The real problem behind legislative chaos

PHOTO: Eric, Flickr CC

I teach communication at a community college. I am the loathsome cur who assigns students to complete group work. Students often hate group work. Some don’t like the “group” part; others dislike the “work” component. In any event, relative strangers suddenly find their grade hooked onto someone else’s wagon. They become interdependent, whether they like it or not. That’s the whole point of the assignment.

So let me float you a hypothetical. Let’s say I assign a group of five students. One of the students is a control freak who wants an “A,” not only for the assignment, but in life. Another student cares about the assignment, but is pressured by other factors — work or a family. Yet another is fine with a C. They will show up, but they’re not going to anything better than a C.

Finally, let’s add two more students. These students only took the class because their advisor said they needed it to graduate. They’re not even sure they want to go to college, but here they are. Or, more accurately, here they aren’t. They don’t show up much. You can only count on them showing up the day or two before the presentation. And you can count on them not liking whatever the rest of the group did. They’re neither lazy nor incapable. They simply reject the entire premise of being there. And they agree with each other.

I’ve been doing this long enough to know what’s likely to happen here. The first student ends up outlining a topic of their choice and presenting it to the group. The second two might have ideas, but they don’t put up much resistance to Student A. The last two aren’t there for the early meetings, though I know, even if the first student doesn’t, that they won’t like any of it.

There is drama and tumult. E-mails, texts and angry accusations. The first student initially believes their problem is the fact that second student seems distracted and the third isn’t trying very hard. They don’t even realize that the real problem is that nearly half the group is waiting patiently to unravel their agenda.

This is how a speech about recycling ends with a two-minute counterpoint on why we shouldn’t recycle and gets a mediocre grade. The A-students are devastated and disunited. The C-student shrugs. The contrarians think the whole thing is rather amusing. I’ve seen a version of this story play out a number of times.

I’ve also see total group collapse, situations in which the first student does the project entirely on his or her own, which fails the purpose of the assignment. Is it fair? No. Does that matter? No.

The most successful groups, of course, are ones in which all or most of the group share a desire to succeed and agree about the central premise of why they’re there. In fact, these groups tell me my assignment was easy. Nevertheless, the next student at my office door may well be in tears over the injustices of tyrannical indifference.

I bring all of this up because the state legislature is the mother of all school group projects, and its members just fatter, older versions of these students — wiser perhaps, but not necessarily so.

Last night the Republican-controlled Minnesota legislature adjourned from special session having passed all major budget bills and a bonding bill held over from last year. Gov. Mark Dayton, a Democratic-Farmer-Laborite, will now consider whether to sign the bills. He’s expected to sign most of them.

I’d talk about the bills, but this year I find myself unqualified to do so. My best source at the legislature lost his bid for re-election last fall. And this year, more than most, “what was happening at the legislature” was a harder thing to figure out anyway. Regional papers had no consistent coverage of important bills. Even the Star Tribune and Pioneer Press struggled to get under the surface of what was happening. Heck, back bench lawmakers appeared just as befuddled as this back country blogger 200 miles north of St. Paul. So, to me, that becomes a more important story than the budget itself.

Because this will keep happening.

In Minnesota, we have divided government. That is to say, our governor is a Democrat and our legislature is Republican. The mix has been different in the past. Republican governor and DFL legislature. DFL Senate, Republican House. But despite the 45 year Democratic win streak at the presidential level, divided government is far more common than single-party rule. Minnesotans seem to like it that way.

Which is a problem. Because there are, it would seem, no conditions under which a divided government can function in our current political environment.

Deficit? The GOP wants to solve with cuts while the DFL wants to pay for important services with new taxes. The new taxes are a nonstarter, so the GOP is willing to shut the government down. They’ll go all the way. In fact, this isn’t even a negative for them or with their voters.

Surplus? Well, you’d think that’d be easier, but this year we’ve now demonstrated that it isn’t. To the GOP surpluses mean we’ve taxed too much. To the DFL, it’s a normal part of the ebb and flow of the economy and the money should be invested or saved. It’s not worth shutting the government down, but there’s no incentive to get it done on time or through the normal committee process. Again, non-political folks simply aren’t engaged enough for it to matter.

In fact, if you ask non-political people what they think about the process — state or federal — you get a fairly reasonable response. I talked to some relatives who voted for Trump and other Republican candidates over the last few weeks. They don’t like how it’s going. “They [politicians generally] need to remember who they represent,” said one. But will that change their votes? No. Probably not.

I can’t tell you how many people I’ve heard, liberal or conservative, who say “these characters need to learn common sense.” Then they espouse something mean on Facebook before voting for candidates who vow some punitive victory over the opposition. Again, that’s not getting better. It’s getting worse.

So we come to this matter of “the process.”

In a battle between forces that want government to work and forces that want government to fail, we must break the logjam based on goals, not policy. There is simply too much distrust to negotiate under anything but crisis. The public isn’t well informed enough to articulate their goals, never mind whether that goal comports with liberal or conservative ideology. So the lawmakers act according to their political interests.

In fact, a negative cycle has emerged. Republicans learned that moderation doesn’t allow for government to shrink. So they overcorrect. Better to blow it up, because when we make the deals we might get what we really want. That leaves the Democrats to try to make government work — they have to make huge spending proposals and tax hikes to get their version of reality to function. Both of these parties walk into the Capitol willing to do things that Minnesotans don’t want them to do, because Minnesotans and their elected representatives now see reality differently.

Americans have become hyper-partisan, or — more accurately — hyper-tribal. Voting for a member of the other tribe is unthinkable. It doesn’t matter if one party shuts down the government or if the other fails to outline a meaningful set of policies for people left out of our current economy. It doesn’t matter if a candidate body slams a reporter or brags about sexual assault. They don’t like it, but that doesn’t matter.

So, Minnesota? So, America? What does matter?

Until we — as voters, as media, as community leaders, as non-politicals — articulate meaning, the process and the outcomes will continue to be meaningless. Our legislature is us. When we curse them, we curse ourselves.

This is a group project, our state. It’s time to talk to each other.

Comments

  1. Ranger47 says:

    “Important services”? – fake news.
    Drain the Bog.

  2. jlongtampa says:

    I think the average citizen lacks trust in both parties and has a hightened anger about it. The angrier the dems get, the angrier the republicans get. This past year has had a psychological affect on all voters. We can’t find common ground anywhere. The more left the left goes, the more right the right goes. Communication is totally broken. The media is broken and partisan. We have lost sight of the process.

    • Ranger47 says:

      We haven’t lost sight of “process”, that’s a red herring. We’ve blatantly, intentionally disregarded what made us great.

      Obama’s evil, distorted view of right & wrong, common sense, traditional American values, ethics and lawlessness drove the U.S., drove the world into a morass. Surrendering our global leadership role took the world down with us. All this was obvious to a wide cross section of Americans…and Trump, which is why he’s now running the country. Together, we’re working our way out. It won’t be easy. It’ll take years to recover from the carnage Obama left behind.

  3. Ha, ha. Mr. Contrarian himself first one to show up. Utterly predictable.

  4. David Gray says:

    Part of the problem is that the state invades further and further into life with fewer and fewer areas of privacy. And it is increasingly done at the federal level. A friend of mine dubbed this new state as Jabba the State and I think he got it about right. When the federal government starts trying to demand that other institutions open women’s locker rooms and bathrooms to men we know we have entered a land where resistance must be uncompromising.

  5. David, I think we have a lot more life threatening issues to worry about concerning the futures of our children and grandchildren than bathrooms.

  6. David Gray says:

    Yes, but it serves of an example of the insane intrusion by the federal government. One of our most life threatening issues is excessive federal reach into society. We also have gross federal overspending on social programs. Of course abortion is very much a life threatening issue if you are an unborn infant with the wrong mother. But I don’t think you worry about any of those issues.

    • Gerald S says:

      “gross federal overspending on social programs.”

      Yes, too many people now have health care, food, are able to get an education, get job training and support when they are unemployed, can access help with substance abuse and mental health problems, and any number of other awful things.

      Fortunately, the GOP is on the job ending all that.

      • David Gray says:

        The federal government doesn’t have the authority to act in those areas. States can, if they wish.

        • Gerald S says:

          OK. Are you suggesting that Social Security, Medicare, SNAP, the National Science Foundation, the Institutes for National Health, etc. etc. are all somehow unconstitutional? Please, please, say yes, and try to get all your fellow right wingers to do so, especially elected officials. It would do a great job of cleaning up the issues for future elections.

          • David Gray says:

            It isn’t politically possible at present but obviously those things are unconstitutional. And there was a time the Supreme Court knew it as well. At least we avoided Bolshevism and National Socialism.

  7. David, “wrong” mother? Please elaborate.

  8. David Gray says:

    Well from a child’s perspective having a mother who is willing to kill is having the “wrong” mother. Better to have a mother who loves, protects, and cherishes you, as a mother should.

  9. When Americans and legislators act to care for all women’s and mother’s health and the health of babies and children after they are born, I might start to believe people are sincere about protecting and cherishing.

  10. David Gray says:

    What you believe of others’ intentions is of no consequence and you basically conceded the point. It is a terrible mother indeed that pays someone to dismember her child. Now that mother can later repent and receive forgiveness but the deed itself is horrifying.

  11. The Yin and Yang of politics continues on. While it has gotten a bit more extreme the good thing is there is little compromise so very little actually gets done or changes. I just shrug and keep trying to get by day to day and vote when the opportunity comes up. The arguments have been essentially the same for decades now and little has changed even with the polarization that is all the current rage. I wonder what it will look like in twenty years?
    It has been about ten years since I took your class (online) to satisfy a requirement, but I have not forgotten it and still can recall stories of the interaction between students. Fascinating stuff!

  12. David Gray says:

    Frankly every political decision should be pushed down to the lowest possible level.

    All power to the township board!!

    • Gerald S says:

      Yet the GOP at both the national and state level is striving to cancel the right of local governments to make their own decisions.

      • David Gray says:

        Well any local authority is purely on sufferance and grant from the state.

        However I think the Republicans have erred in trying to restrict Minneapolis and St. Paul from their respective follies. The only thing they should do is keep those cities from impinging on businesses which are located outside their political boundaries.

        • Gerald S says:

          Make up your minds. Do you favor local control, or do you believe, with people like Jeff Sessions, that local governments must allow federal and state authorities to override their decisions and that local governments and state governments that don’t follow his whims should be penalized? Your suggestion that local government operates only at the sufferance of the state– and by corollary and per Mr. Sessions, that state government operates only at the sufferance of the federal government — seems to mean that you agree with Sessions. Kurt Daubt, and others, suggesting that your previous statement was just a joke.

          • David Gray says:

            Give me a break. Under our constitution two levels of government have authority, the federal level and the state level. All government below the state level derive their authority from the state. Didn’t you ever have a decent Civics teacher?

            In your previous post you seemed to suggest that you have no knowledge of the division of powers between the states and the federal government. No you seem to have such knowledge. Make up your mind.

            States have authority over those areas not explicitly enumerated to the Federal government are reserved for the states and the people (which do not have formal structures). But because this constitutional delineation of authority has been badly corrupted, with cheerleaders like you, both states and the federal government have great confusion as to the division of authority.

            But, as I observed previously, decision making should be pushed to the lowest possible level. It allows for “diversity” (that should set your pulse racing” in policy and the highest level of accountability and responsiveness.

          • David Gray says:

            Oh to have an editor.

            Paragraph two, line two, next to last word should be “now.”

            Paragraph three, replace the first sentence with “States have authority over those areas not explicitly unnumerated to the federal government. All other powers are reserved for the states and the people (which do not have formal structures).

          • Gerald S says:

            So you say local government has no authority not derived from the state, Social Security is unconstitutional, and the reason anyone thinks anything else is that those darned Supreme Court judges like Alito and Thomas (who tend to be the most adamant members of the Court when it comes to preservation of state and local rights in general, although I am certain they would add that consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds ) do not have the deep understanding of the Constitution taught in Civics class. Yale Law school just missed the bus on that one back when they were in school.

            Got it.

            Curious to know what you think the word “people” means in that paragraph if it does not refer to local government assemblies. Just an abstract concept thrown in there to make the paragraph more poetic?

            In actuality, of course, the Constitution is specifying that any power not specifically reserved by the federal or state government passes through automatically to the next lower level of government, as they taught in my Civics class. Pre-emption must be specific. That is the reason why Daubt was trying to pass his pre-emption law, and why the legislature attached pre-emption clauses to things like concealed carry and many others. Daubt is not trying to do that just for fun. They need those laws to get what they want, which is forbidding local governments from passing their own regulations, which otherwise are binding. The “compromise” this year regarding outlawing bans on plastic bags but not outlawing local wage and hour regulations, employee leave, and so on leaves all the non-bag issues intact. Minneapolis immediately reacted to that development this Friday by drafting its own higher minimum wage, which is almost certain to pass once they go through all the motions. They had obviously been waiting to see what the state did before acting.

            Ayn Rand, the Posse Comitatus, and right wing bloggers notwithstanding, that has been the way the Supreme Court has interpreted the issue, and, as you probably know from your Civics class, ever since Marbury vs. Madison the Constitution says what the Supreme Court says it says.

          • David Gray says:

            Where does local government get what authority it has? It derives it from state statute. Our township discussed above derives its authority entirely from Minnesota state statute. If you don’t understand that then we can’t really proceed. That isn’t controversial, it is mundane.

            Of course if you actually read the Constitution you’d know it does not enumerate state powers.

          • David Gray says:

            And if anyone here actually wants to learn you could look at Chapter 366 of Minnesota State statutes which establishes the powers that a town board has.

            https://www.revisor.mn.gov/statutes/?id=366

  13. MIke Worcester says:

    What frustrates me is the archaic process that seems to pervade how the legislature operates. Let’s start with the constitutionally-defined end date. Fine, it’s there and unless it gets changed by us folks the voters, nothing can be done differently there. The lead-up to that midnight dealine always seems to be an utter horror show, no matter how the power in the legislature is split. Yelling and gavel banging prevail. Too many closed door meetings before hand.

    If only three people are needed to create the budget bills, then fine, send the rest of the legislature home and let those three do the work. Obviously though that is not how it works. The rules of how the legislature operates — especially committeee deadlines — is up to them. The chaos we all see is part of the ingrained process that can certainly make an average person furrow their brow, scratch their heads, and think “is this what we elected them to do?” Unless voters tell their elected officials, figure out how to use the time you have more effitively and efficiently, those last day food fights won’g go away.

  14. David Gray says:

    Okay I included a link which has put the comment into moderated status.

    If anyone here actually wants to learn you could look at Chapter 366 of Minnesota State statutes which establishes the powers that a town board has.

    You can Google “CHAPTER 366. TOWN BOARD; POWERS” and it will give a link to the relevant statute chapter.

    • Gerald S says:

      The state certainly has the right to define and to limit that powers of local government. That is why the GOP was trying to pass that limit.

      However, if you actually read the 10th Amendment when you quote it, you will see that powers are reserved, but not enumerated, to the states and to the PEOPLE. Constitutional scholars and the courts have held that that clause offers lower levels of government, formed by the people for their purposes and ranging from town meetings in Dix Notch to legislative bodies in large cities including dozens of people and numerous subcommittees, have a right to pass laws. The constitution makes the hierarchy clear: Federal>State>local. But it does recognize the authority of local government. That is not at all surprising, since historically in many locations local government actually predated state government. For example, St Louis had a city government and mayor long before the state of Missouri ever existed or was even contemplated.

      There are many laws, including the Town Board regulations you cite, that are definitions of local government activities, and include both responsibilities and restrictions. But the activities of local governments are not limited to the activities that the state law cites, and in the absence of specific state law local governments are allowed to pass their own ordinances of all sorts, excluding ordinances prohibited by state or federal pre-emption laws.

      That is why the GOP at both the state and national level are working to pass laws to specifically pre-empt some laws and policies passed by the local governments. If your interpretation were correct, there would be no need for pre-emption, since the failure of the state or federal government to specifically enable a local ordinance would result in its cancellation.

      That is why local government can pass a minimum wage ordinance, a smoking ordinance, or a “vaping” ordinance (independent of whether you and I agree that they should) but cannot pass ordinances regulating carrying guns or, after this year, prohibiting use of plastic bags, which are both covered by specific pre-emption laws. And that is why the lawyers advising the Minneapolis City Council have told them that with Daubt’s failure to pass his pre-emption law they are free to pass a city minimum wage that is higher than the state wage, and why they are proceeding to due so.

      • Gerald S says:

        The last paragraph applies to the state of affairs in Minnesota. Other states have different laws regarding various pre-emption or non pre-emption.

  15. David Gray says:

    Local government units wouldn’t exist without being established by the state. If the state decides to reorganize Minnesot’a counties or municipalities it is free to do so. Because local government is established by the state local governmental structures differ from one state to the next. If Minnesota wanted to do away with town government and govern through counties it could do so.

    Of course I was discussing town government. City government is established by different statutes. You appear not to understand this as you merge all forms of local government. Cities have substantially greater powers than do town governments. But you appear not to know that either.

  16. Gerald S says:

    It remains true, no matter how much you try to twist it, that the Constitution has been held to recognize the right to local government at all levels, and that the state does not have to grant local governments rights, but rather those rights exist in the absence of state laws governing them. While it is certainly true that states, including MN, have passed many laws governing local governments at all levels, it is also true that the local governments retain the rights to actions not specifically regulated by the states.

    As I said, it is absolutely obvious that this is true if you paid any attention to the whole pre-emption issue this year in the MN Legislature, or if you are paying attention to the actions of Jeff Sessions. If it were not true, and if your contention that town, city, county, and regional government entities were limited only to actions specifically enumerated by the states, the whole pre-emption issue would be moot, since any action not specifically granted to the local government would automatically be cancelled because of not having been specifically granted. That is obviously not the case, which should be a clue to you that you are misinterpreting the status of the law regardless of your own private reading or of what your Civics teacher told you.

    It is time to end this thread, since both of us are just repeating what was said earlier.

    In conclusion, I will again voice the hope that all conservative candidates for office would publicly endorse the same ideas that you have, that local governments have no right to their own independent actions and that things like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, SNAP, unemployment benefits, education benefits, etc. etc. are illegal and unconstitutional. I am aware that many of them, like you, actually believe that, but most of them conceal that fact. If they were just all as honest as you are about their beliefs, it would make the stakes of elections very clear and allow the voters to make their choices on a fully informed basis.

  17. David Gray says:

    You seem to think that if you generate enough words it will be effective in spite of the content of those words. It probably works with some folk.

  18. David Gray says:

    This is from the Minnesota Association of Townships:

    In Minnesota, local units of government are considered creatures of the legislature and depend on it for their authority. Cities and townships “have no inherent power and possess only such powers as are expressly conferred by statute or implied as necessary in aid of those powers which have been expressly conferred.”1

    That citation is from Mangold Midwest Co. v. Village of Richfield, 143 N.W.2d 813, 820 (Minn. 1966

    • Gerald S says:

      Unfortunately, Mangold Midwest v. Richfield says the exact opposite of what you want to argue, since it holds that the right of the city to pass laws can be either explicit or implied, and that the legislature must pass law that explicitly either forbids the city ordinance or that extends rights beyond the city ordinance to force the city to comply, and that in the case of Sunday blue laws being contested, the state had done that, thereby pre-empting Richfield. The case actually says that if that state law had not existed, Richfield would have been free to enact its own law.

      Consequently, the legislature has found it necessary to create specific language pre-empting city and county law in many cases, including just this session. While the state does have the power to pre-empt, and as such local governments are “creatures of the legislature,” there is absolutely no doubt, or in this case Daubt, that local governments do have the power to create their own laws and enforce them, as long as the state does not specifically pre-empt. Minneapolis is preparing to do just that regarding minimum wage.

      You can keep saying that is not true as long as you want, but obviously the courts at both state and federal levels, the legislature, and the federal Constitution have declared that argument wrong, and continue to act on the principle that local governments of all sorts possess the power to create laws and regulations that go beyond the laws of the state in the absence of specific pre-emption. Most recently that I can recall in Northeast Minnesota, the state courts upheld Duluth’s smoking ordinance until it became moot when it was essentially copied by the state, making state law the governing statute. Court members appointed by both parties upheld that law, so it is not a question of GOP versus DFL.

      Go ahead, you can have the last word and once again maintain that the outcome of 200 years of case law does not apply.

  19. David Gray says:

    I’m not arguing it. The attorney for the Minnesota Association of Townships was arguing it with a direct cite from the case. I think I’ll trust his credentials over yours.

  20. David Gray says:

    Nor do you seem to grasp that Minnesota has more than one form of local government and they do not have the same powers.

  21. David Gray says:

    Here’s more from the attorney for the Minnesota Association of Townships:

    INTRODUCTION

    An important aspect of exercising local regulatory authority understands how that authority fits into the overall scheme of government regulation and the limits imposed by the structure. To aid in that understanding, the following will provide a brief description of township regulatory authority, the doctrines of preemption and conflict, and a discussion of local planning and zoning authority. This paper will not discuss the other various issues associated with local regulations (e.g., procedural considerations, constitutional issues, etc.).

    SOURCE OF LOCAL AUTHORITY

    All governmental authority stems from the United States Constitution. In Minnesota, local units of government are considered creatures of the legislature and depend on it for their authority. Cities and townships “have no inherent power and possess only such powers as are expressly conferred by statute or implied as necessary in aid of those powers which have been expressly conferred.”1

    Because local government powers are based on statute, it is extremely important for town boards to maintain a working knowledge of their statutory authority and how it interacts with other governmental authority. Since the written word is often less than clear, understanding statutory authority requires interpretation. The need for interpretation, in turn, gives rise to the possibility of misinterpretation or conflicting interpretations. Herein lies the frustration most local officials experience with statutes. Unfortunately, because local regulation stems from statutory authority, it is a field that requires a great deal of interpretation.

    In many ways, the vagueness associated with local authority is necessary since it is not possible for the legislature to contemplate every situation that may give rise to local regulation. Occasionally, the legislature conveys specific regulatory authority; however, most often it grants general authority and leaves it to the local governing boards to decide how best to implement the authority. If a local government is seen as going “too far” in the exercise of its authority, either the legislature can provide more specific guidance, or a person subject to the regulation can challenge it in court.

  22. David Gray says:

    BTW this information is freely available from MAT’s website for anyone wishing to understand the nature of local governance in Minnesota.

  23. Gerald S says:

    The last paragraph of the article you copied sums it up. Although the relationship of federal>state>local prevails in government, in reality the relationship is deliberately vaguely defined, and as I have said all along the authority of the state over the local government is exercised primarily by specific legislation (pre-emption) or through the courts, which have tended to support local autonomy in most critical cases. Both states and local governments are free to act unless their powers have been specifically pre-empted.

    “The local boards … decide how best to implement the authority.”

    What we seem to be arguing here is reality versus abstract theory. In reality the local governments have considerable autonomy and frequently do exercise it. In abstract theory, the state has authority over the local government, but in reality can only exercise it by specific legislative acts, as Daubt was trying to do. At the same time, the federal government has authority over both state and local government, but must use specific laws, court decisions, and executive orders to exercise that authority.

    I will add that this argument has gone on for a long time. Historically, the most outstanding examples of the assertion of the rights of state and local government have been with issues of slavery, of treatment of Native Americans, and of civil rights, and the cause of local autonomy has been the banner of conservatives and segregationists. With GOP control of the entire federal government, that has been flipped on its head, with progressives using local autonomy to create various laws and regulations and conservatives arguing that the local and state governments do not have the right to do so.

    David is straddling that argument on an ad hoc basis, arguing for state autonomy as a means of blocking Medicare, Medicaid, SNAP, education programs, and so on, but against local autonomy as a means of passing local laws on wages and other issues. It is also fair to say I am doing somewhat the same in arguing against the rights of states to quash federal safety net and other programs and arguing in favor of local and state rights on other issues.

    The difference, however, is that case law in multiple states, federal courts, and the Supreme Court is on my side in both arguments. The existence of the safety net programs has been upheld repeatedly over the last 80 years, and the city and state laws on things like wages, leave, labor contracts, medical and recreational marijuana, police and court dealings with undocumented immigrants, and so on have all been upheld repeatedly as well. That is why conservatives from Sessions to Daubt are asking for changes in the law to assert their authority over local and state governments: the courts have not supported their positions otherwise.

  24. David Gray says:

    Hand waving.

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