Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Loss of Legislative Competence

As I talk with regulators, lobbyists, and industry leaders around the country, a common complaint emerges regarding the current condition of state legislatures. Many of these people that I talk with contend that the legislatures in their states now accomplish less than in past years, and that they do so because there are both greater ideological divides and less institutional competence among their members.

When pundits -- whether from the blogosphere or the mainstream media -- discuss the events of the day, we tend to focus on the divides between liberal and conservative policy positions. However, much of what government does requires decision making along lines that really don't break down in that way. It is one thing to have a broad belief system as to how much health care government should provide. It is something else to actually understand how, for example, public health departments function, what their funding needs are, and how their services are delivered. To put it in another way, two politicians may divide along philosophical lines as to whether road funds should be used entirely to fill pot holes, or whether some of it should be used to create greenways. Whatever they decide, someone sheperding legislation governing transportation still needs to understand the needs of those filling the potholes, with whatever funds they ultimately are provided.

It is that latter kind of expertise -- the kind that requires an understanding of pot holes -- that critics say is now lacking.

Of course, legislators have always been subject to this kind of criticism, but the situation is arguably getting worse. Some of the blame may lie with term limits (in states that have them). I have argued in favor of term limits, and I continue to believe that some limitations are appropriate due to the need to offset the powers of incumbency, which tend to create a political class too far removed from ordinary citizens. However, term limit time frames that are too short result in a loss of institutional memory and leadership and leave insufficient time for others to come in and fill the gaps.

While term limits are an issue, I think there are two more important factors. First, the increased use of gerrymandering has resulted in the creation of ever more homogeneous ideological districts. This has tended to favor types of candidates whose primary preoccupation is political vantage point -- whether it be conservative or liberal -- regardless of what they have otherwise accomplished with or learned from their lives. Second, the metaphorical colon exam that candidates must ever more painfully endure when running for office discourages competent, successful people of all political stripes from running. If I am a successful businessman or community leader, but have some strange family members or a skeleton in my closet from 20 years ago, why should I want to have to deal with that public scrutiny?

Most public debate over issues nowadays is limited to very broad strokes. Unfortunately, it often does not get any more detailed than that in the hearing room. If the devil is in the details, then legislatures require competent people from varied fields who can provide leadership in ferreting those details out. As the public is placing less value on that capacity, it is being found less in our public bodies.

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