Ultra-partisan lawmakers fail to pass many needed lawsOne little-noticed effect of the hyper-partisan attitudes in St. Paul and Washington, D.C., is the lack of laws being passed.
One little-noticed effect of the hyper-partisan attitudes in St. Paul and Washington, D.C., is the lack of laws being passed. I can’t prove that the Minnesota Legislature and Congress have been passing fewer laws because members of each party can’t stand the other, but it‘s a likely culprit.
Many people think it’s great if lawmakers pass few laws (raise your hands, Tea Partiers), but it’s not good. If new laws and changes in old ones were needed over past decades, there’s no reason to think the need is less in our more-complicated times.
Let’s take the Minnesota Legislature first. In the last 12 years, state lawmakers passed an average of 165 laws each year, with a high of 220 in 2001 and a low of 106 in 2011, according to The Minnesota Legislative Reference Library website. There wasn’t a trend to ever-lower numbers in those years, but the totals contrast sharply with those from a few decades earlier.
From 1951 to 1965, legislators passed an average of 840 laws each session. Lawmakers met only every other year back then, but, even if you cut those totals (which ranged from 988 to 706) in half, more than twice as many laws were passed.
These numbers aren’t interesting in themselves, but the results would be, if we could see the kind of bills turned into law in those years, that die in committee (or on the floor of one chamber) today.
I have a few things I hope every year lawmakers will do, only to be disappointed. I’ll mention just two. One is changing the unwise state law that gives pedestrians, rather than cars, the right of way at all intersections. The other is changing the Minnesota Constitution to remove the formula for distributing state gas taxes.
Many legislators and others will disagree with me on those changes. But the folks we send to St. Paul have got too caught up in partisanship to think about many important but non-spectacular things they should act on. The changes I favor weren’t thought about and then rejected, they weren’t even considered — along with lots of others.
From start to finish, a legislative session sees much talk (and some action) on revenue forecasts, bonding bills, school aid formulas and a few other high-profile items.
But between partisan bickering and overemphasis on a few issues, many others get overlooked. Lawmakers are elected to go to St. Paul and use real-life experiences from back home to raise debate and vote on a wide range of ideas. Way too many become professional lawmakers who lose touch with other needs.
In Washington, the drop in the number of bills passed can be seen in statistics from the past 12 years. Except for the aberration of the 2001-02 Congress, laws passed have fallen regularly. In the 1999-2000 Congress, 558 bills became law. By 2009-10, that had dropped to 366. The 2011-12 session is still going on but looks to be low also.
Though fewer laws are passed each session, more legislation is introduced each year — only to drown in a poisonous partisan swamp.
One big problem in the Senate is that they’ve persuaded themselves they need 60 votes to do almost anything. No, they don’t! The 60-vote rule is what’s needed to invoke cloture and end a filibuster. But senators of both parties take seriously a rule that doesn’t exist.
I’ve said in this space earlier that I’d like to see every member of Congress on the ballot defeated. I wasn’t kidding. There are a few worth keeping, but I’d sacrifice them in order to elect better people. In polls, only about 15 percent of Americans approve the actions of Congress. That’s probably the percent that deserve re-election.
I’ve met many state legislators and members of Congress over the years, and they have one thing in common: ambition; they want to hold prestigious office. Sure, some are altruistic but too many (and this is mostly true in Congress, not state legislatures) want to keep special interests happy to draw campaign contributions that allow them to keep their jobs.
If lawmakers at both levels can’t stifle their hyper-partisan ways, voters should elect new ones. A bonus might be seeing the new ones think of what the people back home need.
Budgeteer opinion columnist Virgil Swing has been writing about Duluth for many years. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.