The Intrigues of Special Sessions

Hawaii Governor Neil Abercrombie urges passage of a same-sex marriage bill that will take a special session of the Hawaii legislature at least a week to consider. Photo via Governor Neil Abercrombie Flickr account.Oregon lawmakers fretted when it took more than a day for a special session to approve a five-bill Grand Bargain. Hawaii's legislature plans to meet a week or more to consider a single bill dealing with same-sex marriage.

Without trying to equate the challenges facing each legislative body. Hawaii's more deliberate pace is in sharp contrast to the Oregon preference for a quick-in, quick-out special session. In Oregon, if a special session lasts more than a single day, it raises questions about whether the legislative goose was fully cooked before the session started.

In Honolulu, there doesn't appear to be any doubt about the outcome. The extra time was allotted to allow both the Hawaii Senate, where the same-sex marriage bill originated, and Hawaii House, where opposition is stiffer, to hold massive hearings. More than 400 people showed up Monday to testify for 12 hours before a Hawaii Senate committee. The full Senate passed the bill 20-4. More than 1,000 Hawaiians testified in front of a House committee Thursday, with another 4,100 signed up to testify as the hearing continues Friday anbd perhaps beyond.

Oregon's legislature holds hearings on measures destined for special session consideration, but much of the work crafting the measures is done before lawmakers arrive in Salem. The special session takes on a more perfunctory role.

That wasn't exactly the case in the special session that ended early this month. Scheduled for a Monday, the session lasted through Wednesday as legislative leaders struggled to piece together varying majorities on five disparate votes.

While the Hawaii same-sex marriage bill seems very likely to pass, the deliberate pace may be connected with behind-the-scenes bargaining over religious protections. Opponents, and even some supporters, have focused on making sure churches with doctrines opposed to same-sex marriage aren't forced to preside over them.

Of course, politics is usually submerged close to the surface of many debates. The House GOP caucus had a public hoo-hah over an attempt to remove the sole Republican who supports same-sex marriage from the House committee that will hear the measure when it arrives from the Senate. There also is an attempt to send the question to Hawaii voters.

Special sessions provide a snapshot of how legislative bodies operate generally, while also revealing a lot about the individual — and sometimes consequential — differences among legislatures.