The other day I voted “no” on the second reading of a bill and explained why in remarks on the Senate floor. I was later told that the only issues we’re voting on at second reading is whether the committee report is accurate, or the bill referral is accurate.
Hogwash. We’re voting on the changes made to the bill in the first committee(s).
However, when I pointed this out (in more diplomatic language), and said the House frequently had debates on second reading, I was told that we didn’t want to change the “culture of the Senate.”
Later that week my husband showed me a page in a biography of Lyndon Johnson he’s reading:
“This change in the nature of the Senate had a further implication. It was offstage, in secret, that Lyndon Johnson himself liked to work. ‘It is the politicians task to pass legislation, not to sit around saying principled things’ he said. This attitude left no room in the LBJ philosophy for the Senate as a deliberative body in which speeches could change the outcome of legislation, or as an educational body in which speeches were intended to inform the public on issues of the day.
“The role of public debate in securing popular assent to policies and, ultimately, national unity was a concept he could not grasp.”
Master of the Senate, Robert A. Caro
I had always thought our legislature was unique because our local customs and cultures do not encourage speaking out, are concerned with saving face, respecting seniority. But maybe it’s more than just local customs. Maybe it’s also due to a fundamental view of the job.
If you view a legislator’s job as exclusively or primarily to pass laws and a budget, then debate makes that task more difficult. It’s easier to make agreements between a majority of the legislators in back rooms, vote without debate, and move on.
Not coincidentally, this system also makes it easier for leadership to maintain concentrated power.
But what about that other role of a legislature that Caro is talking about? The Legislature as a deliberative and educational body.
Are we leaders who identify serious issues and challenges facing our state, who debate and deliberate to reach popular agreement for policies and programs to address those issues? Do we have a responsibility in the legislature to educate and inform the public – not only so residents can weigh in, but also to try and develop some level of unity among residents so we can successfully meet these challenges? Or as we say locally, to get all our canoes pointed in the same direction.
Some legislators I’ve spoken with in the past embrace this broader role. Others have hastily said that that is the Governor’s job.
What do you think?