Overshadowed by their Washington counterparts, the men and women of the nation's 50 state legislatures have quietly grown into a league of their own.
When Wyoming State Representative Debbie Hammons travels to the grocery store, she routinely budgets at least an hour of her day. While she may not need an hour to buy milk and eggs, her position as a state legislator requires the extra time. Ultimately, time spent with constituents is time on the job. And Hammons wouldn't have it any other way. To her, it comes with the territory of serving as a citizen legislator.
Hammons is one of 7,382 elected officials who comprise our nation's 50 state legislatures. Although the membership of these governing bodies far exceeds their national counterpart, public interest all too often settles on Washington DC. Few stop to consider that the work conducted in the country's statehouses makes a more tangible impact upon citizens' daily lives than 90% of the resolutions passed by Congress on a given day.
The Framers intended this dynamic and specified the same in the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution. By reserving to the states or to the people all powers not delegated to Congress by the Constitution nor prohibited by it to the States, they made clear the wide scope of responsibility and independence which they understood as already belonging to the states. In keeping with this understanding, the sole Constitutional stipulation the Framers placed upon the federal government with regard to the states was to guarantee each state of a republican form of government. Beyond this provision, however, each state was free to determine how best to structure its legislature to meet the needs of its populace. After nearly 220 years, how are our nation's state legislators today fulfilling their mission of serving the people whom they represent?
To begin with, the function of government is quite different from that of two hundred years ago. Our federal government is much larger and more powerful than ever envisioned by Madison and Hamilton, and state governments often exert more control over local governments than they did in the past. Furthermore, competing party interests vie for legislators' attention and make the process of legislating much more complex than in previous years.
The underbelly of party politics
In the halls of Congress, few factors present a greater obstacle to the legislative process than partisanship. Yet while Washington seems intent on operating under the doctrine of slash-and-burn, some states are beginning to reconsider their options when it comes to the policy-making process. Particular evidence of this appears in Oregon, where the recent report of the Public Commission on the Oregon Legislature (PCOL) cites partisanship bitter enough to merit a consideration of restructuring the legislature into a non-partisan body. While PCOL co-chair and former state legislator Gary Wilhelms does not support such a restructuring, he agrees that the degree of partisanship in Oregon has begun to stand in the way of action.
"The public believes that the legislature is overly partisan, self-centered, and lacks in getting anything meaningful done," Wilhelms notes. While he holds that party interest has a place, he believes it must take second place to civility and the Golden Rule.
While Oregon is beginning to shelf partisan policy in favor of practical policy, other states have already seen the benefit of an institutional attitude adjustment.
The Florida State Senate has radically changed its approach to partisanship within the policy-making process. Senate Majority Leader Daniel Webster notes that, whereas once partisanship governed the order of business in the Senate, a more thoughtful approach has become the new order of the day. According to Webster, legislatures can follow one of two systems: a system based on power or a system based on principles. "Every legislative body is the same if you allow the default to govern the process," he notes, "and the default system will always be one based on power."
In the past, the most significant bills received attention only at the end of the legislative session after their usefulness as partisan barter had expired. Now the Senate addresses the most important issues first. Furthermore, Florida has evened the senatorial playing field to empower minority members and in-crease their input in the legislative process. Senator Webster notes that if the process is broken or flawed, so too will be the product. "We have one desire," Webster indicates, "and that is to make good public policy." According to Webster, the better the process, the better the product, and the Florida Senate is already reaping the benefits of improving its process.
Nebraska, Wyoming—geography trumps party
Halfway across the country in Nebraska, it's a different story. Nebraska holds the unique distinction of being the only state in the nation with a unicameral, non-partisan legislature. According to Mike Flood, Speaker of the Nebraska Legislature, competing interests in his state stem less from partisan interests and more from geographical factors. As more Nebraskans make the move from the rural western portion of the state to the more urban eastern portion, legislators must seek ways to balance rural interests with urban, farm with industry, west with east.
In neighboring Wyoming, tension appears in the form of state versus local interests. Senate President John Schiffer describes an adversarial relationship existing between the two due to the allocation and distribution of funding among cities and towns. In the lower House, Representative Hammons outlines a state-created situation in which local governments capture the attention and, consequently, the funding, of the state legislature by "yelling louder" than their counterparts. While such a scenario may prove beneficial to those localities with particularly loud voices, such a process generally doesn't benefit the larger objective of serving the citizenry of the state. Wyoming legislators seem to have taken the point in recent years, and the current tenor of the debate in Cheyenne is evidence.
Lobbyists on the rise
Legislators today face the same structural challenges as their predecessors in reconciling principles, geography and party, but the similarities often end there. Lobbyists have suddenly recognized the enormous untapped reservoir of political authority vested in U.S. state houses and have flooded into state capitols in droves. Wilhelms notes that Oregon counted approximately 70 capitol lobbyists in the 1970s. Today that figure has grown to 300, with the number of registered lobbyists topping 1,000.
Some states have taken measures to control the influence of lobbyists on the legislative process. Former Florida House Speaker Allan Bense notes that Florida ended the allowance of any gifts from lobbyists to legislators. So serious is Florida about ensuring the purity of the process that current rules preclude a legislator from accepting even a cup of coffee from a lobbyist. It may sound extreme, but the new rules have worked by limiting lobbyists' undue access to policymakers.
At the same time, lobbyists can be a useful source of information. Wilhelms notes that issues today are more complex than before and often boast more than one reasonable side. As a result, the relationship between legislators and lobbyists has changed. Today, legislators rely on lobbyists for information on a number of issues. Nebraska Senator and Chairman of the Executive Board of the legislature L. Patrick Engel agrees. He is quick to note that most lobbyists are good, and it does not take long to identify those who are not. Furthermore, lobbyists who attempt to exert undue sway over a Senator quickly find that they have lost their ability to influence.
E-mail and the Internet
Larger cultural changes also affect the manner in which state legislators serve their constituents. Former Speaker Bense notes that e-mail and the Internet have fundamentally altered the dynamic between state legislators and their constituents. Hammons goes as far as to cite the use of e-mail and the internet as the biggest "new" change affecting state legislators. As citizen interest groups flood their representatives' offices with e-mails regarding issues important to them, legislators learn which groups are best connected and organized. Schiffer notes that he regularly receives e-mails from constituents. And in Wyoming, where citizens value their open legislative process, they expect those messages to be answered.
From Oregon to Nebraska, and Wyoming to Florida, citizens strike a familiar chord that goes beyond mere "responsiveness." Overwhelmingly, voters want issue-based policy-making over party-driven legislation. In short, they want their representatives to focus on fixing individual problems over party agendas. "Voters get very impatient with partisan people," says Schiffer, and the surge of popular "post-partisan" politicians like California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger may suggest that he's right. Nebraska's institutional eschewing of partisan politics ensures one
thing: full participation for all members in the legislative process.
Nearly as much as they abhor obtrusive partisanship, citizens across the board continue to look for openness and honesty from their elected officials. "Nebraskans are proud of the system of openness built into the unicameral legislature," says Flood. "There are no backroom committee meetings and no closed-door sessions." Fellow Senator Engel likens serving in the legislature to being in a "glass house." Not surprising, few Nebraskan politicians threaten to throw rocks—or overtly ideological jabs—at their opponents.
Strict adherence to procedural rules
So, with partisanship a dirty word and a deluge of demands from constituents and interest groups raining down, what governs the legislative behavior of state legislators when the pressure mounts? By and large, the structure of their respective houses sets the tone and style of debate. Speaker Flood and Senator Engel note the Nebraska Legislature's strict adherence to procedural rules, a custom that rarely sees members request waivers. Schiffer notes that Wyoming legislators toe the line every bit as stridently, and Wilhelms calls Oregon's legislative rules "sacred."
"Procedural rules stand in second place only to the state Constitution, outranking even statutes and laws in their significance," notes Wilhelms. Nonetheless, not all states are content to stay within the lines, and those that do often grant waivers from time to time.
Webster outlines two basic approaches to formulating policy: "You can begin with political considerations and then add bells and whistles to make it look like good public policy, or start with pure public policy and work in the necessary political considerations." The trick, he notes, is maintaining the essence of that sound policy after the political maneuvering is over.
As part of the "government closest to the people," the men and women of the nation's state legislatures will continue to occupy a place of prominence and political authority within the federal system. And with the federal government increasingly hamstrung by bureaucracy and poor decision-making, many state representatives seem to be picking up the slack, redoubling their efforts to the true purpose of their position: serving the citizenry whose trust they hold. In this sense, the state of state government is growing stronger.