Legislative Tolerance

There are rites of passage in spring — flowers peek from the soil, the snow clearing equipment goes to the back of the shed, major religions celebrate important holidays, and state legislatures begin debating issues that can change our lives.

Congress is in session all months now, but meaningful legislation moves slowly in Washington. State legislatures generally move at a faster pace. Why? Deadlines. Yes, Congress has them. When its members cannot fulfill their most crucial role, finalizing a budget on time, they must pass temporary measures (continuing resolutions) or much of government grinds to a halt. And of course it’s all “political,” but before you say that with a sneer, ask yourself if you want to live in a country where views are not debated with strong emotion. A benevolent dictator might make really good (even fair) decisions, but an autocrat generally doesn’t get there via the ballot box.

How does the nation get its legislatures to work effectively without protracted delays and hyperbole? The short answer is this may be impossible, but the longer options bear discussion. The crucial factor is the same one that helps basketball teams win championships – effective teamwork. City councils and county commissions pass their budgets on time because: 1) state statutes require it and they said they would when they sought office, 2) local legislators see a fair proportion of their constituents daily and will be reminded if they don’t, and 3) what they work with affects their communities very directly, so they know that if they don’t find a way to allocate funds for mental health people will sleep on the street or hurt themselves or others.

There is also the lower “bellow factor” at the local level. Two city council members can be rude to one another, but then they have to sit at the same table at the Lions Pancake Breakfast. And there is the family factor. A council member who implies that a colleague has the brains of a pop tart may get a call from his (or her) mother (or father), or their spouse may be furious because she (or he) bowls with the pop tart’s spouse. Rudeness comes home to roost when you live in the same community.

On a state level, legislatures generally have a specific timeframe for their sessions. On the last evening they can set the clock to 11 p.m. and keep resetting it until the last votes are finished, but you don’t get to even that point without having finished committee work and ascertained support levels or traded votes to get it. (Democracy not dictatorship, remember?) I lived in Iowa for many years. One recent year legislators rushed to get their work finished so they could end early and save the state money. But whether they finish early or not, funds for travel expenses in Des Moines (which is not a daily commute for many legislators) end on a given date. That’s a motivator.

This year, the state of Oregon has provided an example of effective legislative protocols. The Oregon House opened its 2012 session (and a couple earlier ones) with an equal number of Democrats and Republicans. Writer Josh Goodman notes, in an article for stateline.org, “The Oregon House of Representatives was, by virtually every account, a model for bipartisan comity this year. Republican and Democratic lawmakers didn’t just keep the peace. They approved major policy changes with strong support from members of both parties in Salem.” Oregon’s experience has been written about and there is even an Oregon youtube piece.

How did they do it? Leaders of both parties decided they would make it work. True, they had known each other for years and lived in adjoining districts, but they could have chosen to let familiarity breed contempt rather than cooperation. Instead, they thought about what was best for the people of Oregon. Members of the Oregon legislature elected co-speakers and every committee has co-chairs from each party. There have been disagreements, but the commitment to work for their state rather than against its needs led legislators to…behave like intelligent adults. Can there be more of that to go around?

Legislators in statehouses across the country do unite for more than patriotic proclamations, of course, and one person can have more influence at the state level than in Congress. In Iowa, Representative Curt Hanson had been a student driving instructor and was more familiar than most with the attention span of teenagers behind the wheel. He saw texting while driving as a distraction for any age group, and worked with others across party lines in the Iowa House and Senate to pass an anti-texting law that, “Prohibits the use of all electronic and mobile devices while driving for those under the age of 18. [People] over 18 may not use a hand-held electronic device to read, write, or send a text message while driving.” It’s hard to quantify the cost of a life saved, but this law may save many.

Across the nation, educators have worked with legislators to raise the high school dropout rate to help students stay in school long enough to graduate. My longtime home of Maryland is about to join twenty-one other states that have raised the required attendance age to eighteen. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, eleven states now make it age seventeen, and others remain at the long-traditional sixteen.

Does a law change ensure students will stay long enough to graduate, and does a law that makes them truant (which means they can be brought back to school) help recalcitrant students or parents see the importance of a high school diploma? Maybe not, but legislators have given educators a new tool and sent a message to parents (especially in states that more harshly penalize parents who play a role in students’ truancy.) These laws have passed because people saw problems with the younger stay-in-school age (among them less educated people have a harder time getting and keeping a good job) and worked together to create solutions. How do you clone that process?

I will not pretend to have a formula to make state legislatures work across party lines, and no one seems to have it for Congress anymore. But, some people have figured out how to work in a largely nonpartisan fashion, and there are plenty of examples of how not to do it, which can often be as instructive as success stories.

It may sound naïve to say that it’s up to voters, but it truly is. We are the ultimate source of “my-way-or-the-highway” public policy making. Super-PACS (political action committees that do not have to declare the sources of their funds) survive on this philosophy — spend enough money and MAKE people do it OUR way. Some legislators react to that frame of mind.

Thomas Jefferson said, “I never will, by any word or act, bow to the shrine of intolerance…” While he was talking about a tolerance of all religions, the concept of tolerance of all views can move people, and legislatures, to look for points of agreement rather than disagreement. From there legislation can go forward. If we are willing to let it.

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Corey McCarren

Great post. It’s nice to see a story of a successful legislature to show that things can turn out if people – both legislator and constituent – go the extra mile. There are states where an effective legislature seems impossible, but maybe if people get serious enough about it things will fall into place.