Weighing What Congress Could Learn From State Legislatures

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“There is a wellspring of experience and knowledge from beyond the beltway that deserves to be explored," says one expert.

Congress, often deadlocked on key issues in recent years due to partisan divides, may be able to learn a thing or two from state legislatures.

State lawmakers and other experts familiar with state government offered some of their thoughts Monday on an effort that’s underway in the U.S. House to look at ways the chamber’s rules, policies, procedures and operations might be updated and improved.

“We believe there is a wellspring of experience and knowledge from beyond the beltway that deserves to be explored and potentially applied to Congress,” said John Richter, director of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Congress Project.

The Bipartisan Policy Center is working to support and provide recommendations to the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress. The Democratic-controlled House established the committee in January. It’s set to continue its work through the end of the year.

A panel event the Policy Center held Monday aimed to examine some ideas from state legislatures that the committee might be able to incorporate into its work.

Ohio state Senate President Larry Obhof, a Republican who was among those who spoke at the event, stressed the importance of building across-the-aisle relationships. 

“The most important thing they could learn is how to get along with each other,” he said of his counterparts on Capitol Hill. “I’m not sure that there’s a specific process, or set of rules that I would say would benefit that one way or another.”

Obhof noted that a key piece of budget legislation recently cleared the Ohio Senate in a 33-0 vote with bipartisan support. He said he and other Republicans made extra efforts to reach out to Democrats to hear them out on their amendment proposals.

The end result, he said, was legislation in which almost all lawmakers could find provisions that they supported and others that they opposed. “It was an ongoing process of give and take between both parties,” he said. “I think that's what's missing in Washington.”

State Rep. Georgene Louis, a New Mexico Democrat, described how lawmakers travel to different parts of the state for interim committee meetings, held between legislative sessions. As a result they get a better sense of the challenges facing different places, she said.

“It’s not where everyone is coming to the state Capitol at Santa Fe,” Louis said. “That really helps in both chambers, both parties, seeing the needs that are out there.”

“Having that same experience, and also talking about what we’ve seen, whether it’s over dinner or in the meetings, I think, is really helpful,” she added.

Emily Baer, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire, said the notion of incorporating ideas from the states into how Congress functions is not new.

Bedrock concepts within the federal government that date back to the Constitutional Convention—like the separation of powers, a legislative body with two chambers and the executive veto—can be traced back to state constitutions, Baer explained.

Congress turned to the states more recently when lawmakers in the 1960s and 1990s sought ideas for how to rework committee structures, the budget process, pay and benefits and technology. Public committee hearings, electronic voting, and dedicated budget offices, Baer said, are other ideas that emerged from the states. 

Baer noted that over the years proposals have cropped up in Congress that would guarantee all bills get a hearing. This is the case in some state legislatures and can result in more concrete participation among rank and file members, she said. 

Obhof said there is a requirement in the Ohio state Senate that bills introduced before a certain cut off date must get a hearing. “So the majority party can’t simply ignore the minority,” he said.

He said that he’s tried to prevent situations where bills pile up and get heard during rushed, last minute committee hearings.

Another proposal that Baer flagged would allow members of Congress to cast votes remotely from committee meetings or their districts. Some states have considered voting options like this as well, she said.

Obhof said that he’s been caught off guard at times by the extent of the pushback against what some might consider to be relatively minor rule changes.

For instance, there were objections to a proposal that would have required floor amendments to be submitted to the clerk’s office at least two hours before a session begins. Democrats, he said, raised concerns that this would’ve made it difficult to draft amendments to bills submitted with little notice.  

“I don't think that the majority and minority are trying to be obstinate,” he said. “But you don’t actually understand it from the other perspective.”

“You’re not the one who’s going to be blocked from doing something,” Obhof added. “You don’t see it from the other side.”

While congressional lawmakers may dislike some procedures that are part of the status quo, they also tend to know the pros and cons. Baer said that an advantage for Congress in looking to state legislatures when considering reforms is that it can reduce uncertainty. 

“They provide this concrete evidence that a reform will work the way you think it's going to, or it won't,” she said.

Bill Lucia is a Senior Reporter with Route Fifty and is based in Olympia, Washington.

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