By Thomas H. Little, Ph.D. and SLLF Director of Curriculum Development and Research
Some weeks ago, following SLLF’s New Speaker Orientation, I posted a blog about the many daunting challenges facing new Speakers.
Today I would like to turn the tables, and talk about the great opportunities these new leaders face.
During the New Speaker Orientation, I had the pleasure to spend two days in our nation’s capital with twelve new House Speakers from across the country, and with several of their Chiefs of Staff. And I am happy to say: the contrast between what I saw there, and the dysfunction just across the street in the White House, could not have been greater.
While President Trump was issuing unilateral Executive Orders and tweeting accusatory comments about the media, liberals, Democrats, and anyone else who appears to disagree with him, these new Speakers set aside party labels, and shared stories, meals, and laughter. While Democrats and Republicans in the US Capitol barely speak to each other, these new Speakers and their Chiefs of Staff listened as experienced Speakers and Chiefs offered words of support, advice, and encouragement. Three seasoned Speakers, two Republicans and one Democrat, offered the same advice to the newbies: learn from each other and rely on each other. Regardless of party.
Without a doubt, the first twenty days of the new Trump Administration have signaled significant changes in policy and process. One change will especially impact the new Speakers: it appears the new administration will empower states in such areas as education, civil rights , and the environment. It looks like leaders across the country will have the opportunity to lead, and my experience this weekend suggests that — unlike their counterparts in Washington — they are ready, willing, and able to do that. Here is what I saw:
A Will to Succeed. While many in Washington appear content with gridlock, these Speakers, Democrats and Republicans alike, are clearly dedicated to making government work in their states. Do they have different measures of what it means for government to work, depending on their governing philosophies? Sure they do. But they don’t appear to be so wed to those philosophies that they will be unable to make policy or pass effective legislation. And because many of the state legislatures, unlike their counterpart in Washington, meet for a fixed time, they cannot keep putting off problems. They have to deal with them before they go home.
The Skills and Experience to Succeed. Not only do the incoming Speakers want to succeed, they have the skills and experience to succeed. With the exception of three Speakers from term-limited states, who come into the position with just four years of legislating behind them, the new speakers have considerable experience. Most of them have been climbing the leadership ladder for a while, and have chaired key committees. They know how to lead, and from my observation, they possess the temperament, wisdom, personality, humor, and interpersonal skills to lead their chambers and their states effectively.
The Numbers to Succeed. While all of us like bipartisanship, the reality is that it is usually easier to get things done when one party controls government. The number of state legislatures with divided control (three) is at its lowest point in decades. Further, in at least half of the states, Speakers preside over a chamber in which their party controls at least sixty percent of the seats. While managing a supermajority has its own challenges (see my last blog), it is generally easier to govern when you have a strong majority in both chambers.
The Support to Succeed. Every leader knows that they cannot do their job alone – at least not effectively. At New Speaker Orientation, my boss spends much of his time with the Speakers. I get to spend my own time with the newly appointed Chiefs of Staff. And every time I meet them, I am struck by the quality and dedication I find. These Chiefs of Staff are utterly committed to their bosses’ success, and I mean that in a very good way. They make sure that their Speaker has the policy knowledge, the practical know-how, and the political understanding to succeed, even when that means giving the Speaker news that he or she would rather not hear.
It is likely that our nation’s Capitol will continue to spin its wheels. But I am confident, having met and observed many new House Speakers and their Chiefs of Staff, that state governments will continue to work on the challenges their constituents face.