by: Thomas H. Little, Ph.D. and SLLF Director of Curriculum Development and Research
“The Buck Stops Here!” If you are fifty years or older or a student of American political history, you probably recognize that phrase in association with Harry S. Truman, the 33rd President of the United States. In fact, he proudly posted a small sign with those words on his desk during his almost eight years in that office to remind himself and others that regardless of what else was going on, the final decision and the consequences, intended and unintended, that come with it, fall on his shoulders. No passing the buck for him!
Last week, I saw that sign while visiting the newly renovated Harry S. Truman Museum in Independence, Missouri, and it reminded me that the statement is just as true for our state legislative leaders of today as it was for President Harry S. Truman seventy years ago. When it comes to what happens in the state legislature, the buck stops with those elected by their peers to lead that institution: speakers of the house, presidents of the senate, pro tempores and floor leaders. When leaders of today fall short, they all too often blame the media, the executive, the lobbyists, the other party or the people, but the reality is that the buck stops with them, just as it did with President Truman. Let’s explore some of the roles and responsibilities of the state legislature and discuss how their leaders can rise to the occasion and lead their bodies to meet their responsibilities.
Passing Effective Laws. In America’s three branch system of government, the legislature is the lawmaking branch – state legislatures write and pass the laws that govern their state and address the problems facing it. While the governor may veto laws, the legislature has the last word with the opportunity to override those vetoes. Legislative leaders should use their formal and informal powers to pass laws that address the issues facing their states and their constituents. The buck stops here.
Representation. The legislature is often referred to as “the people’s branch” because it is most likely to reflect the people in terms of the ethnic, political, philosophical and economic diversity of the state to be represented in the policies passed by the body. Legislative leaders can ensure broad representation of ideas and perspectives by drawing districts reflective of the population distribution, encouraging a wide range of candidates to seek office and reflecting the caucus diversity on key policy making and procedural committees. The buck stops here.
Balancing the Executive Branch. American democracy is defined by its system of checks and balances. Each branch of government has the tools and obligations to provide a check to balance the power of the others. But this system only works if the branch is strong enough and independent enough to provide those checks. Legislative leaders must know when to work with and when to stand up to the governor, making sure to protect the constitutional prerogatives of the legislative branch. The buck stops here.
Educating the Public. In the words of Thomas Jefferson, “An informed citizenry is the only true repository of the public will,” and it is often up to members of “the people’s branch” to inform that public. While individual members might educate their constituents regarding specific issues and votes, it usually falls to leadership to keep the general public abreast of legislative processes, priorities and policies. Like it or not, elected leaders are the face of the legislature. They represent the institution to the public, the press, other states and the executive. When legislative leaders speak, they speak for their caucus, their chamber and their legislature. The buck stops here.
Preserving the Institution. State legislatures have been around for more than four hundred years, since the 22 members of the Virginia House of Burgesses was called to order on July 30, 1619, in Jamestown. Every state has one and it is up to the members to see that the institution of yesterday thrives and moves forward into the future . It should be the objective of every member and especially of every leader to leave the legislative institution better and stronger than they found it. They can do this by establishing and abiding by standards of behavior that are ethical, legal and beyond reproach. Members will follow the examples set by their leaders. The buck stops here.
So, there you have it. Some of the key obligations and responsibilities of legislative leadership. It is up to all legislative leaders to pass effective laws, balance the executive, represent the people, inform the public and protect the institution. I know that is a lot to handle, but to again quote President Truman, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen!” However, knowing many of our state legislative leaders, I have no doubt that you can and will “stand the heat” and step up and be the leaders that America needs and deserves now, more than ever. The buck stops here!