05/14/2012 11:48 am ET Updated Jul 14, 2012

Time for a New Speaker?

Maritime law invests dictatorial powers, without limit, to the captain of each and every ship at sea. Thousands of years of nautical experience have demonstrated that the safety of crew, cargo and passengers is best protected when a single individual serves as the sole master of each journey. Consequently, even a discussion of mutiny is treated as a crime. In turn, the captain bears full and ultimate responsibility for all that transpires, and, when his or her ship founders, as occurred recently to the Carnival cruise in the Adriatic, a career ends and the prison door beckons. "It didn't happen on my watch," provides refuge for the sailor, never the captain.

All of which prompts me to ponder the actions taken by Colorado House Speaker Frank McNulty. Irrespective of whether he is motivated by profound moral reservations, or simply a case of cynical political calculation, McNulty has now single-handedly torpedoed 'civil union' bills two years running. So long as he is allowed to remain in the speaker's chair legislative rules provide him with an arsenal of options for thwarting the majority, which is now ready to approve this legislation. Is it smart for the speaker to impose this 'tyranny of the minority,' which finesses House rules to kill a piece of legislation he opposes, but that enjoys majority support? The answer, as is often the case, proves complicated.

It appears a majority of Republican House members are in agreement with the speaker, although it would be interesting to test that theory in a secret ballot. Even members who oppose civil unions must have reservations regarding the wisdom of painting the entire Republican caucus into a corner that will inevitably unleash an avalanche of money for their opponents this coming November, who, once in the majority, will approve similar legislation anyway. "I would have voted with you, if I could have," sounds a weak campaign trumpet.

On the flipside, if even one Republican crosses the aisle to join with Democrats to control the speaker's chair during next week's special session, howls of partisan treason will rattle the Capitol Dome. There will be little lasting satisfaction from the accolades bestowed on the miscreant by a media and pundits who will prattle smugly about courage and "...doing the right thing." That legislator's political career will likely be finished, even if there should eventually develop a begrudging acknowledgement among Republicans that this betrayal ultimately safeguarded incumbents. A band of brothers and sisters, as few as two or three, will make this rebellion easier for everyone.

For Democrats, recruiting a lone Republican to dump the speaker opens the door for renegades in their own ranks to threaten dysfunction somewhere over the horizon. Is that price simply too large to pay for a victory today? Yet, it is just such waffling that drives the public disgust with politicians and the political process. Whenever provided an opportunity, Colorado voters have expressed their overwhelming support for an open, transparent legislative process focused on doing the right thing. The GAVEL amendment guaranteed every bill a hearing, stripping Committee Chairs of their 'pocket veto,' eliminated binding, secret caucuses and more. The speaker's intentional obstruction of civil unions evidences a troubling and arrogant disregard for this deliberative process.

At least in part because of term limits, few legislators have ever read, much less mastered, their own rules. At least three times during last week's debate the speaker failed to produce the majority required on a significant procedural vote that could have then been used to challenge his continuing right to preside. No such challenges were offered. At any time, any member can challenge a ruling from the chair, and when the speaker is presiding, if that challenge proves successful a new leadership election is required.

Removing the speaker prior to next week's special session remains possible, but will demand considerable political courage from both sides of the aisle. It will also establish a precedent that makes Democrats and Republicans queasy during a time when future legislative majorities are likely to prove slim. That shouldn't stop them!