The Legislature: Look Good or Win?

It was one of the most frustrating, crushing losses of my young life. What I learned is that “style points” aren’t so important; it’s the final score. And that lesson seems pertinent to an issue the General Assembly is grappling with in their effort to do a “winning job” for the citizens of Tennessee.

I learned the lesson from a football game I played in my senior year of high school. Our team clearly outplayed the other team. We went up and down the field on them, but, when we got near the goal line, we’d incur a dumb penalty and then miss a longer field goal or we’d fumble the ball.

The score was tied near the end of regulation. The other team got the ball, gained enough yards to try a long field goal. They made it literally as the clock expired and won, 11 to 8. All the skirmishing we’d won on the overwhelming majority of plays didn’t matter. The few plays they made better than us were enough better that they won.

So, what’s that got to do with anything the legislature is trying to address? It has to do with a commendable desire to streamline the process, get legislators to focus their attention on the legislation that is most important, and adjourn early. All that is good.

The means to those worthy ends that was approved by the state House of Representatives yesterday was to limit the number of bills a legislator can file to 15. In support of this limitation, it has been pointed out that Tennessee legislators file more bills than all but one other state in the Southeast.

But is the issue of less government and efficiency measured by how many bills are filed or by how few laws they pass and by how quickly they conduct their business?

In this regard, it should be pointed out that the leadership has quickened the pace the last two years, by pushing to shut down committees earlier and earlier. As a result, the legislature has adjourned earlier the last two years than at any time in the last 15 years or so. Setting a tight schedule for closing down the process has seemed to bring about an earlier adjournment and a lot of focus already.

But with every change, you have to wonder what some of the unintended consequences could be.

One might be the temptation for seasoned legislators to carry only the bills of those organizations that can help them the most financially during election season. They will fill up their limit with those bills. Individual citizens with a good idea and organizations like ours, The Humane Society, Red Cross, March of Dimes, and countless others may find themselves having to rely on those who are less skilled at the process. Citizens may even find that their own legislator doesn’t have “room” for their idea, if their legislator is one of those sought by the “big boys.”

Another possibility is that you’ll see more fights on the floor over legislation that may not have been debated in committee. That’s because of the “caption rule.” Under the Tennessee constitution, a bill cannot contain a subject that is “outside the caption.” A caption is short description of the subject matter to which the bill relates.

It’s too complicated to explain here, but the long and short of it is that some lobbyists are already advising that captions be broader in order to handle something unexpected. But the broader caption means the bill could also become a “vehicle” into which a legislator can “amend in” a bill he didn’t get to file because he reached his limit. For lots of reasons, legislators don’t like debating a bill for the first time on the floor of the chamber.

Anyway, legislators, lobbyists, and citizens will learn to deal with the limit. But like the football game, “winning” is measured by the final score – fewer laws and a shorter session, not how you got there.

Here’s to hoping that this new “play” will be a winner.