Friday, July 30, 2010

A Historic Document in Legislative Reform Supported By at Least Some Republicans Somewhere

John Burns. The Sometimes Governments: A Critical Study of the 50 American Legislatures. New York: Bantam Books, 1971.

This book is the product of research conducted by the Citizens Commission on State Legislatures that formed in 1969 to study what improvements can be made upon all state legislatures. This was done while recognizing that each state had its own legislative process. There was, circa 1971, a general consensus that legislative process standards were low and that little had been done prior to study these systems and analyze how to improve them.

Researchers found that many legislators lacked the resources to comprehend the complex and diverse issues before them. Legislatures began meeting more often and were holding more committee hearings to better comprehend issues. In 1971, 36 states had annual state legislative meetings while 14 met in sessions once every two years. In 1941, only four states had legislative meetings every year.

National commissions studying legislatures in the late 1960s identified several problems. The role of the Federal and state governments was under much debate. White House advisor Daniel Patrick Moynihan observed the Federal government was “rather good at collecting revenues and rather bad at distributing services.” City and state governments were being seen by people agreeing with Moynihan’s sentiments as organizations more aware of local and regional needs yet lacking the financial resources to deal with them. In these debates, others expressed fears of “excessive localization”, the need for nationwide uniformity in services, and their belief that the Federal government could better direct resources where needed. The author argues there was an unfilled need of an intermediary that could avoid over reliance on both centralization and localization. State governments, he advised, could fill that role. Daniel Elazar concluded “it is important that there be a sharing of power between the Federal government and state governments.” This would require expanding the powers of state governments.

States were recognizing their need for increased roles over public policies. 28 states, as of the early 1970s, had planning and community affairs offices and over a dozen had housing and urban development programs.

In the late 18th century, as state governments were forming, state legislatures often had greater than in the 20th century. A war against a King made people wary of the Executive branch of government. Several legislatures chose Governors and Judges who served only one term.

Jeffersonian questioning of all government powers plus Jacksonian individualism weakened legislative powers. Governor rarely abused powers, in part because they had few powers to abuse. Thus, Governors gained more public respect and slowly garnered more political influence. In contrast, numerous scandals where financial influences corrupted legislators caused diminished public respect for the legislative branch.

Budgetary control shifted from legislators to Governors. Half the states had Executive budget making by the 1920s, something now conducted by all Governors.

Alexander Heard found state legislatures had difficulties functioning as they should in setting policies on many complex issues. They lacked sufficient staff, space, technical assistance, and meeting times. They were lowly paid and were thus subject to bribes or employment from special interests.

The author states an “ideal legislature” is one that democratically decides, after reflecting all its societal views and values, on actions that effectively handles needs. The author concluded no such ideal legislature exists.

Many legislative issues concern only few people, yet it impacts those it impacts significantly. This tends to make legislatures skewed towards listening to the interests affected by these legislative matters. Most legislatures in the early 1970s lacked professional staff to analyze information independently from what outside interests provided them. Thus, many legislators lacked the ability to make independent decisions. Further, since many of those issues did not affect many, there also was a lack of general concern whether legislators were able to make more balanced decisions.

Often the Executive branch or lobbyists were the primary sources of information provided to legislators in the early 1970s and prior. Legislatures had difficulties in creating innovative policies, overseeing programs, engaging in long range planning, conducting evaluations of their own actions, and in making forecasts of what problems were emerging.

The Citizens Conference on State Legislatures recommended that legislatures have professional staff, clerical staff, sufficient pay, enough time to properly conduct work, and that legislatures have reasonable numbers of committees and committee members. Legislative work should be conducted with public agendas and records, using proper facilities to conduct such work, and with legislative leadership operating legislative business fairly and orderly. The legislative size should be small enough to operate effectively. Legislators should not have conflicts of interest and lobbyists should be regulated.

The Citizens Commissions ranked the 50 state legislatures. California ranked first, New York second, Illinois third, Florida fourth, Washington 19th, Pennsylvania 21st, Connecticut 24th,Colorado 28th, Texas 38th, Georgia 45th, Arkansas 46th, and Alabama 50th.

Kentucky had a very inconsistent rating, coming in 2nd in accountability, 7th in representation, 44th in independence, 48th in being informed, and 49th in functionality, for an overall 31st rating.

Pennsylvania was 5th in independence, 23rd in accountability, 23rd in being informed, 36th in representation, and 37th in functionality.

Many legislators stated the need to sufficiently study issues is very important, It was also noted by several studies, including one by the Pennsylvania Legislative Evaluation Study, that time management is also important. Both annual and biannual legislatures experienced “jam ups” of many bills that were not voted upon until the end of their sessions.

Many legislators, as of the early 1970s, lacked an office and did not have a secretary. Many legislatures did not have an electronic roll call system.

The author advises against having too many committees, thus leaving some committees with insufficient significant work. The author warns that legislatures too large in size may leave some legislators with little influence and their district lacking representation. He recommends legislatures be from 100 to 130 representatives with 15 to 20 House committees and 10 to 15 Senate committees.

Order should be a primary goal of the legislative procedures. Legislative committees should be able to consider and create legislation. Some legislatures allow a bill simultaneous introduction in both changers; something the author recommends every state adopt. Several states have their committees from both chambers meet in joint hearings. Some states require every committee to take action on every bill referred to them, thus avoiding the ability of one legislature (usually the Speaker of a committee chair) to unilaterally decide to kill a bill.

The author warns it is easier to amend a bill during floor votes by majority vote rather than by an extraordinary vote.

The author warns against making legislative leaders too powerful. Several states place a one term limit on being Speaker, although the author believes leaders should be allowed to serve more than one term as leaders.

Bernard McCormick, a Pennsylvania reporter, noted when interviewing the public that many did not know who their legislator was, what legislators did, but they felt they were “a bunch of thieves”. While this is more an image problem, the author does observe that legislators should be more accountable. The public should know and understand more what legislators do.

The author recommends that legislative leaders or a leadership committee choose committee chairs instead of choosing them by caucus elections. This will make leaders and chairs accountable for a proper work flow.

Legislatures should have rules and backup rules, such as Mason’s Manual. Rules should have provisions to prevent sending a legislature into limbo, the author argues.

Bernard McCormick also noted the press failed to “appreciate” good legislators. He provided the example of John Pittenger, who was well regarded by both parties for his intellect, who faced much opposition from his local press.

The author notes that legislatures with minority viewpoints should neither be able to unreasonably thwart the will of the majority nor should they be ignored. The author recommends that minority party legislative leaders should choose minority committee memberships.

Legislation should have fiscal notes estimating the costs involved should bills be enacted, the author advises. Legislatures should have staff capable of producing fiscal notes.

The author advises against restricting the length of times that legislatures can meet.

The legislature should not be dependent upon the Executive branch, the author argues. In some states then, it was tradition for Governors to prose legislation and legislators to usually agree with little questioning. The legislatures should have oversight over administrative functions.

A representative legislature is one where legislatures have strong ties reflecting their constituencies, diverse membership, and a process that allows legislators to effectively represent their constituents.

The Commission found the size of the Pennsylvania House at 203 as too large. It also declared that 23 House committees and 21 Senate committees were too many. It further stated that the legislative pay of $7,200 per year plus $4,800 expenses was too low. The Commission recommended centralizing the legal, research, and planning staff. It recommended each legislator have a separate office, as many shared offices then. It further recommended creating an audit oversight within the legislature.