Saturday, May 19, 2012

When lawmakers just want to go home

I was sitting in on a caucus meeting of Colorado Senate Democrats the other day during the last day of the state's special legislative session. (Yes, legislative party caucus meetings in Colorado are, by law, open to the public.) Everyone had expected the session to wrap up that morning, but word had come from an absent senator that she could return the following day if someone would move to reconsider a marijuana DUI bill that had failed by a single vote the day before.

The reactions were quite interesting. Both party caucuses appeared already split on this issue, but the bill seemed to be losing support. Members had tried to pass the thing and fallen short, and they were not interested in prolonging their special session to address it yet again. This is a part-time legislature, and they had jobs, families, vacations, and lives to get back to.

But they couldn't state it quite like that. So one senator blasted the absentee senator for her irresponsibility, noting the "sacrifices" the rest of them had made to be present that week. Another suggested that they'd promised the people of Colorado that the special session would only be three days long, and to extend it to a fourth day would be breaking faith with their constituents.

Let me just say that I fully sympathize with part-time legislators being eager to end an already-extended legislative session. And while there might be good reasons to extend a session further, it wasn't obvious that this bill would pass, and it wasn't obvious that this bill was even necessary. (Can't the police already arrest someone driving dangerously regardless of the content of their blood? And isn't the main problem with stoned drivers the fact that they're driving really, really slowly around town looking for stores that sell Doritos after 2AM?)

But I found the language being used to dress up this legislative decision as a tad silly. The number of Coloradans outside the statehouse who are okay with a three-day special session but irate over a four-day one can probably be counted on two hands.

In general, there seemed to be a huge disconnect between what the legislators were saying and what I imagine most people outside the chamber were thinking. I wasn't sure if this was a case of legislators having no idea what non-political people think about, or if this was a case of trying to say "Can we go home yet?" in the most diplomatic possible language.


Matt Glassman said...

Reminds me of the strategy employed by many committees in Congress, in which bills that might provoke a lot of controversial amendments at the committee level are brought to mark up on getaway mornings, just before the final votes on the floor, when Members are in no mood to sit around and listen to committee debate over the amendments. The terminology here is "the smell of jet fuel is in the air."

I've seen this many times in full committee appropriations markups. In particular, I have observed Members trying to continue debate or raise amendments, only to have bipartisan crowds start calling out things like "Let's vote" or "Let's go." There's a real peer pressure, and it can definitely change outcomes.


andrew said...

FWIW, I'd take the impatience posed in diplomatic language with a grain of salt. While most legislators have other jobs, even in the off season, it is a 50%+ time job and attainable policy priorities really are priorities for almost all. Simply put, there is no job that truly needs you right away that you can put on hold for four months a year, plus interim committee meetings, campaigning, contintuent face time, etc. (much of what would be handled as constituent service ombudsman type stuff in Congress is done by legislative services rather than individual members, however).

For most, the crunch time in terms of personal resources comes if you get close to the end of May, since most out of town reps need living arrangements booked January-May, and if you go over on a month to month lease, then your into more $$$. For in town reps the pressure is less intense (which incidentally creates a systemic bias of less time pressure for Dems and more for Republicans due to state geography).