By Thomas H. Little, Ph.D. and SLLF Director of Curriculum Development and Research
I had the honor and pleasure to spend time recently with twelve of the nation’s newly elected Speakers of the House, at SLLF’s New Speakers Orientation in Washington, DC. It was a great weekend, and, as always after such meetings, I left encouraged about our nation’s future. State governments are in the hands of conscientious, articulate, and dedicated leaders.
These men and women have chosen to represent their legislative districts, and then have accepted the additional responsibility of the highest position in their chamber, one of the most crucial positions in all of state government. They dedicated months of effort to campaigning, building the coalition necessary to win the post. They probably criss-crossed their state in a car, and spent scores of hours making phone calls to recruit candidates and money. Now, they might question all that effort. They have surely discovered that it ain’t easy at the top!
One new Speaker mentioned wondering aloud privately to a sibling whether it was possible to “give the job back.” Another new Speaker recalled his predecessor’s advice to “just have fun,” and then inquiring, “When does the fun start?” Leadership is not easy, especially in a country as politically and ideologically divided as ours. These new leaders face significant challenges. Here are some of them:
Too Many Members. Those trying to govern with a slim majority may beg to differ, but there is not always “comfort in numbers.” Several Speakers with large majorities lamented the difficulties of keeping that group together. Because their caucus has so many “extra votes,” many members feel free to abandon the party for reasons personal, regional, or ideological, thinking there will still be enough support from others to pass the legislation. Some Speakers noted the need to keep a few votes of the minority party “in their pocket,” for moments of need. It ain’t easy at the top.
Dealing with Other Leaders. While the Speaker of the House is usually the most powerful player in his or her chamber, and is among the most influential leaders in the state, he or she is not the only influential policymaker in the state. To get anything done, the Speaker must be able to work effectively with the leader(s) of the Senate, and with the Governor. For reasons of party or personality, this is not always easy. One Speaker faces a Senate controlled by the other party, and a governor who identifies with neither major party. In another state, the Speaker is trying to maintain his party’s majority, while his same-party (and lame duck) governor won’t face voters again. Yet another Speaker is trying to govern effectively, while his governor faces impeachment charges. It ain’t easy at the top.
A Lot of New Kids on the Block. New blood is usually a good thing for an organization: it brings fresh approaches and new ideas. However, it is possible to have too much of a good thing. Two Speakers noted that after recent election turnover, more than half of the members are in their first or second term. In other words, they have two years or less of experience in the chamber. There are committee chairs who have never served on, much less chaired, a committee. There are members making motions in committee and on the floor that would have Robert’s Rules of Order spinning on its library shelf. And there are members who believe they were elected to “change the world,” introducing bills that are obviously unconstitutional or politically untenable. It ain’t easy at the top.
Members Behaving Badly. Legislatures are made up of human beings, with all of the good and bad that that entails. While the vast majority of legislators are working hard to represent their constituents and to make good policy, there are a few bad apples. In one chamber, a legislator resigned, rescinded his resignation, and then was forced to resign again. In another chamber, a Speaker had to reprimand a legislator for sexual misconduct and encourage him to resign. In two other chambers, leaders are having to figure out how to assist members whose diminished cognitive abilities are making it difficult to be effective legislators and making it difficult for the legislature to fulfill its obligations. Not all disruptive behavior is intentional, but it is disruptive nonetheless. It ain’t easy at the top.
From Campaigning to Governing. Unfortunately, the dysfunction and vitriol that now permeates the nation’s capitol seems to be creeping into state capitols as well. As campaigns have gotten increasingly expensive, increasingly personal, and increasingly competitive, legislators are finding it difficult to leave the campaign behind and make the transition to governing. Speakers noted difficulty in maintain civility on the floor, and have more difficulty getting ideologically diverse groups to work together. Members, especially in term-limited states, are sometimes more concerned with getting to their next office than with fulfilling the obligations of their current office. This makes it hard to debate and pass thoughtful legislation. It ain’t easy at the top.
So, did these neophyte leaders bite off more than they could chew? Are they ready to walk away? Of course not. Despite these challenges, not a single new Speaker wanted to be anywhere other than where they are. They still relish the challenges and opportunities of their job.
Like their predecessors, they will use their experience, their knowledge, their skills, and all of the resources they can find, to tackle the task of governing. And we at the State Legislative Leaders Foundation will assist them in any way we can.