Evaluating Indiana Lawmakers

January 17, 2011

For release noon Jan. 18 and thereafter (663 words)

A public school teacher I know makes the claim that teachers would consent to performance pay for their profession if state legislators accepted merit pay for theirs.

As a practical matter, the two careers aren’t comparable. Teachers work full-time and can be assessed on results achieved by students in individual classrooms. Legislators are part-time and their work product comes from majority rule.

But the idea got me thinking: If lawmakers were judged on merit, what criteria should be used? Would quantity of legislation count for or against them? Would we reward collegiality and compromise or dissent and independence?

In “Heavy Lifting: The Job of the American Legislature”, Alan Rosenthal concluded that legislatures should be evaluated based on processes not product. He breaks down the legislative process into three parts: representing, lawmaking and balancing the executive branch. “Whether legislatures can be considered ‘good’ or not depends on how they handle these three functions.”

When it comes to representing, Indiana lawmakers have room to improve. Lobbyists dominate the process on big issues like the budget, economic development, alcohol policy and environmental protection, in part because the legislature has not made its processes citizen-friendly enough. It’s not unusual for committee chairmen to let paid lobbyists testify first on bills.  One community activist recalls waiting four hours before getting a chance to speak at a summer study committee on alcohol regulation.

“James Madison, in Federalist No. 10, extolled the virtues of a system of representation whereby the views of the public were refined and enlarged ‘by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens,’ ” Rosenthal said.
If legislators are to properly represent the views of the public, committee chairs should put community members first on the agenda. Also, evening and Saturday hearings should be scheduled on key legislation so working people can come and make their views known. If lawmakers did those two things, their performance rating would go up in the eyes of the public.

“For most legislators, making law is the job they chiefly associate with being members of the legislature,” Rosenthal said. “Law is the means by which it is decided who gets what, and who does not.”

What makes a good law? According to the most objective definition, a good law is clear, possible to follow, enforceable, treats people fairly and is consistent with constitutional principles. Indiana’s Constitution specifies that every law should be plainly worded and avoid technical jargon, be confined to a single subject and be of uniform application throughout the state.

Legislators commonly ignore those requirements by inserting multiple subjects into the same legislation, stripping the contents of bills during the amendment process to change the subject matter entirely or creating “Christmas tree” budget bills. The latter is especially likely when houses are split between Democrats and Republicans and the fastest way to forge agreement is to give a little something to everybody.

This year, with both houses in Republican hands, the test will occur during reapportionment. It will be tempting for Republicans to draw legislative maps that favor the party in power. But to comply with constitutional principles, the districts must be “contiguous,” uniform and treat voters of both parties equally. A stand against gerrymandering will earn lawmakers bonus points with voters.

“Legislatures individually can represent their constituencies, but it takes the legislature to balance the power of the executive,” Rosenthal said.

During his State of the State Address, Gov. Mitch Daniels pitched big ideas for reforming K-12 education, eliminating township government and keeping the budget in balance. No sooner than he stopped speaking the debate erupted over whether the governor’s priorities were right, whether his budget suggestions were viable, and whether his plan for school choice was constitutional.

That is as it should be. It is the job of each branch to keep the others from asserting too much power. Whether or not they agree with Daniels, the lawmakers’ obligation is to study the merits of his proposals. That’s what makes a good legislature.

Andrea Neal is a teacher at St. Richard’s School in Indianapolis and adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at aneal@inpolicy.org.



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