By Maya Durvasula.
I spent 30 days last winter as a state senate analyst, running, quite literally, in circles around New Mexico’s state capitol, chasing more than fifty pieces of legislation, corralling visitors and advocates, and guarding doors to keep legislators from fleeing during important votes, all the while attempting to figure out how anything at all was ever accomplished.
Somewhere between the annual rendition of “The Potato Song,” sung by a 92-year old Navajo-code-talker-turned-state-senator, and a late night discussion about the profound impact of a quite powerful fireworks lobby on the state, I came to the same conclusion that John Oliver recently did on Last Week Tonight: state legislatures combine a steady stream of nonsensical antics with a staggering amount of power, in a blend that is often quite terrifying.
Oliver argued that “all those conspiracy theories about a shadow government are actually true,” noting that state legislatures, which he refers to as the “frat houses of democracy,” pass upwards of 20,000 bills per year. While there is no lack of toothless, highly-specific pieces of legislation that manage to make it onto the books, a good number of these bills concern crucial issues and contain significant policy shifts. Education, healthcare and reproductive rights, good governance, environmental regulation, voting rights – state legislatures act on it all.
It’s easy to be critical of the entire system, especially because mind-bogglingly terrible campaign ads, highly controversial pieces of legislation, and unsavory affairs are often our most visible reminders of our state legislature’s very existence. But with many legislatures, including North Carolina’s General Assembly, currently in the midst of the law-making process, I encourage you all to consider what your state legislature can do for you.
The most unproductive Congress in American history, which shut down the federal government for 16 days and can claim the two lowest annual congressional approval ratings ever, came to a close in December. With Republicans in control of both the House and the Senate, working alongside a Democrat in the Oval Office, the outlook for the next two years isn’t particularly bright either. Most big policy shifts and high-impact decisions, in part because the federal government is currently so mired down by political and bureaucratic inefficiency, will be made much closer to home.
While it is impossible to avoid the corruption and back-room deals that come with political territory, especially in elections that are not publicly financed, many states have much stricter limits on state-level political contributions than exist at a national level. (If you are curious, nearly every dollar in state politics can be tracked through FollowtheMoney.org.) Since districts are considerably smaller and elections are often decided by extremely small margins, state legislators are much more accountable to their constituents. Particularly in the 16 states that have part-time, “citizen” legislators, not only could your political representative live next door and go grocery shopping at the same place, but she could also be your child’s teacher or a local real estate agent.
When we consider more carefully the notion of a citizen-run or generally inclusive legislature, the need for public engagement with all steps of the process becomes more apparent. Perhaps one of the most striking things I realized while observing the goings-on of the New Mexico State Senate last January was that the floor was not populated by policy wonks. The bills that were introduced were nearly all backed, either explicitly or implicitly, by some organization, then endorsed by most key players. Although this doesn’t differ greatly from the more familiar federal system, in many state versions, senators are rarely accompanied by large groups of staffers and analysts who are familiar with the intricacies of the particular policy issue. When advocates and members of the public do not show up to key hearings, if only because the Judiciary Committee is hearing a particular bill at 10:00pm on Valentine’s Day, the bill dies in committee. Senators walk into meetings and onto the floor carrying binders filled with notes from constituent visits and phone calls, in order to get an idea of how they should be voting.
While there is certainly room for corruption as soon as donations, gifts, and votes on important issues are involved, it is difficult to imagine someone getting involved with state politics without having some deep commitment, at least initially, to public service. The offices lack the prestige of the federal government, the salaries (if existent at all) are meager at best, and, although in New Mexico legislators cannot be pulled over for speeding if they are en route to the session, there are rarely enough substantial perks to justify taking the job in the interest of acquiring power and glory.
Oliver’s attack on the often frustrating and baffling system of state governance is entirely reasonable, and particularly in a state like North Carolina, as the leaders of the Moral Mondays movement are demonstrating, the institutions need to be vigilant about remaining responsive to input and citizen interests. But when it comes to providing a forum in which individuals can affect meaningful change, the state legislature remains a place designed for immediate, substantive action, from encouraging your representative to vote no on a particular bill or propose some amendment to the state budget, to working with a state senator and legislative analysts to draft legislation to be included in the next session. The system, if utilized properly, makes our representatives both accountable and accessible. Approach the bizarre traditions as charming and the problematic antics as examples of problems worth fixing, and figure out who your state representatives are today.