Diary of a Majority Leader Conference

 

Thursday July 20, 3:45am:

At this hour there’s only one proper thing to be doing, unless you’re in emergency services, morning broadcasting, or writing a term paper. That’s sleeping. Why am I getting dressed?

Thursday July 20, 7:05am:

Large airplane, me in it, takes off from Boston’s airport, heading exactly for London. I love breaded haddock served in newspaper, but fortunately we bank into a 180 degree turn and head for the Rockies.

The 3 year-old travelling in the window seat is impossibly cute, talks to his mother as if they’re at a seminar, AND has much better manners than I. My part of the country had a hand in this?  I am deeply skeptical.

Thursday July 20, 5:00pm:

Opening session, The Four Seasons Hotel, Denver. What’s up in legislatures this year? A few things, people say.

It’s hard to do much else when you’re worried about the checks bouncing, and REVENUES have collapsed in the oil and gas states. In many, statute makes it nearly impossible to pass new taxes. In some, the governor presents the same obstacle. A couple of states are accumulating huge interest charges on their unpaid bills.

In the good news column, at least one state had a large rainy-day fund that made this moment easier. And other states with broader economies, with thriving technology industries and agriculture, have done well lately.

One state feels that by cutting regulations and taxes, it has brought corporations swarming into the state.

One conclusion: it is always painful to deal with collapsed revenues, and every industry has its own cycles. So it is very nice, if one can, to encourage a multi-sector economy.

Friday July 21, 9:15am:

After the bacon, eggs, french toast, oatmeal, fruit, granola, yogurt, toast, muffins, juice, and coffee, we talked about how everyone gets along in various legislatures. This is a really big deal these days, of course. It is true that representative democracy is supposed to be an attractive alternative to armed conflict among our parties or citizens, and we’d like politics and war to be easily distinguishable.

There are states in which feelings between the parties, or between wings of the same party, or between the legislature and the governor, are so strained that almost no bills can get passed, or signed. This polarization doesn’t start in the statehouse, but it certainly affects it. It seems rooted in an economy and tax policy that have not served everyone over the last forty years; increased by a fragmented media world, and baldly dishonest internet players, and accelerated by a 24-hour news cycle and the ubiquity of smartphone “reporters.” To be successful in their work, legislators need to be able to talk to each other, and understand each others’ views. How do we encourage even that much civility in the legislature?

It’s a big subject, and part of the answer is that, just as in any other activity, it helps if the players have actual relationships. For humans, this requires that people have some non-work social interactions. The better someone knows you, the less likely they’ll think you’re crazy when you express some opinion that’s different from theirs. These kinds of interactions used to happen naturally when legislators lived in the capital for part of the year, and would rub shoulders at holiday parties, or at their kids’ soccer games, or at the grocery store. But as transportation has gotten much better, legislators commute more, and are less likely to be in the capital. To keep some non-work social interaction, we need to plan such events deliberately. Majority leaders and minority leaders can play a big role in that.

And as in any other activity, expectations can matter, and rules. It is important to teach new members (if one can) that members of the other party are not the enemy; that courtesy and respect are expected to be shown; and that such standards will be enforced. Chamber and party leadership has every influence in this regard. When you enforce these standards within your own caucus, especially openly, the other party will notice.

Some other ideas: be in the habit of speaking to your cross-aisle counterpart, especially regarding any upcoming contentious issue. Consider making some large concession, for the trust and gratitude it is likely to engender on the other side. Encourage caucus members to speak to everyone, even colleagues who won’t vote their way on a particular bill: doing so builds trust and understanding over time. Arrange for both parties to work together on some worthy fundraiser: humans feel comradeship with those they’ve worked with, and share values with. Encourage members to travel to each others’ districts, or to have bipartisan town meetings: the latter help members and constituents to understand the other side’s perspectives.

All of these things take a little time to do. But they can make legislative time much more pleasant, and more productive.

Friday July 21 3:00pm

Denver’s statehouse is something to see. When they were ready to build it (1890) the young state wanted to show its income, its material resources, and its confidence. Revenues cascaded into the treasury from gold mines, silver mines, and copper mines. Expense was not a worry.

I noticed all this as we took a break from talking, for a tour.

The building looks like the U.S. Capitol, on purpose. What you see is all Colorado white granite and Colorado rose onyx marble, with elaborate woodwork and decorative touches of metal. The Senate chamber was rehabbed lately to its earlier glory, removing a wallpapering of acoustic tile that seemed a nifty idea in the ‘70s. The House chamber is just as nice. The dome overhead is leafed in gold; the real thing.

We piled out of motorcoaches, then back into them. As we were leaving I thought: it’s nice to have a workplace that asks you to be your best.

And we can never have too many reminders of the privilege of serving.

You’ve probably heard of Mile High Stadium (an honorable place, gone now.) Denver is indeed a mile high, and a marker is inscribed into the 15th step at the capitol’s west entrance. In the late 1960s Colorado State students refigured things, and placed a revised marker at the 18th step. A few years ago, now that we’re in the satellite age, experts decided it should be the 3rd step, and so another revised marker went in. It’s good to be reminded: we keep trying to get things right, with techniques that improve over time, we hope.

Saturday July 22  9:15am

This morning, many majority leaders are talking about their legislators aged 35 or younger (the “Millennials.”) I hear: “those folks don’t want to follow our chamber customs, or even learn them.  They want everything to happen today, or yesterday. They broadcast all our caucus business on the internet. Help!”

One majority leader is a Millennial. He and others suggested: the Millennials aren’t really better or worse than others; they’re different. And it helps us all to understand how.

On the plus side: they tend to be demographically more diverse, and they’re very accepting of others. They are in a hurry, but they’re also energetic and ambitious. They are used to information being instantly accessible to everyone, and to communicating rapidly.

One majority leader said, “this is what I tell them: First, write a bill. Then, learn to count to (half of the chamber, plus one.) These people (pictures of members of the chamber) are who you count from.”

“That seems to work pretty well,” the leader said.

Other leaders were talking about term limits in their chamber; they don’t like them. They say their chamber is constantly losing its institutional memory, and by the time new representatives really learn the rules and the ropes, they too are gone. Their advice: try to avoid term limits.

Several leaders talked about an approaching “silver tsunami” in their state: an increase in older citizens. They are looking at legislation to support the activity of caregivers, and to crack down on elder abuse, in or out of nursing facilities.

Several other leaders talked of how climate change threatens their state’s coastline, infrastructure, or industries. Some are most interested in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and some are focused on mitigating damage from future storms, sea level rise, or other dislocations caused by temperature changes.

Saturday July 22  12:00noon

My taxi driver seems a happy guy, and he points the car’s grill towards Denver’s airport. Like a lot of the taxi drivers I’ve met, he was born in another country, and followed relatives here. He’s grateful. Driving is actually a retirement job for him, after a full career doing something else. He speaks my first language incomparably better than I speak his.

But anyway: after two days in Denver I am amazed again by our state majority leaders. They are dedicated, they clearly work hard, and they are well-informed on many fast-moving issues. I remember that they are citizens, with a day job (generally), and not compensated generously by their fellow citizens for their sacrifice. Surely, humans do find it rewarding to be of service, and to grapple with interesting problems, and to work productively with others to solve problems. But we ask a lot of our majority leaders in return for those thrills.

If you’re reading this, you probably know how much majority leaders do. They direct all the traffic details of scores of bills. They try to supervise and educate the newer members of their caucus, or even the veterans. They represent their caucus, chamber, or even legislature to the outside world, through the press. They enforce important rules among their members, and try to lead their members towards common goals.  Oh: and they have their own constituents to serve and represent.

I’m just a citizen, and I know my quality of life depends a good bit on the wisdom of my state legislature. The legislature depends on the legislators, and the legislators depend a lot on their leaders. All of us are wrapped up in the experiment of democracy, and I hope all of us put our shoulders to it.

Eric Allen

SLLF Curriculum Development and Research

By | 2017-10-23T10:34:59+00:00 October 23rd, 2017|Uncategorized|