Proper role of legislators is representing constituents

Putting all partisanship aside, we should appreciate the efforts of the legislature to do two years of business in 80 days. It could be done more effectively if it used the flexible method proposed in the 1970 constitutional convention. 

Under the convention plan, the 80 days could be used for committee work or research at various times throughout the biennium. Because this is a “citizen” legislature, it would mean some inconveniences for some legislators who benefit from the biennial rush, like going south every other year.

Ten states have full-time legislators but this is not what North Dakota can afford. Nevertheless, the state could use more legislative time, with more time dedicated to understanding the contents of all bills. The rush results in too many mistakes and requires constant amending in the following sessions. 

In political science, we use a paradigm to dissect and understand the roles of legislators. For classification of legislators by roles, we have legislators who are “delegates,” some are “trustees” and some bounce between.

When we use the word “citizen” to describe legislators, we usually think of the legislators who strive to be “delegates,” a role calling for legislators to represent the views of their constituents as completely as possible. 

To be fit the “delegate” role, legislators must have access to constituent opinions on bills. There is not enough time during the regular session to hold public meetings and get constituent input. This is not possible for legislators who work feverishly to clear 900 bills every session. 

While most legislators think of themselves as “delegates” they are really “trustees” who are free to decide on bills without receiving public input. 

A classic example of the “trustee” role was Edmund Burke who said that he knew more about legislation than his constituents so he would decide the issues without their input. He was defeated in the next election. 

Input is really not necessary for the hundreds of bills that do not result in a change of policy. In fact, some of these technical bills are passed without going through the minds of any legislators.

During the session, the lieutenant governor has to know and understand all of the bills that will be up for final action each day. On one occasion, a senator was explaining a bill as I read my copy at the desk. Since the lieutenant governor has no business meddling in legislation, I did not challenge the explanation but it was obviously not the bill before the senate.

So the measure was put on the calendar and passed. Three bills later, the carrier of the bill called the desk to admit he had explained the wrong bill and wondered whether to we had to go back and redo the explanation. 

We agreed that the milk had been spilled so let the cats have it.

Because of the short biennial session, the North Dakota legislature consists of members who think they are “delegates” for their constituents but are really “trustees” who are free to do what they want. And they do.

It must be admitted that there is very little accountability back in the home districts. Not only are the constituents ignorant about many of the decisions but there are no opportunities for constituents to complain or confront. And with the passage of 18 months before the next campaign, many issues will be forgotten. 

The only way to increase accountability is to require public meetings on a regular basis during the session. An 80-day flexible schedule would make this possible because public input could be received all through the biennium.


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