February 01, 2013
A lot of people hate legislators. And I’m not just talking about Congress here, whose popularity falls someplace beneath pond scum. I’m talking about state legislators too. There are probably a lot of reasons for this animosity, some based in fact, others purely psychological.
But one thing I have never been able to understand is self-loathing legislators.
I’m speaking now of the newly resurrected attempt to make the Michigan legislature part-time. I wonder if the sponsors of these resolutions realize that it won’t make their constituents love them more, but in fact love them less for agreeing with the already low esteem in which they are held.
The issue also reared its head sometime in the ‘80s. The arguments were always the same: it will save money, we don’t want professional politicians, legislators should spend more time with “the people,” we don’t need all of those needless bills, etc.
I actually did a rather in-depth study of it. First, with the exception of Texas, almost every large state is full time. (Indeed, in the ‘80s, the full time states represented approximately half of the country’s population.) Many states that aren’t full time constitutionally also aren’t limited to a certain amount of session days and may meet close to year-round.
Legislators in part-time states represent far fewer people each. For example, New Hampshire’s 400 legislators (Michigan has 148) represented a little over 2000 people each, close to two precincts in my fifty precinct district. In terms of base salary per capita, nine of the top ten states were part-time. And many part-time states also pay legislators a per diem rate every time they set foot in their capitols for a meeting outside of session time or any legislative business they do anywhere. This adds up. Michigan’s current legislative salaries are a miniscule fraction of the state’s $7.5 billion general fund budget.
The amount of bills sponsored in part-time legislatures is pretty much the same as full time. Granted, Michigan doesn’t take up every bill introduced, but bills that are taken up generally are given far more thought and have far more input from legislators and the public at large (well, not counting Right to Work). When you’re only in session a brief time, it’s impossible to keep up and this is where lobbyists really thrive. They happily fill that void.
And then there’s the actual job of a legislator, never really defined anywhere. The criticism in Michigan always revolves around the number of days in session. But anyone who understands the legislative process knows that the legislature in session is the legislature on display. The legislature in committee is the legislature at work. There may only be three sessions a week and they may not be long, but legislators during that week may have also attended five or ten lengthy committee or subcommittee meetings, which the press apparently doesn’t count because they almost never go to them.
Part-time proponents see a need for legislators to interface with their constituents. I have never known a legislator who did not meet regularly with individuals or groups of constituents, both in Lansing and in their districts. And weekends? Forget it. How many events are they expected to attend? Indeed, the “people interface” issue is one of the reasons so many legislators run into problems in their marriages. They’re just never home.
Another interface with constituents is the stream of individual problems, some quite serious, legislators handle. Who will these people turn to now?
And who will be minding the store in the nine months the legislature is not in session? One of the most important jobs of a legislature is oversight of the administrative branch and while this has been seriously weakened by term limits (many of our legislators have probably never heard of oversight), it will effectively be gone in a part-time world.
Perhaps most important, who would serve under such circumstances? Some say only millionaires could afford to do it. Others say it would only be retirees. After all, who can afford to work for a salary which in the Michigan proposal would be less than $20,000 per year? How could they possibly hold another job?
Easy. You see, many part-time legislators in other states are hired by businesses and organizations that have direct interest in legislative actions. They pay them full time salaries and some of those entities don’t even care if the legislator shows up at work the other nine months of the year. They own them. And it’s not just their votes that are important, it’s their presence in committees, on the floor, with constituents that means as much.
There is a big difference between a professional politician and a politician who acts professionally. Term limits has already weakened a once strong institution. Let’s not decimate it any further.