Can Congress Learn From States Legislatures? Panel Says Yes

September 24, 2019 by Dan McCue
State Sen. Larry Obhof, the Republican President of the Ohio State Senate, speaks at a Bipartisan Policy Center session this week on Modernizing Congress: Lessons From State Legislatures.

WASHINGTON – In an era of political polarization here in Washington, state legislatures just might hold the key to getting past the friction and on to bipartisan agreement on meaningful legislation.

At least that was the consensus of a panel of state lawmakers and academics who spoke at the Bipartisan Policy Center on Monday.

The center is a think tank devoted to fostering bipartisanship, and it frequently makes recommendations to Congress, particularly to the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress.

John Richter, director of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Congress Project, described the creation of the Select Committee as “a promising development, suggesting renewed interest in the institution in taking stock of itself and recommending necessary forms to make the House function more effectively.”

Noting that a similar committee has only been convened three times since World War II — in 1945, 1965, and 1992 — Richter said it is important that those committed to making Congress “more efficient and effective” seize an “opportunity that comes along once every couple of decades.”

It was in that spirit that the center invited State Sen. Larry Obhof, the Republican President of the Ohio State Senate; State Rep. Georgene Louis, a Democrat from New Mexico; Emily Baer, assistant professor of political science, at University of New Hampshire, and Natalie Wood of the National Conference of State Legislatures, to share their views.

Michael Thorning, associate director of governance at the Bipartisan Policy Center, served as moderator of Monday’s events.

STATES OFFER VALUABLE LESSONS

Professor Baer provided much of the context for the discussion, noting that state legislatures have been an important influence on how the federal government functions since the beginning of the Republic.

“Many of the foundations of the U.S. Constitution and of Congress itself emanate directly from the state constitutions adopted shortly after the Declaration of Independence,” Baer said.

“Separation of powers ,for example, was a concept written into the constitutions of all 13 of the original states, the bicameral structure, where you had an upper and lower House, were found in 11 of the 13 states, and the executive veto was already included in three state constitutions,” she said.

Baer went on to note that the idea of having the House oversee the government’s finances, the standing committee structure, and even the rules ofwhat would constitute a quorum all emanated from state constitutions.

And she said the out-sized influence of the states on Congress continued into the modern era.

“If you look at the testimony given before the Joint Select Committee on the Organization of Congress in the 1960s and 1990s, who clearly see reform ideas on committee structure, leadership powers and even some change to members and staff pay and benefits being borrowed from the states,” she said.

“Historically speaking, Congress has been far more interested in looking at what state legislatures have done than in considering academic or legislative research — including that developed by the GAO — and think tanks here in Washington.”

LEARN TO GET ALONG

The biggest reason for this, of course, is that most members of Congress begin their political careers in state and local politics and have served in their respective state legislatures. So what advice do today’s state legislators have for their counterparts on Capitol Hill?

Ohio Sen. Larry Obhof, who described himself at different times as “pretty conservative” and “not a moderate” said there will always be some issues that he and the more liberal Democratic members of the state legislature will disagree on.

“That said, I think the most important thing to learn is how to get along with each other,” Obhof said. “There has to be a recognition that no matter how often you disagree on some things, 80% of the issues you tackle shouldn’t be viewed as Republican or Democratic issues.

“And if you focus on those, addressing them in a nonpartisan manner, you’ll make incremental steps toward the right public policy … for everybody,” he said.

“For example, if I ask you, ‘Should we fix local bridges that are crumbling?’ or ‘Should we address heroin overdoses across the state?’ There is not a Republican or Democratic answer to those questions. The answer should be yes,” Obhof said.

“Now, we may differ about how we get there, but if you can agree on some of the same underlying goals, you can move forward and continue to work on them.”

CONSTANT COMMUNICATION

Both Obhof and New Mexico State Rep. Georgene Louis agreed that it is important that people on both sides of the aisle be part of the legislative process.

“There has to be outreach from leadership at each part of the process,” Obhof said. “You can’t just sit down on the last day and say, ‘We saw some of your amendments, and these are the ones that ended up in the bill.’ To legislate effectively, there needs to be an ongoing process of give-and-take between the parties.”

Rep. Louis said in some ways, the part-time nature of the New Mexico Legislature fosters such a give and take.

Legislators only meet in the state capitol in Santa Fe for 30 days in even number years, and 60-days in odd number years when the budget is due. The rest of the time, legislative committees meet in different locations throughout the state.

Many legislators, regardless of party affiliation, choose to travel to these meetings together.

In addition to fostering friendships, the travel “really helps members of both parties and both chambers of the legislature understand the needs of the different communities and regions in the state, which helps in moving legislation,” Louis said.

LIMIT SURPRISES

Natalie Wood, of the National Conference of State Legislatures, suggested legislatures can’t function smoothly without an operative committee system.

Obhof readily agreed, suggesting much of a legislative body’s success is predicated on how committees and committee assignments are handled.

“I decide who serves on the committees and how many members are (on) each one, and I strive to keep the committee memberships roughly proportional to the political makeup of the body,” he said.

“I also strive to assign members to committees that align with their interests, but there are other factors to consider, not the least which is that we are, at least nominally, a part-time legislature, so I do try to take into account employment and district time in doing assignments,” Obhof said.

“The other thing I’m very mindful of is scheduling,” he said. “We try to work the entire schedule out at the beginning of the General Assembly, so that members know of meetings well ahead of time. … We avoid situations where you get a phone call the day before and find out you’re meeting tomorrow night.”

“My leadership team and I have a strong preference not to have issues sneak up on members,” Obhof said.

EQUITABLE STAFFING

Obhof said that fairness extends to staffing. Although he describes himself as a partisan Republican, at one point suggesting that if he were in Congress, he wouldn’t be among the moderates, he’s always felt that all members should have the staff they need to get their work done.

“In the Ohio Senate we have about a 73% Republican majority, but we divide resources for hiring staff somewhere closer to 60%-50% or 55% to 45%.” he said. “As a result, the Democratic caucus has nearly as many staffers as we do, despite having fewer members … and I think that’s fine.

“I’ve found that being respectful to the other side, and treating them the way that you’d want to be treated if you were in the minority, tends to be the right policy and works out pretty well,” Obhof said.

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