Problems with the Legislature come from politicians with power, not the process

Victor Joecks

In his Sunday column, leftist pundit Jon Ralston calls for full-time legislators who meet every year, because, he argues, “The Legislative Process” inevitably causes poor decision making.

Welcome to The Legislative Process, banned in 49 states but still the longest-running show in Nevada. (Yes, yes – I know other capitals have their own quirks and even abominations. But there’s no place like home.) …

This is a process designed to produce lawmakers of generally low capacity because nothing much is expected of them. And, with some notable exceptions, they generally deliver on those expectations.

So we have a process that pays lawmakers too little so they can be influenced too much ($10,000 biennially with perks), a process that deliberately constrains deliberation (120 days?) and a process that inevitably will produce unintended consequences (again, too many to list).

While Ralston assigns the blame for the legislators’ poor decisions to the process, the problems really stem either from legislators behaving badly or legislators having their hands in areas they shouldn’t.

Let’s consider some examples of poor behavior Ralston cites and consider the cause of that behavior.

  • The Legislature exempted itself from the open-meetings law: Clearly, this is an example of legislators behaving badly. Paying legislators more and having them meet every year wouldn’t solve this problem, it would exacerbate it.
  • Too much lobbyist influence: Now, Ralston argues that this results from lobbyists taking advantage of inexperience legislators, so let’s consider whether lobbyists have any influence in full-time legislatures, like the U.S. Congress.

    OpenSecrets reports that in 2010, 12,998 lobbyists spent $3.5 billion lobbying Congress and federal agencies. Good thing Congress isn’t part time, or those numbers would really be out of control.

    Lobbyists exist because the people in the state legislatures and the U.S. Congress have enormous power – the power to tax, regulate and make things legal or illegal. Ideally this power would be used to create a low and uniform tax and regulatory burden that would allow government to fulfill its core functions and citizens to pick the winners and losers in the marketplace. Elected officials have greatly expanded the use of governmental power, and the most effective way to affect legislative decisions is through lobbying and campaign contributions.

    If you want to limit the influence of lobbyists, limit the power of government.

    Establishing a system where legislators are more dependent on their jobs as legislators would only increase their reliance on the lobbyists who could help them get elected or defeat them.

  • The push for a government-funded, Las Vegas arena during the last few days of session: There was nothing inherent in “The Legislative Process” that made Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford drop this bill, SB501, during the last few days of the session. As you can tell by the bill number, 500 bills in the Senate were introduced before this one. This was a decision by an individual and hardly something you can blame on the process.

    A corollary to this example is the Democrats’ tax-hike proposal, which they introduced 90 days into the 120-day session. While Ralston praised this proposal, he did bemoan the Democratic leadership’s decision to introduce it with only a month left in the session. (NPRI had a dramatically different take on the merits of that proposal.)

    But that’s the point – introducing it 90 days into the session was a decision. If Nevada had a 180-day session, they still could have chosen to introduce it on day 150. 

  • Lawmakers took unreported junkets to London and accepted foreign campaign cash: The issue here is the amount of power lawmakers have. If you give lawmakers more power (through longer sessions), lobbyists will have more incentive to get access to them.

One of Ralston’s recommendations – “ensure there is a waiting period for any legislation before it is voted upon” – is an excellent idea that would improve transparency in the Legislature. TransparentNevada asked a question related to this topic of candidates in 2010.

Liberals have long clamored for ideas similar to the others Ralston suggests: “Pay legislators more and make them full time” and “[m]eet every year.”

These aren’t just academic questions, either. In the 2012 general election, voters will have a chance to approve or reject AJR5, which would allow the Legislature to call itself into session without the governor’s approval and would be the first step toward the Legislature meeting annually.

As demonstrated above, the poor decisions, processes and outcomes in the Nevada Legislature stem from either individual choices or the overreach of governmental authority.

Giving these same flawed politicians more power by expanding the length of the session and making legislators full time would exacerbate, not improve, these problems.

For more on how government oversteps its bounds, encouraged by both businessmen seeking an unearned advantage and those seeking government wealth redistribution, I encourage you to read The Law by Frederic Bastiat, available online and for free here.

Here’s just a taste of Bastiat’s brilliance.

[French political philosopher Guillaume] Raynal’s instructions to the legislators on how to manage people may be compared to a professor of agriculture lecturing his students: “The climate is the first rule for the farmer. His resources determine his procedure. He must first consider his locality. If his soil is clay, he must do so and so. If his soil is sand, he must act in another manner. Every facility is open to the farmer who wishes to clear and improve his soil. If he is skillful enough, the manure at his disposal will suggest to him a plan of operation. A professor can only vaguely trace this plan in advance because it is necessarily subject to the instability of all hypotheses; the problem has many forms, complications, and circumstances that are difficult to foresee and settle in detail.”

Oh, sublime writers! Please remember sometimes that this clay, this sand, and this manure which you so arbitrarily dispose of, are men! They are your equals! They are intelligent and free human beings like yourselves! As you have, they too have received from God the faculty to observe, to plan ahead, to think, and to judge for themselves! [Emphasis added]