Things I learned at the Statehouse (or, My First Listicle!)

I’ve been blogging about Vermont politics for almost three and a half years (first at Green Mountain Daily and then here), but this was the first year I spent considerable time observing the Legislature at work. In previous years, I’d dropped in here and there, but I became an irregular regular this time around.

In addition to following the fates of particular bills, I also took away some overall lessons. Many of them actually positive. And here they are, in no particular order.

Our lawmakers work pretty hard. They get paid a pittance, and spend lots and lots of hours under the Dome. Seemingly endless hearings and debates, having to actually read and understand legislation: I wouldn’t have the patience for it. And their attendance record is shockingly good. Many of them have real jobs and/or travel long distances to Montpelier; on any given day, almost all of them are there.

— There’s always plenty of partisan rhetoric flying around, but people who disagree on the issues work surprisingly well together. This is especially true in committees, where a small group of folks work collaboratively, and cooperatively. It’s not all peaches and cream, but there were times when I was watching a committee debate and it was hard to tell which lawmaker came from which party.

Not that they were selling out; just that they were more interested in getting stuff done than in scoring political points.

The committee system works. Whenever the Legislature passes a seemingly inconsequential bill, the reaction is always “Why are they wasting their time on that stuff? Why don’t they spend their time on the important issues?” Most recently, we heard this from former Senator Peter Galbraith, who ought to know better. The truth is, the Legislature spends most of its time in committee meetings. There’s relatively little floor debate until the session’s closing days.

This means that while one committee is working on a bill you might think unimportant (bearing in mind that what’s trivial to you is crucial to someone else), the other committees are working on bills of their own. Just because Senate Government Operations has a hearing on the Latin motto doesn’t mean that Senate Appropriations isn’t scrubbing the budget looking for savings.

The committee system has its problems. There’s a definite silo effect. A member of one committee has very little knowledge of what’s going on elsewhere in the building. This is not a problem when a given issue is clearly within the purview of a certain committee — say, voter registration in Government Operations. It is a problem when an issue touches on multiple areas of concern. One relatively small example of this: a bill to allow the state to capture unredeemed bottle deposits was assigned to House Natural Resources and Energy. At the same time, Ways and Means was looking for revenue sources, and didn’t consider bottle deposits. I have to assume that was, at least in part, because that proposal was before another committee.

The most problematic place for the silo effect is in the Appropriations committees. They put together the overall spending plan, which means they have a say in almost every piece of legislation there is. Most of those bills get full hearings in another committee; Appropriations then sticks its finger in, without benefit of hearing testimony. Generally they do their job well and give proper deference to the other committees’ work; but the most likely place to hear a stupid question was in House or Senate Appropriations.

I don’t blame the Legislature for this. It’s inherent in the committee system, which is necessary in order to handle the workflow facing them. They simply can’t be hands-on with every issue, and they can’t debate everything on the House or Senate floor. It’d be tremendously unwieldy.

If you want to see egos running amok, look to the State Senate. Many Senators (I would say most) have a faintly superior air about them. They seem to believe that their shit don’t stink. Much more so than members of the House, who are generally more approachable and down-to-earth.

There are lobbyists EVERYWHERE. They roam the halls, they know everybody and buttonhole shamelessly, they offer testimony at the drop of a hat. This was especially apparent at committee hearings: those committee rooms are tiny, and there aren’t that many seats. Usually, most (or all) of them would be filled by lobbyists.

Governor Shumlin was rarely present. Maybe he was in his ceremonial office meeting with key lawmakers, but he was hardly ever visible in the Statehouse. At least not until the last couple weeks of the session, when he was very visible walking the halls and hanging out in the cafeteria.

One veteran lawmaker told me that when Shumlin was Senate President Pro Tem, one of his strengths was how connected he was. He had his ear to the ground, he was plugged in. But this lawmaker said that as Governor, Shumlin has often been isolated, above the fray. I wouldn’t take that as gospel from a single (well-informed) person, except that it explains Shumlin’s sporadic record on key initiatives.

This year’s big example was the payroll tax. It was the centerpiece of his health care reform strategy, but it fell absolutely flat in the Legislature. It’s hard to imagine a politician as sharp as Peter Shumlin was so tone-deaf on such an important issue. Unless he’s got a bad case of Executive Fever and is too far removed from his former peers.

I’d hate to be a staff lawyer at the Statehouse. Every bill has to be drafted and vetted before it can be considered. That’s incredibly painstaking detail work. Then, while a committee is discussing a bill, the lawyer has to be present to answer questions — and then has to draft and draft and redraft and redraft every time the bill is amended, often on extremely short notice. If I were a Legislative Counsel, there’d be times when I would be strongly tempted to stand up, tell the committee to give me a call when they get their shit together, and walk out.

That’s about it. For me, spending time at the Statehouse was enlightening, maddening, boring, and exciting — usually within the same day. As the cigar-chomping Fat Man once said, democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.

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3 thoughts on “Things I learned at the Statehouse (or, My First Listicle!)

  1. Walter Carpenter

    I know how you feel. As someone who has logged thousands of hours in those committee rooms, it is boring, exhausting, frustrating, maddening, exciting, exhilarating, heartening, and endlessly interesting all at the same time. I also know one senator, a democrat, who told me could barely stand up because of some sickness, but still went to work that day. When I admonished on why he should have stayed home, he replied, “because thousands of people [in his district] would lose their representative if I stayed home.” I’ve never forgotten that remark.

    Reply
  2. Cynthia Browning

    Your list is very interesting. Several comments from the inside — One is that I think that although the committee silo effect is real, there are efforts to overcome it, both within the party caucuses and informally between legislators. Many of us systematically ask people on other committees what they are working on. Of course, the party caucus efforts are aimed at passing certain priority initiatives, which is not necessarily the same thing as providing objective information. Also, remember that for legislators who have been there a while, and possibly served on various committees, there can be a depth of knowledge that makes it easier to consider new legislation on a variety of topics. And finally, the relatively new system of archiving committee documents on line makes it easier for me to find out what Ways & Means heard testimony about or what the latest draft of an Education bill might look like. .. … The last point is that I am pretty sure that the question of using the bottle deposits was raised by someone for extra revenue, and my recollection is that there may be legal questions about who the money really belongs to, or something like that. I will try to find out. ….. Rep. Cynthia Browning, Arlington

    Reply
    1. John S. Walters Post author

      I believe some legal concerns about the unclaimed nickels were raised and dispensed with. Most of the other “bottle bill” states capture the unclaimed deposit money, so there should be nothing to stop Vermont from doing so. There are broader concerns about this issue, which have to do with the value of recycled materials. I wrote about this a while ago, here and here.

      Reply

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