens to your legislators when they go to Juneau? Now you know.
List of Excuses for a Binding Caucus
I have been told by legislators 3 reasons why we must have a binding caucus.
First, it costs us money. How? The few times we didn’t have one I’m told, they had to add money to the budget for a legislator’s pet project, pork, or bill to entice them to vote for the budget. In essence a bribe. Wait, what? Yes, you heard that correctly. Instead of denying such pork and holding the line against such behavior legislators add money to the budget to buy votes. Instead of stopping this we replaced one unethical way of doing business with an even more unethical “binding caucus” rule. However – this narrative is false! A former Alaska legislator informed me during his tenure in the senate, as a finance chairman, they did not employ the binding rule. Every year they made it work and “earned” the votes needed to pass the budget. It was harder but more importantly every legislator had a voice and couldn’t be silenced, ignored or forced to vote a certain way. And they reduced the budget by ~$50 million each year. It’s not only possible in Alaska but it’s been done before - and ethically!
Second, it saves us money. How? We can reduce the budget and legislators have to go along. Except our budgets don’t shrink, they grow and today it’s at an unsustainable pace. We’re in deficit spending. $14 Billion dollars drained from our CBR over the last few years - the biggest budgets in our history - all done while under the binding caucus rule. And the PFD? Taken by legislators while using a binding caucus rule, so legislators had to go along or else! Far from saving money the unethical binding caucus rule has cost Alaskan’s dearly.
Third, without it there would be chaos in the legislature and we’d never get anything done. Hogwash! In the following section I’ll clearly explain why this is a flat-out falsehood.
Based on the draconian, malicious and abusive treatment of myself and other fellow republicans by the current crop of leadership in the House & Senate under the power granted them by the binding caucus I decided a research project was in order. I have been calling state Senators in the other 49 states. I wanted to know how they do business and if it’s anything like Alaska.
The data is in - it’s stunning! As of this writing I have been in contact with 48 states and received an email from the 49th. ZERO - I’ll repeat - ZERO states have a model like Alaska. One state, Washington, has something similar for procedural votes but even then, legislators will be given a “pass” on a vote if it’s politically untenable in their district. Not in Alaska! Vote yes or else! A handful of other states said leadership has the power to punish but they rarely, if ever, use it as it’s considered unethical or they’d have a problem on their hands. One senator in the northeast said he lost a chairmanship over a disagreement with his leadership but it wasn’t a binding agreement just a power play. But he also said Alaska’s method was astounding, disturbing and sounds like political feudalism from the dark ages. However - to a person - they were crystal clear - they never have a formal binding agreement which requires you to promise your votes for 2 years in advance. They never have an agreement which defines how a legislator will be punished for voting against leadership if punishment is even a consideration. In all but this small handful of states punishment wasn’t even an option. Every state said they were free to vote as they see fit on the budget - always. And minus those few I mentioned they all said you are expected to vote your district, you don’t work for the caucus or leadership you work for your district. None could fathom how we accept such a system as ethical or normal in Alaska. It’s the ultimate red herring – it is not remotely required to “get things done”.
Colorado had a supreme court case in which it was ruled unconstitutional to bind a legislator’s vote. A senator in Nevada informed me it’s considered unconstitutional to bind or promise a vote. A Tennessee senator asked if we were running a “banana republic”. In Mississippi it’s actually against their oath of office to pledge their vote. Before I could even finish describing our “rule” a California senator said that’s a quid pro quo and illegal there, they’d likely be prosecuted. A northeast senator told me they had a case not long ago where their assembly speaker (along with the “3 men in a room”, the governor and senate president) were wrapped up in a scandal with the FBI over issues similar to what Alaska does as “procedure”. A Nebraska senator said, quote, “you’d go to hell for that here”. An Arkansas senator was so upset he volunteered to hop on a plane and come testify against the binding caucus. These are but a sampling of the colorful and intense negative reactions I heard repeatedly from state senators across the country regarding the Alaska legislature’s use of a “binding caucus”.
I’ve documented everything. Researched extensively. Contacted various organizations for supporting information. Debated fiercely with colleagues and concerned citizens. At the end of the day the data is undeniable - there is no ethical, legal or moral standing which can justify the use of the binding caucus rule in Alaska. It’s time for it to go the way of the dinosaur.
So, what now? Simple - in theory. Pass a law which makes the binding caucus illegal in Alaska. A constitutional amendment would be even better but is very hard to do. I’ve introduced legislation to do so. But will I get the support of enough legislators to pass it? Unlikely unless a crop of new legislators goes to Juneau who no longer support this highly unethical way of doing business. Or enough current legislators join the fight to clean up our act and do business like the rest of the nation does where their legislators are free to vote as they see fit - every time - on every issue - without fear of reprisal.
It’s time Alaska to take your legislature back. Time to ensure your legislator’s voice, therefore your voice, can no longer be silenced by the power of the binding caucus. And let there be no doubt, this is about power and control. It always has been. Join the fight and let your voice be heard! End the practice of the unethical binding caucus rule!