An article from my local paper appeared Sunday that kind of touched a personal nerve with me. The article highlights the (ab)use of resolutions by the Kentucky State Legislature to recognize entities and people around the state for their contributions. The author notes:
Lawmakers passed 420 symbolic or ceremonial resolutions in the 2012 regular session — five times the number of bills Gov. Steve Beshear signed into law this year.
To some extent, it is reminiscent of the old quote about watching laws and sausages being made. But there is a distinction that should be noted. There are no laws actually being made when these resolutions are being created and then recognized on the floor. One could make the argument these are legislative measures but let’s face it. No one is thinking of this when they think about government and the creation of laws.
The reason this touched a nerve with me is that I served as an intern in the 2011 legislative session so I got a very close look at how the floor proceedings went. Another element from the article that the author includes but does not elaborate on is the recognition of guests in the gallery. Any time a guest of any importance to a representative was present they were generally recognized. All-in-all, you could pretty much skip the first hour of every session roughly without missing any actual business, until they decided to change the rules (at least for the second part of that session) and made the recognitions at the end of the sessions instead of the beginning.
Sometimes the resolutions were very interesting and heartwarming when honoring some true heroes, for instance I believe at least one Medal of Honor winner was recognized with a telling of some of his story. It’s hard not to be entranced a bit by some of these moments. They are very dramatic and obviously we are drawn to that kind of heroics. But for every one of those types of honors dealt out, there was seemingly a dozen or more where you just kind of stood there and went, “WTF?! Shouldn’t you people be working?” The worst day I can remember was walking into a session that usually started at 1 p.m. I believe it was a little after 4 p.m. when they actually got to voting on any type of real legislation. I could be mistaken but I vaguely recall the session adjourning around 5 p.m. There were more days than I could count where the recognition of guests and the passing of resolutions took more time than the debating of any laws.
Now, I will make a couple of points here that should be noted. The first is the importance of committees and the reality that most of the important debates on legislation happen there. Committees give elected officials the chance to specialize in certain areas and that is a certainly good thing. This means the floor sessions are not as in depth when it comes to debating the details of a typical bill and I see the efficiency in that structure.
The other point was made in the article:
Politicians use such measures to build relationships with voters. The gestures sometimes make the local paper or spread through the community by word of mouth — part of the advantage of incumbency.
And this makes perfect sense. Elected officials use their platform to occasionally toot their own horns by bestowing symbolic honors on the people that support them. Reasonable, yes, but when is it too much?
The ultimate question here is if all voters were truly aware of the amount of time devoted to these symbolic gestures that do not contribute to what most of us view as making law, would they really pay off and continue to be conducted by legislators? In other words, if recognizing one person had a measurable effect of generating a positive reaction from ten people but a negative one from twenty, would this practice continue in its current form?
The answer is likely no but the reality is more people would have to pay attention to government in the first place for that to truly matter.