Legislatures are unpopular. Most voters think that legislators do little more than bicker, bicker, bicker. Major problems often go ignored, and back-room deals predominate.
There is some truth to this depressing stereotype, yet most lawmakers try to do what’s best, despite their disagreements over specifics.
What we can see, whether in Topeka or Washington, is that partisanship and centralized leadership dominate legislatures, providing little room for deliberation or — save in dire circumstances — compromise. Budget deadlines or the end of a session may force action, but day in, day out, legislative leaders often discourage productive work on serious problems.
This year, the Kansas Legislature barely managed to address the looming school finance issue, and then almost passed a rushed, ill-advised tax cut, just as the state had started to reverse its revenue swoon.
Given the need to bring together large numbers of diverse lawmakers, elected from their distinct constituencies, it is no wonder that legislating is difficult. Regardless, it is not as hard as Kansas representatives and lawmakers have made it.
To render the Legislature a bit more productive and civil, let me suggest one modest change. Legislative leaders should bring back the practice of appointing several meaningful interim committees to address thorny issues between sessions.
We do still have a few such committees, but they rarely lead to serious study of stubborn issues. Indeed, for the Senate president and the House Speaker, these committees are dangerous because they offer the possibility of reaching broad agreement on an important issue outside the majority party caucus.
Thirty or 40 years ago, interim committees were plentiful and valuable; they often met for several days between sessions. In 1972 and 1973, years of intense governmental reform, more than 30 interim committees met, addressing subjects from consumer protection to education master planning to the energy crisis.
As recently as 1995, 14 committees met between sessions, and the 1980s averaged more than 10. These numbers contrast sharply with the 2011-2016 Republican era, with just 3.5 interim committees per year. In the wake of the 2016 election, interims increased to eight in 2017, but they did not shape the legislative agenda to the extent that earlier committees did.
Kansas has historically had an amateur (or maybe “semi-pro”) legislature, with its 90-day sessions and meager pay. In the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, many legislators studied hard, did their homework, and with the assistance of the Legislative Research Department came to deep understanding of many issues facing the state. Interim committees served as one vehicle to enhance their knowledge, and the discussion of major issues benefited from their experiences.
Without question, there are many current legislators, such as the retiring Rep. Tom Sloan (R-Lawrence), who have gained great understanding during their service, but he stands as a contemporary exception, not the rule.
In fact, much current legislation comes pre-packaged from the right-wing universe of Americans for Prosperity and ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council).
One path to a deeper understanding of major issues is to reinvigorate the interim committee system, which could place ideology on a back burner. Perhaps10 or so such committees every year would mean that the Legislature could do a better job of hitting the ground running in an era of difficult, overlapping issues like education, mental health, Medicaid expansion, foster care, prisons, and many more.
Effectively using the June-January period could make for less bickering, less partisanship, and more coherent policy-making. Definitely worth a try.
Burdett Loomis is an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Kansas.