How position politics stymies our legislature

PHOTO: Flowizm, Flickr CC

I’m going to explain why the Minnesota legislature ends in a flaming pile of tractor scrapings every year, but first you have to watch this vintage footage of a 1980s bicycle sprint. The first minute or so will suffice.

Bicycle sprinting is a unique sport. The overall time doesn’t count. The only thing that matters is crossing the finish line first. Because of the incredible energy expended by the riders to achieve unbelievable speed (up to 40 mph on an inclined track) strategy becomes the key to victory.

As this race shows, the the first laps of the race are hardly inspiring. The riders bob and weave, creep as slowly as possible, trying desperately not to lead their opponent. Essentially, they dare each other to fall over sideways on their bikes.

The advantage of being in second is that during the last 200 meters of the race, you have the ability to see your opponents movement. If they kick up their speed you can match them. If they conserve energy, you can choose to overtake them with a massive burst. It’s all about position.

Here’s why that matters in the politics of the Gopher State.

The Minnesota legislature adjourned early Monday morning, ending the 2018 session with little accomplishment. Most of the major issues that dominated public debate over these past few months went unaddressed. Gun safety, texting while driving, opioids — some of the biggest issues on people’s minds. Nothing. There were bills but none posted for a final vote.

Sure, a lot of housekeeping legislation succeeded. Policy matters important to small groups of people or localities. They passed a bonding bill, which will advance some important public works projects. That’s good. The governor will *probably* sign that. But most of the significant legislation was rolled into a controversial omnibus bill, a massive piece of legislation covering everything from taxes to education funding to policy and more. The Republican-controlled state House and Senate passed that Ron Chernow tome-sized bill in the wee hours of the final day, but Gov. Mark Dayton, a Democrat, is expected to veto it over process and policy objections. By the time you read this that may have already occurred. Which means, thpppt. Nothing.

Why? Because both Speaker of the House Kurt Daudt and Gov. Dayton believe they have the right position for the race ahead, the one that really matters: next November’s election. In fact, the particular fecklessness of this session can be summed up as these two people becoming completely sick of each other. Dayton — a near-retirement politician who suffers from health problems — wants things done a certain way. Years past, he tried to be magnanimous but it never worked. Daudt, a sly car dealer, acts as though he can always sneak one by the governor, or sometimes even members of his own party. Both of them said “fudge it” this year, only they didn’t say “fudge.”

The problem at the legislature, and really throughout our current political process, is that the quality or efficiency of governance isn’t particularly important. It matters, but not in a way that gets people’s attention. It affects people, but only after siphoning down through several other layers of government — local schools, cops, next April’s tax return. Further, there are plenty of people perfectly content with a functionless government. In fact, for about 34 percent of the population it’s a feature, not a bug.

What’s really important? Position. Who comes out “ahead.” Winning a session, or at least appearing to win a session, means you can sell a winning message in the next election. Winning an election gives you better position. But, that means little if you don’t come out of the next session in a good position. And so forth.

This has been building for a long time. And the simple thing would be to say “how childish; how dare we allow our public officials to behave in such a way?” But, for the most part, we do. We certainly don’t punish them when the election comes around. Even as you read this piece, you probably muttered about how your side wasn’t responsible. Not really.

It’s not that “winning” is bad. You have to win elections to govern. And it’s not that politics used to be pure as the driven snow. The good old days were replete with backroom deals, arm twisting and last minute theatrics, too. But there is no current political reward for being good at governing. And that is what’s troubling, because Minnesota had long been a state of good governance — regardless of the party in control.

So, what I’m saying is that we want our legislators to run timed races that emphasize the best possible start to finish outcome. Each leg of the race (from opening gavel, to committee hearings, to revisions, to final negotiations) has its important role in the final conclusion. If important legislation doesn’t have the votes, we’ll all know sooner, so citizens can react and petition their legislators if necessary. When such events occur all at once, dumped on the Friday before the session adjourns, everything dies in a fire.

I suppose it’s not fair to pick on bicycle sprinting. It’s a remarkable sport, undeserving of any comparison to the Minnesota legislature.


  1. Joe musich says

    Well to sum it up…”…But there is no current political reward for being good at governing…” The rewarding comes from being pushy,demanding,insulting,fictitious, and willing to be paid off and how skilled you are at wrapping those around an issue. For example how can the genuineness of a piece of legislation under the guise of safety written by someone arrested for speeding and having a blood alcohol level of .13 even be taken seriously. The majority at this point in the legislature seems to be made up of bad nighttime stand-up comics.

  2. Ranger47 says

    My God Joe….If how much someone drinks comes into play, the DFL wouldn’t have anyone in politics. Dayton was/is a drunk, Rukavina was stopped for being DWI how many times?, Solberg loved porn movies…I could easily lengthen this list but I don’t think you’re from the Range, or have been drinking yourself.

  3. Ranger47 says

    Don’t misread me Joe, I think a guy like Rukavina and others got a lot done when they were drinking…but both sides drank. Now, people like you bad mouth after hours political negotiating while drinking. So…nothing happens.

    Dayton is a buffoon, drunk or sober. Buffoons are buffoons, not capable of negotiation.

    A politicians porn fetish? Not much good comes from that either, other than personal gratification. No negotiation on ones mind at all..

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