40 Years Strong May 2014

40 Years Strong | May 2014



The Pre-Cyber Lawmaker vs. the High-Tech Lawmaker

The essential role of legislator may not have changed much in the 40 years since State Legislatures magazine began, but the citizens they represent and American life in general sure have. Changes in technology, privacy, security, longevity, health care, communications and  family structure are just a few of the complex issues that look very different today than they did in 1975, challenging lawmakers in new and different ways.


A contemporary legislator and the 1975 version.In 1975 there were 7,565 state lawmakers, 182 more than today; 2,385 were Republicans and 5,070 were Democrats. Today, GOP lawmakers outnumber Democrats 3, 835 to 3,447. 

Like 37 percent of adults in 1975, he might have smoked, but even if he didn’t, he definitely negotiated in smoke-filled rooms, since clean-air laws didn’t catch on until after 2000. 

His main communication device was a land-line phone, but at some statehouses, he’d have to drop a dime in pay phones in the hall or lobby, often waiting in line for the privilege. The famous pink “While You Were Out” slips filled his pockets. They were to modern voice mail what the Pony Express was to letter delivery.

He likely had no problem accepting a free cup of coffee, courtesy of a lobbyist, before the era of strict no-gift laws. Today, at least nine states have strict no-cup-of-coffee gift bans.

His shoes were sturdy enough for frequent trips to the statehouse for copies of bills or to watch the proceedings. His modern successors do both from their computers. But maybe all that walking didn’t hurt, as the U.S. obesity rate was only 15 percent, compared to 35 percent today.


Although still a minority in statehouses, nearly one in four legislators is a woman, and 61 are in leadership positions. Forty years ago, there were no female leaders and only one in 20 lawmakers was a woman. Today, in all state capitols, the sexes have separate bathrooms—that was not always the case in ‘75. And the coffee? She bought that herself.

Papers, books and pink “While You Were Out” slips are gone, replaced by a smart phone that contains her calendar, contacts, bill directory, newspaper, TV, calculator, camera, mileage calculator, dictionary, access to the Web, along with her shopping list and photos of grandkids. Twitter and Facebook accounts keep her in touch with constituents several times a day.

At 56, she is average age for lawmakers of both genders, as more retirees have won office. More than 16 percent of legislators classify themselves as full-time legislators, followed by lawyers (15 percent) and retirees (12 percent). She’s also more likely to be from an ethnic minority. Today, at least 14 percent of lawmakers are, including roughly 9 percent African American and 3 percent Latino.

She may have more staff available to help with the workload. Year-round staff number around 27,500 today, about 10,500 more than in 1975. But they are more likely to be partisan, as more than half of all staff members are today.

At 6 p.m., she’s more likely to hit the gym than happy hour. She needs to stay fit as she represents more constituents than did her counterparts in 1975. Back then, senators represented, on average, 46,028 constituents; House members represented 16,340.  Today, those numbers have grown to 159,981 and 58,304, respectively.

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