Overview and Faculty:
In order to be a strong, co-equal branch of government, legislatures need to build institutional strength. They do this through establishing strong leadership, developing the ability to take on tough issues, building consensus, providing transparency and connecting with citizens. This session examined strong legislatures, with particular focus on reaching the public.
Presenters: Representative John Patton, Wyoming
Former Senator John Chichester, Virginia
Karl Aro, Executive Director, Department of Legislative Services, Maryland
Susan Schaar started the session by describing the importance of strong legislatures in empowering states to handle today’s complicated challenges. She stressed the importance of staff, particularly those dealing with core legislative functions like drafting, research and committee work. Also, she noted the value of legislative leadership in keeping the legislature productive and efficient, concentrating on the right priorities.
Representative John Patton discussed his work with the Citizens Conference on State Legislatures in the 1960s and asserted the importance of adhering to some of the timeless principles and findings of that effort to improve and professionalize state legislatures. He described the FAIIR test, evaluating legislatures on their ability to be functional, accountable, informed, independent and representative. This led to the identification of nine key factors necessary to score well on the FAIIR test: staffing, compensation, time, committee structure, facilities, leadership, rules and procedure, size and ethics. Although we’ve made progress in some of these areas, countering forces have impeded some legislatures. For example, from an efficiency standpoint, the number of committees and the number of committee assignments for each member should be reasonable. However, many legislatures are falling into a pattern of creating new committees or task forces for every new issue that arises. Representative Patton ended with the theme of openness and the value of making the public aware of that priority.
Karl Aro provided a six-point definition of a strong legislature, which:
• Allows full and open debate on issues, particularly controversial and complex issues.
• Is proactive in addressing key issues as they develop.
• Adheres to rules and procedure, but is able to adjust to changing times.
• Respects and values public input in committee hearings and provides information to the public.
• Hires and develops a dedicated, professional staff.
• Creates the necessary infrastructure to provide effective and efficient operations.
As to leadership, Karl quoted Lao-Tzu, who said that “A leader is best when people barely know he exists, not so good when people obey and acclaim him, worse when they despise him. But of a good leader who talks little when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: ‘we did it ourselves’.”
Former Senator Chichester mentioned some of the Virginia procedures and traditions that promote the goal of a strong legislature. They have a 60-calendar-day limit for their session, which focuses legislators’ attention and minimizes mischief. Virginia legislators tend to avoid political posturing with their bills, as this type of legislation has no chance of success. He also implored states to avoid term limits, as legislator experience is the only way to prepare to respond to a governor in a legislative/executive disagreement. Also, legislator committee chairs must have a long-term vision and the ability to communicate it. Only experience will help give you the wisdom to find the right track and lead your committee to stay on it. Lastly, Senator Chichester noted that great legislative leaders surround themselves with staff and advisors who will challenge them and be brutally honest.