Health Care and Government and Media & Marketing

ECONOMIC ANALYSIS: Legislative process has its own language

December 4, 2006

It's probably not wise to admit this in a family-friendly publication, but one of my favorite comedians always has been George Carlin. The man has a genius for zooming in on the language we hear and use every day and finding nuances and symbolism that we never knew was there.

Every time I land in an airplane, I have to laugh, because George Carlin reminded us how crazy it is for the pilot who landed at the same time we did to get on the intercom and welcome us to town.

If George Carlin ever did a routine on the now-restarted Indiana legislative process, we'd probably be rolling in the aisles. But it's not just the legislators, it's all of us-the media, the lobbyists, administration and interest groups alike. It's an elaborate ritual, and in truth it's very serious business conducted by folks who we all hope have the state's welfare at heart. But that doesn't mean we can't pull back from time to time and marvel at the words and rituals the process produces.

Some things don't change at all. Every session is preceded by a flurry of articles in local newspapers proudly touting bills introduced by local representatives. What is less frequently mentioned is that most of those are dead on arrival.

With the splitting and combining of bills, data on the legislative process are a little slippery. But the raw numbers give you an idea. In the last legislative session, 393 bills were introduced in the Indiana Senate and another 440 in the House. Of that combined 833 pieces of legislation, 193 passed both houses. That's three out of four bills that go down to defeat, often not clearing the first hurdle.

The ritual of giving these ultimately ineffective legislators their moment in the sun to tout their worthy causes in the media is deeply rooted. But I think it would be a far better use of column space and airtime to tell us about things that could actually happen.

I try to be more sympathetic when legislative time is gobbled up debating largely symbolic issues, such as public prayer or the definition of marriage. Most of us sitting impatiently on the sidelines in our comfortable chairs have no idea what it is like to have to reapply for our jobs every two years.

Those who have been associated with government know that words used inside chambers don't always have the same meaning as they do in the outside world. In the budgetary world, for instance, program cuts are often not the cuts in dollar appropriations the word would seem to imply, but merely a slower rate of growth than asked for or originally projected. Likewise, property tax reform changed virtually nothing about the way in which property taxes are administered and collected, beyond the assessment rules changes that were mandated by a court of law.

But the disconnect between terminology and reality seems to be getting worse. Affordable health care, for example, is said to be a key topic addressed in this legislative session. Would any of us actually vote or lobby against affordable health care?

I certainly hope we would not. That is, of course, why proponents of specific legislation work very hard to weld that phrase to their bills, even as they propose subsidies and programs that will not affect the rate of growth in health care costs one iota. Nor could they, given the national and technological issues involved that are largely beyond the influence of those we send to Indianapolis.

The issues and proposals are new and, in the wake of last month's elections, many of the faces and leaders are new as well. But for better or worse, I suspect that much of what we'll be seeing in the coming months will have a ring of familiarity.



Barkey is an economist and director of economic and policy study at the College of Business, Ball State University. His column appears weekly. He can be reached by e-mail at pbarkey@ibj.com.
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