FEIGENBAUM: Lessons learned from an unconventional session

April 30, 2011

At this writing, the General Assembly had not yet agreed upon a final budget bill and still had a number of loose ends to tie up, so we’ll focus here on some of the lessons learned from the process—and how they may factor into future legislative activity.

Hoosiers were on notice headed into the session that they would not see four months marked by a “business as usual” attitude. An influx of freshmen in the House of Representatives—elected advocating an agenda and with what they largely believed was a mandate from voters for change—helped compose a Republican House majority. That, combined with the inability of Senate Democrats to block a quorum in the Senate, portended that this session would be unique.

That certainly proved true when House Democrats, protesting Republican overreaching, left the state in numbers that prevented the House from officially conducting business for more than one month. (The Democratic cause, however, morphed from a hard-line stance against a surprise effort to enact a right-to-work law pushed by the freshmen to concerns that were more amorphous.)

What was learned from all this?

Democrats largely drew low marks from taxpayers (other than their core constituencies) over the walkout, suggesting that Hoosiers want their lawmakers to stay and fight the good fight. The initial rationale for the protest may have justified a brief departure from protocol (and the House chamber). But when Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels and Republican legislative leaders quickly assured Democrats that right-to-work was off the table for the session and would be studied this summer over the interim, the waters were muddied by the final three-plus weeks of the exodus.

This also led to late-session philosophical issues being raised about the rights of a minority party going forward.

Rest assured that the majority party in the future will be better prepared legislatively to address any departure from the norm (or chamber!), perhaps with disciplinary action spelled out well in advance.

We saw that some of the “overreaching”—insofar as it related to right-to-work—was quickly addressed by moving some of the issues into study committees. Democrats believe they can address much of the rest via the political process, albeit not until the 2012 elections.

But large majorities have found they can short-circuit the legislative process, and push through far-reaching changes even without resorting to the usual vetting process.

This is true on two levels: First, they can avoid having to run a controversial issue through the gauntlet of several sessions (much as the founding fathers required of amendments to the Indiana Constitution) and interim study committees and, second, they can insert substantive amendments into legislation on the floor (or in the budget) late in the session, absent an opportunity to address them with any public input in committee.

Moves of the latter kind were justified by pointing to the lost committee time, but the concept is not new.

Lawmakers who have chosen in the past to avoid certain tough issues simply because there was “not enough time” to consider them, particularly when a budget needed to be drafted, may no longer be able to make that argument with a straight face.

In the end, even with the loss of a month of House activity, it is difficult to point to any single bill that died (and could not be resurrected), or any concept that failed to receive sufficient airing simply because of the walkout.

What was encouraging: This session’s partisan wrangling did not degenerate into personal animus. And when Democrats returned, the process simply didn’t miss a beat, with the respective House leaders deserving praise for not allowing their caucus members to turn the House floor into a partisan political forum for venting.

The House freshmen were responsible for pushing right-to-work right to the brink, and they may have developed an appreciation for the nuanced messages of Daniels and GOP legislative leaders about holding back on certain issues at certain times.

As the freshmen become more inculcated with legislative practice and understand that, sometimes compromise is justified even when it is not mandated, you may see a return to prior legislative practice in terms of letting issues be fully aired through interim study committees, then by passing through the traditional legislative hurdles across more than one session (or biennium).

Or perhaps not.•


Feigenbaum publishes Indiana Legislative Insight. His column appears weekly while the Indiana General Assembly is in session. He can be reached at edf@ingrouponline.com.


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