Five Myths About Government
As regular as the new term that brings students back to school, early January summons legislators old and new back to St. Paul for the convening of the Legislature. In 2013 as in 2011, there will be a lot of freshmen.
Last time they were mostly Republicans, and this time they are mostly Democrats. But each new lawmaker will have to learn what it means to be part of a team, how to persuade their colleagues to embrace their ideas, whom to look to for advice and whom not to; when to compromise, and more importantly, when not to.
Here are a few myths new legislators should keep in mind as they learn the ropes at the Capitol:
Myth No. 1: Legislators are paid too much (or too little). This comes up early in nearly every session. It’s not even a partisan issue.
Both parties have had members support cutting legislators’ pay and both parties, when they’ve held the majority, have seen to it that bills of this nature have never seen the light of day.
The fact is that members of the House and Senate are paid $31,140 — plus a lot of less obvious perks and pay.
They collect “per diem,” and may be eligible for a housing allowance if their district is distant from St. Paul. They get mileage and can expense other items. They are eligible for employer-paid health insurance at the same level as all other state employees. Legislators who began serving prior to 1997 pay into and will receive a pension. Legislators who began their service later are eligible for a retirement plan with a required contribution and an employer match, similar to a 401(k).
Did you follow all that? If you were even half paying attention, you would see that a legislator could do pretty well out of this system, but could also do not so well. Partly, it depends on where he or she lives and whether they claim everything they are entitled to.
A lot also depends on what they do with the rest of their time. If they have a job with billable hours and only need to work part-time to make a living, they could do quite well. If they have an occupation that requires them to be fully present and working or they are not earning what they need to live on, their service will be a real financial sacrifice.
The question of how to resolve this is not an easy one, and it’s very important in terms of what kind of occupations and experiences are represented in future legislatures. Likewise, recent discussions about increased disclosure for legislators’ outside employment may have an effect on who agrees to run for office.
Myth No. 2: More bills mean less freedom. Conversely, fewer bills do not mean more freedom. Critics need to rethink the common yet misguided belief that the quality and quantity of bills are somehow related. Or that a smaller number of bills introduced is somehow better than a larger number. The number is not an important piece of data by itself.
For example, most of the laws that were passed in 2011 were contained in 12 omnibus bills. If fewer bills means bigger bills with more laws stuffed inside, the easier it becomes to stray from the constitutional “single-subject rule.” And the easier it is for lobbyists to influence the provisions within the bill and for the public to become confused, bored and uninterested until and unless a new law begins to affect them.
Myth No. 3: Consolidation and elimination of government institutions is always a good thing. The problem isn’t that too many government entities exist, it’s that thanks to incrementalism, legislators treat them all as essential. Generations of legislators have learned that it’s easier to simply add to what is there if you want something to change.
In 2011, the Republican-led Legislature created the Sunset Advisory Commission. The struggle that the Commission undertook even to reassign oversight on a relatively small agency and propose some other reforms shows how difficult it is to succeed in this kind of effort.
The challenge, as ever, is how to break down the silos that cause lack of oversight and duplication of effort. This ought to be a commonplace, bipartisan goal, but in the face of bureaucratic iron triangles (and, at times, with the complicity of the Legislature), the silos will remain and more of them will be created.
Myth No. 4: Efficiency is always a good thing in government. It’s often been noted that brutal dictatorships can “make the trains run on time.” Efficiency and power can be a dangerous combination in the wrong hands.
Democratic government must make allowances for public input even on technical matters. The public and interested parties known by the euphemism “stakeholders” need a way to respond to how laws are enforced. This will slow the process of change, by both discussion and accommodation. But it has to happen, in order for the process to be responsive to the governed.
We are not a technocracy, as much as the planners and empire builders within state, local and federal bureaucracies might secretly wish it. The Legislature sometimes seems like the least efficient part of government because often that is where public scrutiny and response take place. Sometimes it is the only place where those things happen.
Myth No. 5 Parties, special interests etc. are to blame for all the ills of politics and government. Political parties are creatures of our election and campaign finance laws. It’s not an accident that with sweeping changes in campaign finance laws at the federal level, parties have had a difficult time maintaining their form and historical functions. They are being supplanted by wealthy donors who choose to give directly to candidates or to single-issue groups and a raft of different entities with differing tax statuses and the flexibility that stems from that.
These and other important lessons will be learned this session by this year’s class of legislators. Their mission is to withstand the information overload and make the right decisions, the ones that they can live with and happily explain when the next election cycle rolls around.