Team game: Building an effective state legislature
May 9, 2018
Andrew C. Spiropoulos
As a longsuffering New York Mets fan (is there any other kind?), I’ve always been amused by the famous lament uttered by the Mets’ first manager, the legendary Casey Stengel. Watching the woeful 1962 Mets, he cried out: “Can’t anybody here play this game?”
Unfortunately, in observing the work of the Oklahoma Legislature (or that of the Governor, for that matter) through most of this decade, Stengel’s line has come to mind often. A mound of evidence—including negative opinion polls, a growing wave of legislative retirements, and majority party losses in special elections—demonstrates that many Oklahomans share my frustration with the legislature’s performance.
I have spent much of my career thinking, reading, and writing about how legislatures should operate. In addition to my scholarly work, I worked for nearly two years for the Oklahoma House of Representatives. Drawing on both my Capitol and academic experience, I am writing a book on how to effectively run a state legislative house, given the political and structural challenges of our time. In this article, I will summarize and explain my book’s arguments.
I first decided to write the book for the simplest of reasons, and one, I trust, familiar to many authors. When I went to work as the chief policy advisor for the Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives, I needed a book like this one, and I was frustrated to find it did not exist. I took the job because it presented a great and rare opportunity for a scholar interested in both the operation of legislatures and the making of public policy. Until 2004, the Republican Party, with the exception of one term during the Wilson Administration, had not held a majority of the Oklahoma House of Representatives. (Until 2008, it never held the Senate.)
The new House leaders, then, did not see their task as managing a continuing enterprise. They viewed the institution, from top to bottom, as one that had been corrupted by nearly a century of one party rule—they believed the institution was run for the benefit of the opposing party. The advantage of this perspective is that the new leaders were willing to scrutinize and reform any aspect of the institution. The disadvantage, of course, is that the new leaders had no experience running the place. Indeed, until the final electoral takeover, the notion that Republicans would run the House was so farfetched that the Republican House Caucus Rules did not even include a process for electing a Speaker (and the Democrats did not have a process for electing a minority leader).
Consequently, the new leadership, particularly the incoming Speaker, believed it was necessary to overhaul the entire operation of the House. The leaders intended to examine all parts of that operation, from staff personnel to the structure of the legislature to even the mechanics of bill processing. The intent of my new boss, Speaker Todd Hiett, and his leadership team (including me) was to reform any operation of the House that we believed was run inefficiently or unfairly. While we wanted a body that would effectively serve our agenda, we also believed it was our duty to run the institution in a way that would be fair to the members of both parties.
We also, however, faced the political challenge of facing a Governor and a Senate of the other party. If we were to prove to the people of our state that they were wise to make the historic decision to take away control of the House from the party that was the majority’s ancestral home, we would need to show that we could both effectively run the institution and, despite the political obstacles, enact the key components of our legislative agenda. In other words, we needed to run the institution so that it would fairly and effectively meet the legitimate needs of all legislators, while still serving our policy agenda.
These dual challenges were both daunting and intriguing. On the one hand, I was given the job of helping design, within the limits of our resources and the context of the history of our institution, a legislative house that worked well. On the other hand, my most important duty was to help set our legislative priorities and usher them through the legislative process. What I needed was a primer and advice on how to construct an effective and responsive legislative structure. I found helpful scholarly guidance on how state legislatures work and the nature of the challenges they face. In addition to this scholarship, though, I looked for books that made a normative case for particular legislative structures or designs. I needed someone to make an argument about how you should design your legislature both to make it an engine of good law and an effective vehicle for enacting the majority’s policy agenda.
In my book, I make that argument. While my perspective is objective and scholarly, I am not shy about taking sides on the important questions regarding the organization and operation of legislatures. For example, I think the modern dispersal of power from leadership to the members has gone too far; I am an unapologetic advocate for returning the power of the chief legislative leader to its historic, nearly absolute level. I think that rolling back the decentralization of authority is the only way for the legislature to recapture some of the policy ground lost to increasingly powerful governors. It is not that I seek to weaken the authority of the governor. I instead wish to strengthen the institutional capacity of the legislature, so it can compete with a branch possessing inherent structural advantages.
Restoring the proper balance between the executive and legislative branches is not only important to the self-interest of legislators; it is vital to advancing the cause of good government. Unfortunately, however, the current political, structural, and cultural environment in which state legislatures operate has weakened the authority of legislative leadership, and, indeed, makes it difficult to believe that modern legislators will invest their leaders with the power and deference necessary to navigate in this environment.
The Parade of Centrifugal Forces
For state legislatures, it is both the best of times and the worst of times. The case for believing that we live in the golden age of state legislatures is founded on the truth that, 50 years ago, state legislatures were a political backwater. Populated with often amateur legislators, states invested few resources in the development of legislative capacity—the ability and resources to study, devise, and enact solutions to policy problems. Except for a small minority of states, state legislatures hired few staff, spent little money on facilities and expenses, and limited the number and the length of legislative sessions. Consequently, talented individuals, largely, did not pursue a legislative career, perpetuating the lack of investment in the institution.
Beginning in the late 1960s, however, states increasingly modernized and invested in their legislatures. They appropriated more money to hire professional staff, improve facilities, and increase pay and other resources for legislators. The increased investment, as well as renewed interest in the political way of life, attracted a new generation of legislators. The new breed was, and is, better educated, more ambitious, and more professional in their approach to the job. Thus, legislative capacity, both as a matter of material and of human capital, has increased dramatically.
While it is difficult from the perspective of the institutional health of the legislature to be anything but pleased with the growth in institutional capacity, the professionalization of the legislature brought its own problems. While it is true that professionalization does strengthen legislative leaders in some ways, the new legislative professionals, precisely because of their talent and ambition, tend to be more interested in pursuing their own agenda and ambitions, even at the expense of their party and leadership. Their priorities too often concern their own interests, rather than those of the institution. It is difficult for leaders to cobble together the stable majorities necessary for the legislature to accomplish the elements of any meaningful agenda.Too many legislators see themselves primarily as the representative of their constituents, not as a state policymaker. They have a perhaps naïve faith that if every legislator looks out for his or her own district, through the magic of the deliberative and bargaining process the legislature will produce good laws.
This internal centrifugal force is greatly accelerated in the 15 states that, like Oklahoma, limit legislative terms. When term limits are implemented and legislative turnover increases, the personal capacity of the legislators is weakened by their relative lack of experience and their disinclination, given their limited tenure, to apprentice themselves for the sake of gathering expertise and developing skills. Perhaps not surprisingly, the first studies of the effects of term limits have found that legislators are less interested in scrutinizing bills in committee or devising creative approaches to policy problems. The effects are not limited to the legislative process; the legislators are less interested in responding to the needs and desires of their constituents.
Worst of all, from the institutional perspective, because term-limited members cannot make a career serving as a legislator, they are less likely to heed the pleas of their leaders to come together to pursue the goals of the caucus. The members often conclude that they are better off promoting themselves in the hope that they can be elected to another office or land a cushy job in the private sector. In this environment, advice to show loyalty and patience falls on too many deaf ears. It does not help that, under term limits, legislative leaders serve shorter terms; high turnover at the top never serves to strengthen authority.
In addition to these buffeting forces, today’s legislatures operate in a different political and institutional environment than that of the past. The traditional Madisonian defense of the American legislative process posits that our system produces good laws because our legislatures have two principal strengths. First, legislators, because they are elected by local districts, well represent the diverse interests and opinions of the people. Second, they make decisions by deliberation. The concept of legislative deliberation is a special and rich one. It includes the principal features of the legislative process, such as the division into specialized committees, floor debate and amendment, and the conference committee process.
The representative and deliberative nature of the American legislature is especially well suited to the interest group pluralism that has traditionally dominated American politics. The classic Madisonian model holds that, unlike in a parliamentary system which is characterized by party majorities seeking to enact an ideologically driven agenda, legislators should construct coalitions of different groups, often crossing party lines, ensuring that, on average, laws accommodate the legitimate interests of a supermajority of the people. The American two-party system, characterized by parties rooted more in common economic interests than in ideological purity, is the institutional expression of interest group politics.
In roughly the last half-century, however, the social and ideological context of our politics has changed. While, of course, Americans have always divided themselves both by party and ideology, until about 1970, our parties were ideologically diverse—many conservatives were Democrats and many liberals were Republicans. Also, many in both parties considered themselves moderates. But with the realignment of Southern conservatives into the Republican Party, the parties began the process of ideological sorting that has made both parties, in practice, ideologically uniform. At the same time, our political disagreements moved beyond the usual clash of economic interests and centered on issues in which party differences were rooted in different perspectives concerning cultural and philosophical questions.
The “culture war” that has played such a large role in our politics in recent years has polarized our politics, making our political disputes more partisan and bitter. Many legislators, when dealing with legislative proposals touching upon cultural and philosophical differences, are less interested in—or believe they are foreclosed from—engaging in common deliberation and coalition building. The cultural issues lend themselves to a more ideological, party-oriented, and majoritarian process. In this kind of process, political success requires an increased emphasis on party unity and the vesting of additional authority in the legislative leader. Cultural wars, thus, lead to legislative wars, which require the legislative institutions to be put on a war footing.
This ideological conflict is rapidly being cemented as a defining feature of our politics by the phenomenon of ideological residential sorting. Americans are increasingly choosing to live in ideologically common enclaves. Ideological sorting results in the election of more ideologically distinct legislators, who hold safer seats. (In fact, many legislators fear primary challengers accusing them of ideological disloyalty more than candidates of the opposing party.) The political activists who wield great influence over parties see the legislative process through the lens of a majoritarian warfare model, not the interest group balancing model. They are not interested in building coalitions—they are interested in winning.
These developments, taken together, make the job of leading the legislature enormously more complicated than in the past. When legislators saw their seats as pleasant, relatively undemanding sinecures, to be secured by coalition building and deal making in an atmosphere of bonhomie and limited ideological conflict, managing the legislature was largely a function of facilitating legislative relationships and compromise. The modern legislature, however, is a much harder institution to lead. It consists largely of ambitious and talented people who see themselves as political entrepreneurs and want to go their own way in pursuit of their personal goals. Legislators are also more likely to see themselves as ideological warriors who want to defeat their opponents and impose their ideological vision. This goal necessitates that the majority caucus act as a unified body, marshaled by a leader empowered to plan strategy and execute tactical maneuvers. This body, in addition to specific objectives and a strategy to attain them, must also have a doctrine articulating the rules, structures, and norms governing the operation of the caucus.
This pursuit of political victory is especially challenging if your opponent is the state’s governor, possessed of all the institutional advantages the executive branch bestows. Unfortunately, the fragmentation of legislative leadership authority plays into the institutional strengths of the governor. It should not surprise anyone that both scholars and political practitioners believe that the power of the executive is increasing relative to the legislature. The same forces of modern government, political economy, and communications that have produced a more professional legislature have also led states to augment the institutional capacity of the executive. Indeed, many believe that the increasing complexity of the policy and regulatory issues produced by an economically and socially diverse society requires that more power be afforded to the branch that can most efficiently and effectively use it to respond to the knotty problems of modern society. Governors, because of the unitary nature of their authority compared to the legislature, can act quickly and decisively to address problems. This is true even in states where the chiefs of a few executive agencies are independently elected.
In addition, because governors are elected by all the people, they draw the most attention from both politically aware citizens and the media who cover state politics. This increased interest, particularly in our age of modern communications, provides governors with significant advantages in the contest to win over public opinion. It is difficult for a legislature, whose work citizens either dislike or find confusing and dull, to compete with the more interesting and telegenic executive.
The legislative leader can only succeed in this treacherous environment by studying and practicing the discipline of effective management. The leader must convince the members of the majority caucus that a legislative house is no different than a business, nonprofit organization, or any institution that must succeed in a competitive environment. This task is more difficult than it sounds; the legislature has long seen itself as a group of individuals whose election provides each of them with equal status and authority. The job of the leader, from this perspective, is merely to facilitate the members’ effective representation of their constituents.
The modern leader must persuade the members that the majority caucus, which is responsible for both making good public policy and preserving the legislature as an institution, has objectives that are independent from and of greater importance than those of the individual members. It is the function of the caucus and its leaders to achieve their common objectives. But the individual members must understand that if the caucus is successful in achieving its goals, then their individual goals will also be well served.
For example, the two primary objectives of the majority caucus are also those of the individual members: (1) the enactment of laws that advance the caucus’s understanding of human flourishing, and (2) reelection to office. These objectives, particularly in our ideological age, can be achieved only by the enactment of the principal policy initiatives of the majority caucus. The primary job of the leader is, in conjunction with the members, to define this agenda, devise the strategy necessary to enact it, and make the tactical decisions that will result in success.
At the same time, however, the leader must also acknowledge that the third objective of the caucus (and the institution) is to develop the capacity and facilitate the achievements of its individual members. The effective leader manages the institution in a manner that provides the members ample opportunity to pursue their own goals and develop their talents and skills. This pursuit of self-development, however, must not undermine the objectives or strategy of the whole. The institutional expression of this commitment to the development of the members is the committee system. Chairing and participating in the work of committees, in accordance with the political principles of the caucus, provides members with the responsibility and opportunity necessary to accomplish their goals.
Finally, the fourth (and last) objective must be to preserve and foster the special culture of the institution. While for the legislature to operate effectively the majority caucus and its leadership must control all aspects of the institution, the leaders must ensure that all members, including those in the minority, are treated fairly. The staff and facilities of the institution must be made available to all members in order to assist them in their duty to effectively represent and advocate for their constituents. It is also important to the institution that all members receive the staff support necessary to foster serious deliberation. The majority caucus in particular benefits from engaging in debate and discussion with a well-informed and competent opposition.
The legislature also has a duty to the public that it serves to operate in an open and transparent manner. Meetings, as much as possible, must be open and conducted only with public notice. Legislators’ important votes, both in committee and on the floor, must be recorded. The public can only hold members responsible for their positions and actions if the legislature conducts its affairs in public and the actions of its members are recorded.The modern legislative leader must persuade his or her members that the majority caucus, which is responsible for making good public policy and for preserving the legislature as an institution, has objectives that are independent from and of greater importance than those of the individual members.
In sum, the difficulty of running a legislature only makes the application of the principles and practice of management more essential. As Peter Drucker counsels, the “fundamental task of management” is “to make people capable of joint performance through common goals, common values, the right structure, and the training and development they need to perform and to respond to change.” My task is to explain how best to define these goals and values, structure, and processes in the legislative context.
Building the Model: Legislative Control, Agenda Setting, and Leadership
My purpose is to offer a model of legislature structure, operation, and management that will best equip a 21st century state legislature to compete with the encroaching power of the executive. The foundation of my approach is my argument that the principal cause of the legislature’s weakness relative to the executive is the fragmentation of the authority of legislative leadership. While the increasing ambition, professionalism, and entrepreneurial energy of the modern rank-and-file legislator are admirable and useful, the excessive individualism and reluctance to temper one’s desires and views that accompany the advent of this new legislator poses a serious threat to legislative authority.
Only legislative leaders, particularly the principal leaders elected by the caucus, possess the perspective necessary to make the difficult strategic and tactical decisions involved in governing in partnership with the other legislative house and the executive branch. Legislative leaders like the Speaker of the House of Representatives or the President Pro Tem of the Senate are far more likely than individual legislators, whose priorities are their constituents and their career prospects, to put first the priorities of both the legislature as an institution and the state’s citizens. Without a clear focus on and strategy for fostering both the good of the state and the prerogatives of the institution, the legislature cannot hope to compete with an executive branch that is naturally designed to concentrate on both. The legislature as an institution must be structured, operated, and managed to facilitate this necessary objective and strategy.
In order to achieve its objectives, the majority caucus must act as a team whose actions are coordinated and managed to maximize the organization’s performance. The caucus will only work as a team if the individual members are persuaded that the most promising path to achieving their individual goals (e.g., reelection, the making of good policy, and advancement within the institution) is through working with the caucus organization. I contend that the defining element of successful legislative parties is the recognition by the members that their collective and individual fate is determined by their party brand or reputation. Individual legislators, no matter what they may believe, do not build independent brands that resonate with most voters; voters rely on their perception of the party brands.
Party reputation depends both on how closely the party’s policy agenda matches with voter preferences and on how much the voters can trust party leadership to effectively coordinate the efforts of their members. There is no point in supporting a party if its leaders cannot deliver the policies they promised and ensure that their members do not pursue these policies to extremes. If voters conclude that a party lacks leadership and discipline, the brand will be damaged, and the consumers will refuse to buy the product, hurting all the members of the caucus. The caucus leader must effectively coordinate the actions of its members.
To do this difficult job, the caucus leader must have a deep understanding of what exactly he or she needs the members to do to make the caucus effective. The leader, in other words, must begin with a sound model of legislative control. Fortunately, the question of which model best coordinates the actions of legislators has engaged political scientists for many years. The literature demonstrates that the most effective model is the procedural cartel, where the caucus leadership (or, to analogize to the professions, the caucus senior partners) holds a monopoly over all the agenda-setting offices of the legislative house. The senior partners agree to use this control of the agenda to block any legislation that the majority of the caucus does not support. This procedural cartel ensures that any bill which successfully runs the legislative gauntlet moves policy in the direction desired by the party. This model emphasizes negative control—it is more about killing bills than passing them. But it is effective and stable, and helps preserve the party brand.
Effective as it is though, this model, standing alone, is insufficient for a polarized age of politics. The party activists that increasingly dominate our politics want more than the killing of opposition bills—they demand the passage of a positive legislative agenda. If the majority caucus does not deliver a positive program, the activists will openly oppose the party leaders, damaging the brand. Enacting a positive agenda, however, is a stiffer coordination and leadership challenge than exercising negative agenda control. The legislative leader, nevertheless, must devise and implement both a strategy to enact the caucus priorities and a caucus doctrine that will sufficiently coordinate the members to maintain the procedural cartel and successfully pursue the caucus agenda.
Thus, once the procedural cartel has been established, the most important component of a leadership strategy designed to increase the relative power of a legislative body is the defining of the caucus legislative agenda. A legislative leader, no less than a governor, must have a defined list of legislative priorities that must be enacted in order to consider the session a success. Failure to organize one’s efforts around a specific agenda will cede the initiative to the governor who—by electoral necessity, constitutional duty, and, in most cases, temperamental inclination—will most certainly have his or her own agenda. The entire course of the legislative process, from the initial submission of bills to the end-of-session negotiation between the governor and the principal legislative leaders, must be managed with the purpose of enacting these priorities in as close to desired form as possible. It is this agenda, along with the legislature’s budget priorities (if they are not already part of the leadership agenda), that provides the glue that holds the majority caucus together.
Once this agenda is determined and policies designed, it is the responsibility of the entire majority caucus to take all action necessary to enact the agenda bills. The relevant committee chairs must push the agenda bills through committee. Members are not required to vote for the bills on the floor, but if they choose to vote against them, they must inform the leaders beforehand. Members must also understand that the leadership will keep track of their votes and, when allocating caucus resources, that these goods will first go to those members who supported the caucus agenda.
These commitments and consequences may sound obvious. But in the heat of session, after the leader and his or her agenda have been thoroughly criticized by opponents and the press, members, including senior partners, are understandably tempted to withdraw their support for the crucial bills. Constituent concerns, evident political cost, or initial ambivalence or disagreement may lead individual legislators, who already are inclined to put their interests first, to withdraw their support for parts of the caucus agenda. These defections can make the position of the principal leader untenable. Failure to deliver on the promised agenda results in the leader losing credibility both in the eyes of fellow leaders and the press. The inability to deliver the votes of the caucus can fatally compromise his or her ability to effectively negotiate with the leader of the other body and the governor. It also seriously damages the party brand.
How, then, in an era of individualistic, self-regarding legislators, does a leader persuade recalcitrant or reluctant members to stay the course? The leader must, to use the parlance of the day, employ both “hard” and “soft” power to keep the members of the caucus on the straight and narrow. If he or she has designed the rules and organizational structure correctly, the leader will possess a considerable amount of “hard” power—direct authority over important carrots and sticks. The leader, for example, controls the award of committee chairmanships and committee assignments. The leader controls office assignments, staffing, perks such as travel, and salary supplements for legislative officers. An effective legislative leader controls the raising and spending of campaign money. Legislative campaigns should be run and funded by a central organization run by people directly responsible to the principal leader. Any members who stray too far on key issues must know that they face the possibility that their campaign money and logistical support will dry up. If they want the benefits of being on a team, they must play as a team.Lawmakers must recognize that their collective and individual fate is determined by their party brand or reputation. Individual legislators, no matter what they may believe, do not build independent brands that resonate with most voters. Voters rely on their perception of the party brands.
But an effective leader has more cards to play than rewards or punishment. The leader must understand that to win the loyalty of the modern legislator, he or she must allow them some leeway to pursue their entrepreneurial ambitions. Committee chairs, for example, on bills in their bailiwick (that are not agenda bills) must have nearly complete power over their disposition, even if the principal leader sometimes disagrees with the chair’s position. The leader must genuinely delegate authority to a wide range of caucus members and, as long as the agenda is not impeded, allow them to exercise it. A good leader also makes extensive use of the caucus meeting to allow members to voice their opinion about the agenda bills and budget. One cannot go to this well too often, but a leader may choose on occasion to refer a question to a caucus vote. It is also a good idea, if one’s electoral majority allows it, to let some members vote against an agenda bill. Showing some flexibility may help that member keep their seat and let the rest of the caucus see that you respect the difficulty of their plight.
Perhaps the most important incentive to close ranks is a version of the argument used by governors to win legislative support. The political fortunes of the entire caucus rise and fall on public perception that the body is effective. If voters conclude that the legislature is doing a poor job in serving their needs, they will turn against all members of the majority, no matter how much one member tries to avoid the unpopular positions of his or her caucus. The leader can honestly say, if I win, we all win.
Not so long ago, I was chatting with my former boss and Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives, Todd Hiett (now serving as a member of the Oklahoma Corporation Commission). He told me the incumbent House leadership had asked him to come speak to the caucus. I asked, what about? He laughed and said he wasn’t sure, but it sounded like they wanted him to explain to the members how to be a caucus.
As I thought about it, I decided that the leaders had the right idea. A decade after Speaker Hiett and the Republican caucus took over, while the caucus had experienced great political success, as a policymaking body it had fallen into the dissension and drift common among legislative caucuses. They had forgotten how to be an effective caucus—truth be told, many of the new members never knew. The caucus Speaker Hiett led needed little instruction on how to stick together and achieve their objectives. They had served in the minority for years and had executed their plan to win the majority. They understood in their bones that if they did not work as a team they would lose.
But the new crop of legislators never knew the misery of life in the minority and, consequently, did not learn through experience the importance of trusting in your caucus strategy, leadership, and colleagues. Now, it seems, to learn how to be a caucus, instruction must replace experience. The problem, though, is there can be no instruction without a theory of how to be a caucus. Theory is not, nor should it be, what legislators do. It is, however, what people like me are supposed to offer.
But legislators will never be open to guidance that political science can offer if they do not understand both the nature and the importance of their office—they are the engine of popular government. Despite this great power and responsibility, for much of our nation’s history, state legislatures, as policymaking institutions, have been passive and complacent. Their default position is to defer to the governor, at least on the setting of the policy agenda. Part of their complacency can be explained by the great extent of their power—they can kill any bill they want to kill.
But legislators also have neglected agenda-setting because of their conception of their job. They see themselves primarily as the representative (or agent) of their constituents, not as a state policymaker. They have a perhaps naïve faith that if every legislator looks out for their district and faithfully represents their district’s views, through the magic of the deliberative and bargaining process the legislature will produce good laws. It is a kind of Adam Smithian “invisible hand” argument applied to governing.
But a legislative house is not a market. It is an institution that relies on cooperative efforts to achieve common objectives. Legislators deliberate, but they deliberate for the purpose of considering a specific agenda of bills. Someone has to be in charge of setting that agenda and structuring that deliberative process so that it leads to productive results.
The problem with an intense, nearly exclusive focus on your district is that it leads legislators to care only about their district’s priorities. It leads to a variant of what Alexis de Tocqueville called individualism—the disposition to neglect the larger society and serve only one’s own family and friends (or, in this case, your district). This individualism (which is not the same as selfishness) is the special vice of liberal societies—we pursue our self-interest and leave the common good to fend for itself.
In the legislature, this individualism manifests itself in legislators’ refusal to take direction from their caucus leaders and their failure to accept responsibility to serve either the interests of the caucus or the legislature as an institution. The concept of institutional thinking or loyalty is foreign to them—their allegiance runs only to their district. This individualism takes its securest hold when it is strengthened by the glue of self-interest. When the interests and views of their district differ from that of the majority of their caucus, legislators see no reason to follow the lead of the caucus or their leaders. They dedicate themselves to advancing their careers and personal agendas. They are not disposed to act as part of a team.
Without faithful followers, there can be no strong leadership. And without strong leadership, the legislature cannot operate effectively. The costs of fragmented authority are high. It is costly to the legislature as an institution, which must take a backseat to the decisive and efficient governor. It is costly to the quality of state governance. Without strong leadership, we cannot take full advantage of the distinctive virtues of the legislature, which effectively represents all the different communities and ways of life in a state and provides them a structure to deliberate together for the common good. Without strong leadership, a legislative caucus cannot offer or enact a coherent policy agenda to address public problems. Voters, perceiving that the legislature is incapable of improving their lives, become frustrated and conclude that the legislators must be in the thrall of some malign force. Finally, the intolerance for strong leadership makes statesmanship impossible—weak leaders are too fearful to exercise independent judgment and do the right thing when it is not popular. Only leaders that are trusted, that are given space to pursue the common good, are given both the opportunity to craft serious solutions to complex problems and the time to see if they work.
But we have a great opportunity to revitalize legislative leadership and fulfill the elusive dream of responsible party government. This boon comes from a surprising source—the rise of political polarization. Political polarization makes it possible to establish effective, accountable government because, through ideological and residential sorting, it produces the ideological cohesion that reduces the gap between the political opinions of the legislative district and those of the caucus. This ideological consistency frees the representative to support strong caucus leadership and leads to effective caucus coordination. This alignment between representative self-interest and a party’s view of the public interest gives voters a real choice between different conceptions of the public good and provides a meaningful chance that the prevailing conception will be implemented.
But this political reformation will not be complete if legislators do not change their view of their profession. They must see themselves not merely as an agent for a district, responsible only for themselves and their constituents, but as a member of an institution who is obligated to advance the interests of the common good. Only by making the sacrifices it takes to work together can legislators effectively serve their interests and ours.