Wyoming State Senate President John Schiffer has seen one party-line vote in 12 years and no one calls him by name on the senate floor. Odd? Not in Wyoming, where legislators are coached from the beginning in procedure, decorum and the best ways to build solid relationships with colleagues and staff.PT: Every state legislature is different, yet Wyoming legislators exhibit exceptional adherence to the body's rules, procedures and standards of decorum. What can you tell us about how the institution operates and how that professional attitude is manifest in the day-to-day business of the Wyoming legislature?
Schiffer: First, it is virtually unheard of for one senator to refer to another by name. We always address the chair, and there is very little partisan discussion on our floor. And when I say very little, I mean that the last partisan vote I can remember was about 12 years ago. That was it. I don't remember another straight party-line vote. We're very issue-oriented, and we try to keep it that way.
Much like our neighboring states, when you put up a bill you get sponsors. Well, it's very rare to see a single party represented on a bill. If a bill comes up that I wish to promote, I'll try to get a Democrat to sign on, that way when it comes to the floor there's no reason for it to become a partisan debate. One of the other things—and this rule is pretty hard and fast too—if someone has a bill that's coming to the floor, and even in committee of the whole, if I'm going to amend that bill I go tell them, "Hey, I'm going to offer an amendment to your bill today in debate."
That rule may be violated occasionally, but it's extremely rare.
PT: It sounds like the way the process is structured really predetermines the manner of the interaction there on the floor then.
Schiffer: Yes, these types of rules keep the debate pretty civil. As president of the senate, if things start heating up too much, I'll say, "The staff needs a break. The senate will be in recess until the sound of the gavel," and we'll take five minutes off so everyone can mingle and cool down. Usually the staff does need a break, so it works out well!
The point is that people can walk around and visit and let things settle down so we can come back to the debate with clear heads. Things like this are how we deal with tense issues.
PT: That's quite a different atmosphere you've described compared to many other state houses, certainly different from the U.S. Congress.
Schiffer: Well, it's very different from, for example, Colorado. Colorado is much more partisan, kind of in your face, and that's virtually unheard of here. I do enjoy visiting with our neighbors and seeing the different styles of doing legislative business.
PT: What makes Wyoming different then, with regard to the legislature's commitment to collegiality and respect?
Schiffer: I think part of it is that this is a very conservative state. My Democratic counterpart is also very conservative, although there are a few core issues that we might differ on. Another part of it is that we do a lot of work in interim committees, and we have a tradition that interim committees travel around the state and hold hearings. You'll go to small towns and most likely the night before you'll have gone out to supper with other members of your committee, which always includes members of both parties.
In this way, you really get to know people very personally. You get to know about their families and their background, and that way when you get out on the floor, you're not debating with a stranger; you're debating with someone that you've had supper with the night before—someone you know.
Time has a lot to do with the atmosphere as well. We have very short sessions—40 days one year, 20 the next, so you have to get there and get the work done or you'll run out of time. So you better be respectful of the person in the next desk, because you've got to work together to get things done.
PT: How do new members learn all they need to know about the rules, procedures and standards of decorum? What is the new member orientation like?
Schiffer: We have a very robust new member orientation program and we push to make it stronger each year. My hope is that when a new senator comes to the floor, he or she is comfortable with what's going on. They may not know all of the ins and outs, but they know exactly what the process is, what's coming next, what the vote means and what the procedures are.
We actually hold two schools before the session covering the procedure on the senate floor, introducing them to agencies, introducing them to the budget and the budget bill, how to write amendments, how to use staff—everything you can think of. The sessions take about a week and they're full, full days. Roy Cohee, the speaker of the house, and I do our best to show up at every single school as well. We try to make them feel comfortable, and I think it's paid off.
PT: It seems like it would help you get to know the type of people you're going to be working with as well.
Schiffer: Sure. As president of the senate I make the committee assignments, and when you go to one of those schools you find out what the new members' backgrounds are and where you can put them where they'll be comfortable. It lets you make more informed decisions and it's a lot better than just reading campaign material about them.
PT: Senator, thank you for your time.
John Schiffer represents Wyoming's 22nd Senate District. He is the president of the Wyoming Senate and serves as the chairman of the Rules and Procedure Committee