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HETRICK: Why it's so hard to be a legislative voice of reason

February 20, 2010

Several years ago, I testified at an Indianapolis City-County Council committee hearing about some pending legislation.

After the meeting, one of the Republican councilors pulled me aside in the hall. He complimented my presentation, then said, “You really should run for council and join us. We need more voices of reason like yours.”

I smiled and said, “Thanks, councilor, but I’ll leave the legislating to you. They don’t make blood-pressure medicine strong enough or stroke-preventatives sure enough for me to sit through this process week after week.

“I don’t know how you do it,” I said.

“Oh, you get used to it,” he said. “If you change your mind, let me know.”

I haven’t changed my mind. And after Sen. Evan Bayh’s bombshell retirement announcement this week—one attributed to the slings and arrows of serving in Congress—I’m less likely to do so. Ever.

Serving in a legislative body has always been a patient person’s game. In this polarized era, it’s also become blood sport.

I learned politics and government behind the scenes—first as a press secretary and today as a public-policy advocate. And I’m quite content to stay there.

But I’ve learned some things about public offices and officeholders along the way—and how they’ve changed in recent years. A few observations:

• From do-the-right-thing to do-the-party-thing. More and more, it’s not about the cause, but the caucus. If the caucus decides to support a bill—even one with shortcomings or complete lack of logic—party members are expected to fall in line. There are few independent voices in the legislative wilderness.

• Play legislative games. If there’s an arcane rule that can subvert majority rule, play the card.

• The personal and family fishbowl. Politicians surrender their privacy when they file for office. Now, however, with the wealth of information on the Web and a widespread willingness to flaunt it, they—and their families and their employers—also subject everything they’ve ever done (and things merely rumored) to invasion of privacy and, sometimes, unfounded assaults on character.

• Meet me in the lobby. I’ve seen lots of office-seekers run for all the right reasons. Then, once in office, they’re stunned by the power of various lobbying groups to advance or impair the causes that inspired them.

• Twenty percent of the people are against everything all the time—and now they have a megaphone. The first part of that subhead is an old aphorism. The megaphone part comes via technology. It’s easier to be against something than for something, and those opposed can now barrage legislators with e-mail, phone calls, letters, etc.—to such an extent that the officeholder easily believes the vocal minority is, in fact, the majority.

• Legislating is hard work and few are cut out for it. Boards and committees of any kind are a slow way to get things done. But imagine a committee that’s diametrically opposed in a ratio of, say, 60/40 or 52/48. Then imagine that the leaders of those opposition caucuses hold their members in lockstep. That’s a tough scenario for consensus-building.

Now imagine that all the leadership jobs are assigned by seniority, not merit.

And imagine that each committee member gets only a small staff that has to serve the individual needs of thousands or even millions of constituents.

Finally, imagine committee members accustomed to being in charge—people who’ve been doctors, lawyers, mayors or governors more accustomed to administering than legislating. Suddenly, having to do everything by committees led by old-timers is a sure-fire recipe for impatience and frustration.

• Legislating involves rocks and hard places. Sometimes, a bill helps some at the expense of others. It’s just plain difficult to choose.

Given the inherent frustrations of consensus-building, the gamesmanship of arcane rules, the partisan bickering, the loss of personal and family privacy, the assaults on character, the fishbowl scrutiny, the endless rubber-chicken dinners, the perpetual arm-twisting, the no-win legislative dilemmas, the relentless lobbying campaigns, the litany of constituent complaints and the part-time pay for overtime hours, it’s a miracle any voices of reason want to run, serve and pursue re-election.

Rather than running those rare few out of office in some pent-up, anti-incumbent fervor, we might want to thank them for all they do and ask how we, as citizens, can make the job of representing us more meaningful and effective.

Rather than assuming all politicians want to run for something forever, we might respect those who say “no mas” after a reasonable time in office. Consider it a voluntary alternative to the term limits so many citizens desire.

Rather than blame the lack of progress solely on legislators, we might want to refine the system in which they’re required to work.•

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Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at bhetrick@ibj.com.

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