By Thomas H. Little, Ph.D. and SLLF Director of Curriculum Development and Research
Recently, an interesting video was brought to my attention by a former student. Entitled The Ayes Have it: The North Carolina General Assembly, the 30 minute video describes and explores the activities of the 1963 North Carolina General Assembly, showcasing its shiny (and if you have ever seen the gold plated fixtures in the building you know what I mean) new building as well as its members, processes and procedures.
As I watched and listened, I was struck by how much has changed and how much has not. I was caught off guard by the cigarette and cigar smoke that swirled around the committee rooms, private conversations and even the House and Senate floors. A more significant change regarded the membership, which was markedly different from today. As the camera pans the Senate floor, it is filled with middle-aged and older white men with just a few women scattered across the chamber. Indeed, the audio talks about “the men that you, the people, elected to represent you in Raleigh.”
Perhaps even more significantly, a review of the video shows no members of color – no African American, Asian American or Latino legislators are evident. Indeed, while there are minorities observing the process from the balcony, there appear to be none engaged as legislators, staff members or lobbyists.
Also, I was struck by the lack of partisanship because, as the video notes, “the legislative process seldom gets bogged down in partisan politics because the North Carolina General Assembly is overwhelmingly Democratic.” The Senate Minority Leader talks of his party’s role not as a check on the majority, but as the “swing vote” that helps one of the factions within the majority party.
Much has changed in fifty years, but much has not. While the piles of bills and books that once covered committee tables and chamber desks have been replaced by laptops and tablets, and constituent letters replaced with texts, emails and tweets, the basics of the legislative process have not changed for more than a century.
The processes described, including the introduction, assignment, consideration and passage or defeat of a bill, are no different today. If a legislator elected this fall (2016) to begin her term of service in January 2017 watched this video, she would be as well prepared to serve as if she had been elected to serve in the 1965 session. Bills are introduced. Legislative leaders assign them to committees. Committee chairs control the calendar and flow of information for his or her committee. Many key decisions are made behind the closed doors of a small cadre of leaders and many legislators vote up or down based not on objective data about the impact of a bill, but on the often subjective information provided by a lobbyist, committee chair, legislative leader or staff member.
Instead of using laptops to research and educate themselves on legislation, many legislators use them merely to print out the bills and committee reports (and maybe to play a game or two of solitaire), relying on instinct, ideology and partisanship to determine whether they vote for or against a bill. Instead of using social media to engage and start “conversations that matter,” with constituents, many use them as their predecessors used newsletters fifty years ago – as nothing more than a means to inform constituents of their exploits in the legislature. Instead of taking advantage of technology to hold virtual meetings and votes, most legislatures still require members to drive across the state, paying travel and per diem, for fifteen minute meetings. Instead of using data and analytics to predict population shifts and budget needs, they rely on the same incremental budgeting processes that have been used for decades.
It is time to drag the legislative process into the twenty-first century, even if we have to do it “kicking and screaming.” It is time that legislators and legislative leaders use twenty-first century technology for more than window dressing on nineteenth century processes and procedures.
Think of the possibilities! Virtual committee hearings could be held during the interim (granted, some states already do this one), saving time, money and resources. All bills could be distributed, amended and passed on-line, saving time and trees. With a little training about trusted internet sources, legislators and staff could conduct their own research, putting together their own bill summaries and fiscal notes rather than relying on sometimes biased information from the executive branch or lobbyists. Legislators could use social media not only to inform constituents, but to educate them and gauge their attitudes and positions on key critical issues in real time. Budget revenues and expenditure projections could be based on accurate population growth projections rather than wishful thinking. Highway construction could be in response to studies of traffic patterns rather than what district was home to the Appropriations Chair. The effectiveness of public policy could be measured by objective data analyses rather than anecdotes, “squeaky wheels” and political calculations. What a world that would be!
How do we get there? First, we have to acknowledge that “because we have always done it that way” is not an adequate justification for doing something. Second, we have to think differently and creatively to come up with new solutions to old problems. Third, we have to build and maintain bridges between the public and private sector – those in the private sector have been using data analytics to make key decisions for a very long time and can lead the way for the public sector. Fourth, we must tap into the expertise and experience that is in the private sector and take advantage of the data and information that is readily available. Finally, and perhaps most challenging, we must convince policy makers to give up some of their power and be willing to base decisions not on who introduced the bill, how many votes it will bring in the next election, or who made the biggest campaign contribution, but on what the objective analysis of the data indicates will best use the limited resources of the state.
So – let’s roll up our sleeves and get started!