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Ohio House approves rules package over the objection of right-wing GOP bloc

Rejected rules included allowing guns on the floor, and establishing Christian-only prayer
Opening day ceremonies of the 135th General Assembly of the State of Ohio
Posted at 6:00 PM, Jan 28, 2023
and last updated 2023-01-28 18:00:24-05

The following article was originally published in the Ohio Capital Journal and published on under a content-sharing agreement.

Usually a procedural afterthought, the Ohio House approved a new rules package Tuesday over the bitter objections of right-wing lawmakers. The provisions lay out the ground rules for the coming session. Republicans who backed Rep. Derek Merrin for speaker argue they were locked out of the process. Rejected rules included allowing guns on the floor, and establishing Christian-only prayer.

On the floor

It’s been three weeks since House Speaker Jason Stephens’ surprise ascension to leadership. Tempers have not cooled in the intervening days.

State Rep. Scott Oelslager, R-North Canton, stood and offered the string of resolutions laying out the procedures and expectations representatives will serve under for the next two years. When the resolution naming the new majority leadership team went to a vote, the faction backing Merrin yelled in disapproval.

After the vote, Merrin called a point of order and lashed out at Stephens for forging ahead without entertaining amendments.

“Representative Josh Williams from Lucas County stood up well ahead of time, and as a duly elected member, Mr. Speaker, he asked to be recognized,” Merrin railed. “You refused to recognize him. He filed an amendment legally, according to the House rules to be considered.”

“It’s completely uncalled for, inappropriate and a violation of these rules,” he insisted. “There’s a next resolution where multiple people are going to stand up to be recognized, and Mr. Speaker I hope you follow our rules and recognize these duly elected members.”

Stephens quoted the rules back to Merrin, arguing “the speaker is entitled to determine when the House is ready to vote.”

When Oelslager offered the next resolution on House rules, Stephens again advanced it to a vote without allowing amendments. Merrin’s clique again shouted out its opposition. But with Democratic backing, Stephens’ bloc of Republicans was able to pass the new rules package.

In a statement after the fact, Stephens said “we incorporated input from all members.”

“I believe that we have a solid rules package that will ensure efficiencies and improve transparency in the Ohio House,” he continued. “Now, let’s get to work for the people.”

What’s in and what’s out

Some changes, like limiting the speaker’s ability to fire staff members, got approval even from Republicans who objected to the package as a whole. Rep. Phil Plummer, R-Dayton, explained those protections just should’ve gone further.

“We wanted additional safeguards,” Plummer described. “My first amendment was going to be that he couldn’t remove chairs or vice chairs, so that they can’t leverage you to vote a certain way and hold your chairmanship over you.”

Rep. Brian Stewart, R-Ashville, described it as a Sword of Damocles, and raised concerns about changes allowing the Rules and Reference Committee to recall a bill it had previously referred. Rules is a powerful committee headed up by the speaker that determines where bills should be heard and typically serves as a bill’s last stop before the floor.

“Not only does the Rules and Reference Committee decide what bills that are passed by a committee actually go to the floor,” Stewart explained. “We’ve now added an additional rule that says the Rules and Reference Committee, unilaterally, can at any time, simply reach down into a committee and snatch a bill back, and put it wherever else they want.”

Stewart also criticized changes requiring lawmakers turn in committee amendments by midnight before a hearing. Often, he argued, committees don’t finalize their agenda until a few hours before a hearing, and so a midnight deadline effectively bars last-minute amendments.

Despite Speaker Stephens’ attempts to move on, Plummer warned the fight is far from over.

“He’s shown he’s a dictator, and he doesn’t want to relinquish any power,” Plummer said.

“We have the votes,” he went on. “We have the majority of the caucus, and we will exercise our right to vote. He can’t take our votes from us, so he’s got to navigate that problem.”

Prayer provisions

Democrats meanwhile pushed back forcefully on a proposed amendment that would’ve required a “Christian prayer” before session. Already, sessions customarily begin with a prayer — often delivered by a Christian minister. In a joint statement, five Democratic members representing Muslim, Hindu and Jewish faiths condemned the move to codify the opening prayer’s religious affiliation.

Rep. Ismail Mohamed, D-Columbus, is one of two freshman Muslim-American representatives. He and Rep. Munira Yasin Abdullahi, D-Columbus, are also the first two members of Somali community to serve in House.

“I am proud to represent my constituents at the Statehouse,” Mohamed said, “and to make it clear to them, and any other religious minorities, that this is the people’s house and that includes all people.”

Rep. Casey Weinstein, D-Hudson, who is Jewish, added “My colleagues pushing this rule would do well to remember that we represent ALL Ohioans, not just those who think like us.”

Minority leader Allison Russo dismissed the proposal as “divisive and contemptuous.”

Also rejected was a proposal to allow firearms on the floor of the chamber.

Committee moves

Among the most recognizable changes in the House rules package is the new slate of committees.

New standing committees in the House include Aviation and Aerospace, Constitutional Resolutions, Homeland Security and Pensions. The Finance committee, meanwhile, will see two new subcommittees — one focused on public safety and the other on infrastructure and the American Rescue Plan.

Another subtle change will happen in realm of Health policy. Instead of a single committee, the House will now have two. One will handle health provider services and the other will focus on broader policy.