Thoughts on “Confrontational Politics”
Thoughts on “Confrontational Politics”
After attending a session on “Confrontational Politics: How things really work” conducted by the North Star Liberty Alliance, I got to thinking about comparing and contrasting the approaches that might be effective as a special interest group versus that of a legislator.
From either perspective, the need for lists, money and people is accurate. How one conducts oneself to be “effective” however, will vary.
First, one needs to define “effective”. If one has a single issue focus, obviously whether one achieves his or her objective on that issue is the measure of effectiveness. However, as a legislator, you have multiple issues that need your attention and decision-making. And, that difference dictates different approaches to how one performs his/her duties.
As a State Representation in Michigan in 2011-2012, I knew I could not be an expert on everything. My background and expertise lay in economics, law and business management. What Michigan needed then was to recover from the depths of the Great Recession, and that is where I focused. I had learned while serving as attorney for the Republican Caucus of the Washington State House of Representatives in 1981-1984 that to be effective a representative needed to focus on issues that matched their expertise and follow other representatives of like mind in their areas of expertise. I also sought to avoid being a single issue representative because I had learned that they simply were not very effective within their caucus as they were viewed as pariahs with little to offer on other issues, and thus ignored.
I remembered my advice to a newly appointed Representative who had been appointed to fill a position vacated by another who had been appointed to a cabinet position. I advised him not to speak on the floor of the House except on issues he knew well, so as to be deemed credible. I gave him a list of 10 big issues that session to choose three or four from that he would focus on , and speak on the floor on those issues only, plus key issues that flowed through the committees he served on. He quickly gained credibility and was deemed a man of substance. I also advised him to reach across the aisle and get to know the Democrats so that he could work effectively with them. He did so, even to the extent that in the Representatives’ dinner room under the House Chambers he frequently lunched with Democrats and built relationships with them and earned their trust as well. Three years later he was selected as the caucus Minority Leader and later served as Speaker of the House for many years. He served through an impressive legislative career. Clyde Ballard was a smaller man physically and fairly quiet and mild mannered, but could be tough when needed. He demonstrated that you do not need to be either loud or big to be tough.
What I witnessed in the Washington legislature and again in the Michigan legislature is how top down most key legislation is enacted. If you are not the Speaker, or a key committee chairman, you have little “positional” influence. When push comes to shove on the key issues, the decisions are made by the Governor, the Senate Majority Leader and the Speaker of the House. On some decisions, the Committee Chair is brought into the discussion, but often not. And, if the Speaker does not want an issue to go anywhere, he would refer the bill to a committee where he knows it will die. Or, if a bill moves forward in a committee through hearings, he can pressure the committee chair not to move the bill to the full House. But, if the Chair allows the bill to move to the full House, the Speaker may choose simply to allow the bill sit and not be voted on. If a representative moves on the floor for immediate consideration of a bill the Speaker does not want, he simply rules it out of order.
The caucus is expected to vote with the Speaker on all such “procedural” motions, including any appeals from the decision of the Chair. Failure to support the Speaker can result in loss of support for a member’s bills, loss of staff, loss of committee chairmanships, loss of committee assignments, loss of re-election support, loss of parking spots, or even loss of the representative’s office space and being assigned to a broom closet (yes, I saw that happen). Revolts against the Speaker to curb his power are extremely rare, so one crosses the Speaker only at your peril. You may feel that “I don’t work for the Speaker, I represent the people of my district”, but that and about $5 will buy you a cup of coffee at Starbucks.
So, a representative must select his/her battles. You know that no bill even comes to the floor if the Speaker does not have the votes to pass the bill. If you oppose a bill, or some provisions in it, you had best try to work out the problems directly with the committee chair before it comes to the floor. But, you can’t keep apprised of all the bills you might be opposed to; you just don’t have the time to do so. So, you can argue in caucus against the bills or propose amendments in caucus, but if not successful, then what? If in the minority, you can propose amendment after amendment on the floor, as you know none will pass. But if you are in the majority, it is rare you will be successful in getting an amendment passed unless you have the approval of the committee chair and the Speaker. So, in most cases, even if you oppose the bill, should you vote against it? You know it will pass, so should you record your objection with a “no” vote? To do so would lessen your influence on other legislation, as representatives do not like anyone “messing with my bills”. So, should you keep your powder dry and just go along? In most cases, for good or bad reasons, I did.
To maximize your positional power in the legislature you need to get into leadership. To do that, you usually need to “buy” votes by helping other legislators get elected by helping them campaign or raise money for them so that they “owe” you. Or, if you can get to be Speaker, you can reward them for their support by appointing them to important committee chairmanships. It is difficult to help others in their campaign when you are in a swing district, so the legislators who are in “safe” districts are in best position to get into leadership, especially in states where there are no term limits where you can also build up long seniority.
You can try to maximize your effectiveness by increasing your credibility. You can build relationships by helping others with their bills that you agree with. But, don’t expect much loyalty, as most caucus members, while being pretty good people, will show little loyalty. You must keep in mind, “What’s in it for me?”, which is always on the other representatives’ minds. (And with lobbyists, expect even less loyalty, as it is amazing how fast you go from being “Who’s who” to “Who’s that?”) If you cannot be of any help to either a lobbyist or another representative, you are quickly disregarded. You really don’t have many true friends in politics. (Except at the grassroots level, where you meet many “salt of the earth”.)
I was able to build sufficient “credibility power” to serve on a special Joint Senate and House Appropriations Task Force or committee on the Michigan Public School Employees Retirement System, due to my previous work on what to do about the system’s $45 billion unfunded liability and the 28% of payroll the school districts needed to pay into the system. We were able to enact legislation that reduced that liability by $15 billion (with the remainder to be amortized over the next 26 years). But I was not successful in getting a second critical piece passed because the Speaker traded it away in conference committee because neither he nor the other conferees understood the issue. So, credibility was helpful, but positional authority was the deciding factor.
I hate to be cynical, but you also quickly realize that most legislators' prime objective is to be re-elected. In 2011-12, we had the majority in both the House and the Senate and also a Republican Governor. The representatives had just been elected in 2010 to two-year terms while the Senators would not face re-election until 2014. Despite that, the Senators were very reluctant to take controversial votes on conservative issues that might offend some voters in their districts. At first, I thought they were just
chicken shit cautious, but eventually realized they were simply more experienced at self-preservation. They were being rational, weighing the benefits and costs (to themselves) of taking certain votes, and getting them to do what was best for the public was a secondary consideration.
They may weigh the advantage of maybe appealing to the middle while accepting the danger of disappointing voters who favor a more partisan (or conservative or of some special interest group) position, who may stay home in the next election or vote for someone else in a primary election (heaven forbid, as this is what legislators in “safe” districts fear the most). If the special interest appears to be weak in its ability to influence its membership, due to most voters having multiple interests, many of those being purely economic, the legislator is likely to lean toward the middle.
Despite that, however, we did get quite a bit done in the two years I served, including passing Right to Work (the freedom to work without being coerced to join a union with which you may not agree, a “freedom of association” issue under the First Amendment) in the lame duck session of 2012, even with massive union and Democrat demonstrations inside and outside the capital that required a huge State Police presence to restrain violence.
I was also disappointed in the lack of in-depth thinking by most legislators. Many issues today are very complex. Most major issues have extensive analysis or even “reports” by consultants from both sides (and sometimes, multiple “sides”). And, it is simply amazing that each such analysis or report supports the position of who paid for the report. Who should you believe? Well, most legislators do not read the reports. And, rarely are their staff asked to do so either. And, most legislators who do read a report do not read the reports from both sides. And, if they did, how many have the intellectual horsepower or training to critically analyze the arguments and statistics? So, the legislators fall back on their preconceived ideas and biases and have staff (or the lobbyists) prepare “talking points”. It is rare that a legislator will challenge his/her “confirmation bias” by selecting, consciously or unconsciously, information that confirms his/her opinion on issues. I had seen that when working with the Washington State legislature, so I should have known better, but I was idealistic enough to hope that was not the case in the Michigan legislature. I was vastly disappointed.
Conclusion: Although I can see that confrontational politics can work for a special interest group, I don’t see it working well for a legislator (or even a citizen who is interested in multiple issues). There are simply too many issues that are important to limit one’s focus on one issue. And, one finds out that most issues are far more complex than the “man in the street” has any clue about. When in the minority, you can politically posture by “fighting” for many things and on many issues, knowing you will not affect the outcome. It is easy to be a “hero” while in the minority. But when in the majority, you must govern. (What a bummer, huh?) Choices must be made. Priorities must be considered. And that is where many activists come to the conclusion that elected officials “sell out” to the system. Elected Republicans often get tagged as “Rinos – Republicans in name only.
Compromise is the anathema for a special interest. Confrontation may serve to improve the special interest group’s bargaining position, as the extremes make the middle seem more reasonable. See “Overton Window” Having the legislators fear what the special interest group may do to oppose, embarrass or otherwise hurt the legislator may coerce legislators to support the special interest’s positions. But, if one wants to serve the general interest, sometimes a legislator will agree with a special interest, and sometimes not. When not, he/she simply must stand the heat, or get out of the kitchen. That’s why they get paid the big bucks, right? (sarcasm)