The Legislature turns in a so-so performance.
- The pirate apprentice Frederic in
"Pirates of Penzance"
by Gilbert and Sullivan
I have a theory that the collective wisdom of a group diminishes with each additional member, and the rate of reduction accelerates in proportion to the participants' sense of their own importance.
It explains why corporate boards of directors with some of the leading business executives of the country end up letting Enrons and Tycos happen. It explains why Americans seem to love their own congressman and re-elect him regularly while viewing Congress itself with "absolute detestation." And it explains why even a person who enjoys the political process and considers constitutional democracy better than anything else can feel forlorn and disappointed at most meetings of the Florida Legislature.
We do have it better than some. Look north to Georgia's General Assembly. A week after winning election, three Democrats in the House switched to the Republican Party, a shameless act of voter fraud. A Democratic senator was under a 142-count criminal indictment and won re-election anyway. The chairman of the Rules Committee held up other bills until he won enough votes for his bill to legalize sparklers, which along with legislation to let people bring their guns into restaurants is the kind of thing that passes for championing civil liberties in Georgia. That, of course, is the state where the Republican governor got elected by promising to change the state flag back to the segregation-era version, then tried to weasel out of it.
OK, so you can remember some pretty squalid moments in Florida legislative history. Legislatures span the spectrum from craven selfishness and narrow-mindedness to creativity and great public service. They'll tell you about the latter. They hope you missed the rest.
Mark Twain famously remarked, "No man's life, liberty, or property are safe while the legislature is in session." Now you can watch it on television. You can see them actually reading scripts to move their legislation along, because the outcome is already settled and most of these term-limited people lack the experience to really grasp legislative procedure. "In a lot of states, members are using scripts a lot more than they used to," says House Clerk John Phelps, who has been on the legislative staff for three decades. "They're sensitive to making a mistake on television." Well, they may avoid mistakes, but some of them obviously don't read very well.
Members themselves have a sense that they are simply carried with a tide. Even the strong gravitational pull of the House speaker or Senate president is subject to a perfect storm of lobbyists. Just ask House Speaker Allan Bense, who expressed surprise at the chorus of nays from members when the House was asked to take up Senate President Tom Lee's lobbying bill. The lobbyists cheered.
Just say no
Individual character and ability matter, and you can find plenty of it in the Legislature. Really. But as those of us with teenagers know, individual behavior is influenced by the group they're with. In the case of legislators, you're worried not about kids with drugs and fast cars but about lobbyists and deal-making.
Parents never like to blame their own kids, who have simply "fallen in with a bad crowd" -- which explains Lee's approach to legislative ethics: Instead of telling your kids to stay away from the bad kids, make the bad kids tell you who their parents are. He put the responsibility on the lobbyists, not the legislators who ought to "just say no."
Every "reform" produces its own loopholes and alternatives. Violations usually get a wrist-slap or less. And the public is worse off than before.
If we really wanted to change things, we'd require legislators to disclose who wrote their bills and amendments for them, then match that against the campaign contributions list. Don't hold your breath waiting for that to pass, though.
We're basically protecting legislators from themselves -- from their inexperience at debate and procedure, from their ineffectiveness at putting together coalitions to move legislation, from their inability to stand firm against lobbyist inducements and pressures.
Florida's higher level of journalist scrutiny makes things better here. Florida has half a dozen metro dailies vs. Georgia's single big paper in Atlanta, for example. That's like having a network of parents watching out for the kids.
But even high-profile bills are covered more as concepts than as specific prescriptions. Growth management was usually described as requiring infrastructure to be in place or planned before developments were approved and putting serious money toward the backlog. Well, yes, more than before. But nobody seemed to wonder why developers weren't attacking this bill. It's because the bill will make things better for them, not worse. It's the local governments (and local taxpayers) who are going to be stuck here -- local officials untutored in the intricacies of growth planning against the well-funded forces of development and a new law designed mainly to get more roads paved.
Legislators go home and, depending on the audience, herald this big new growth-management bill, tout to the business community the additional money for roads, lament to the environmental community that it might have been stronger. Accountability is diffused.
Not good enough
The Legislature was certainly a kinder, gentler place this year, despite Lee's occasional snide remarks. Neither Bush nor Bense took his bait. But it wasn't that great a year for the governor.
Legislators seem to have lost patience with Bush initiatives that come as "frameworks," a nice word for half-baked schemes. Medicaid this session was an idea without a plan, and Bush was hoping the healthcare people and the Legislature would figure out the details. He's lucky he got a pilot program in two counties. The best you can say for it is that it proposes to make Medicaid services as bad as the country's healthcare insurance instead of as bad as the country's welfare system.
Some said Bush lost influence because he is a lame duck. The real problem was that he didn't have his ducks in a row. This governor is still a rock star. He's just not used to working without House roadies doing the heavy lifting.
But they all congratulated each other.
Why am I so surly? Because this legislative leadership has enough public spirit and independent outlook to really do more for this state. It's not enough to put up deflector shields and stop bad stuff from getting through. It's not enough to take concepts and throw something together on the fly with lots of good spin and camaraderie behind it.
We shouldn't be satisfied with such modest accomplishment from the people we elect. If we tolerated such mediocrity from our business employees, we would all be out of business. Those of us who participate in the process need to demand that in exchange for our contributions and support the legislators perform at an extraordinary level for the good of this state -- not just as individuals but collectively. Gilbert and Sullivan's pirates of Penzance discovered their own nobility in the end. Our legislators should too.