The Legislature is frustrating, but it can do great things | Opinion

Citizenship means paying attention

The Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul as the sun sets on Election Day, November 3, 2020. Photo by Tony Webster.

Thirteen days. That’s all the time left in this year’s legislative session before the folks who represent us at the Capitol adjourn, returning to their communities and their regular jobs. Less than two weeks for the rhetoric to heat up and deals to be made about whether we’ll spend more on education and social services (probably) or if Minnesota will be the next state to legalize marijuana (probably not).

My writing so far in this space has drawn from my inside experience as a senior government agency official. I’ve lifted up the role state workers play in the lives of everyday Minnesotans and lobbed criticisms at the Legislature for making the work of those state employees more difficult with whiplash-inducing policy shifts that are less about solving problems than gaining political advantage. 

But I also spent seven years at the Minnesota House. My time at the Legislature gave me a front row seat to the way it really works. I was part of conversations that led to sweeping proposals like Minnesota’s renewable energy standard and a bipartisan increase in transportation funding. I also saw dumb ideas drafted into proposals designed to appease particular constituencies, like bills to prohibit girls from participating in certain high school sports because some folks found the thought of girls on the football field or on the wrestling mat “uncomfortable.”

I learned about the power a legislative leader has to set the agenda when they maintain political discipline among their caucus members — and the disappointment of a session that ends with little to show when those same leaders are unable to keep their members united. 

I came to understand that the motivations that drive 201 individuals to run for office are more often noble than cynical. And I also learned that the decisions made in Saint Paul over the course of five short months shape our daily lives for better and worse — even if just a small fraction of Minnesotans pay attention. 

Maybe not paying attention is the way to go, I sometimes think at this time of the year. In the past few weeks I’ve listened with annoyance as the positions of caucus leaders hardened, as they always do. I find myself rolling my eyes at speculation by pundits about who holds leverage and how they might wield it. I’m irritated with daily updates that report glacial progress and am reminded again why people get frustrated with politics and cynical about politicians. 

Until I remember that my job as a legislative staffer was one of the best I’ve ever had. And that the same system that leaves me skeptical about any meaningful progress is the same one that’s given me reasons to be hopeful about the future. Because behind the posturing and positioning, there is a truism at the Capitol that never changes despite evidence to the contrary: The elected officials at the State Capitol are — for the most part — good and decent people capable of coming together to do good and decent work.

Lest you think I’m a hopeless optimist, I share the following as an illustration of the humanity that can be found even in the soul-sucking end days of a legislative session.

A decade ago, students who sought treatment for substance use or mental health care had the option to attend recovery charter schools. They were ineligible to participate in sports or other activities in their home district, however, even though studies show that extracurricular activities can make a huge difference in keeping young people engaged and healthy. 

A Republican legislator whose child was a classmate of my son’s wondered if we could change the law. The problem was that her idea had come late in the session, when new ideas don’t move forward because of arcane rules that govern the process. This Republican legislator was not a member of the right committee, nor did she belong to the majority party, which was currently in DFL hands, so her chances of advancing a new idea at this stage were limited. 

But she was a savvy policymaker and knew how to work her options, one of which was her casual relationship with a DFL staffer — namely me. And so she wondered, since I worked closely with the DFL education chair, would I consider taking the idea to him?

Because the idea was a good one, I did.  And because he was more interested in doing what was right for kids — just like his Republican counterpart — that education committee chair worked with her to pass the bill in the final days of the session. And because good people put their differences aside, more students have opportunities to engage in activities that help them survive and thrive.

So if it’s true that good people can be found within the halls of the Capitol, why is it that these good people leave their work until the last possible moment — or sometimes fail to meet the moment at all? 

I now realize the failures of the Legislature really rest with us, the people of Minnesota who don’t spend five months a year at the Capitol. We’re the ones who cast our vote and then disengage. We’re the ones who don’t raise our voices to object when silly season starts, abdicating our responsibility to hold our elected officials accountable. We’re the ones who don’t show up to vote at all, and by our absence, give implicit permission to others to act on our behalf without accountability or transparency.

No matter the issue that propels them or the part of the state they hail from, elected officials at the State Capitol are there because they believe they can improve the lives of their neighbors. They work a full-time job in a part-time role that offers little reward and much rebuke. The people who stand for office do so understanding that their public service will take a personal toll in time away from loved ones and difficult professional sacrifices. They do it anyway. They serve because they believe they can make a difference.

But our elected officials, good people that they are, have a better chance of making a difference if they have reliable partners in the work. 

We, the people, have a duty to show up, too. To be clear about what matters to us when we cast our vote. To hold the people representing us to the same high standards we hold for ourselves, and to let them know when they’ve gone off course. To shore them up when they have tough decisions to make and demand better from them, not just in the final days of a legislative session, but in the way they conduct themselves back home and in the way they treat their constituents, even the ones who did not vote for them. 

If we don’t do our part as citizens, voters and policymaking partners, we deserve what we get. And we forfeit our right to complain about the outcome. Worse, we become complicit in the degradation of the political process, which only diminishes our future.