JACK SPENCER: Playing hardball could be next move on road funding
Political insiders in Lansing predict that a consequence of the defeat of Proposal 1 could be an all-out effort to pressure lawmakers into adopting an alternative road funding plan. In other words, Gov. Rick Snyder and legislative leaders would start playing hardball with legislators; forcing them to stay at the Capitol building until some sort of agreement is reached.
To many the picture this conjures up is one of House and Senate members rolling up their sleeves and tackling the task at hand. In reality such a portrayal would be erroneous. Lawmakers aren’t ditch diggers; they will only work up a sweat this summer if the air conditioning goes on the fritz. Nonetheless, the process for passage of a road funding Plan B might make a lot of legislators wish they were just digging ditches.
This column is not an attempt to drum up sympathy for lawmakers. Their jobs aren’t as easy as some believe but are obviously rewarding enough that the vast majority are willing to go to amazing lengths to avoid losing them. In spite of that, however; when a governor and legislative leaders focus on an all-consuming issue like road funding - for what may be several weeks -lawmakers could almost literally be run through the mill. The toughest part they’ll face won’t be a matter of working hard; it will be the mixture of frustration, boredom and exhaustion.
The truth is that for better than 90 percent of legislators, if it takes a long time to reach agreement on a road funding Plan B, their daily grind could come to resemble propping their eyelids open to watch paint drying. That’s a description of what it can be like to spend entire days on the floors of the House and Senate waiting while those in leadership roles bargain, discuss and mull over the options.
The legislative process changed when Rick Snyder became Governor. With Gov. Snyder at the helm and both the House and Senate in GOP hands, the legislature has kept businesslike hours. Sessions that run past dinnertime are rare. Sessions that go on until midnight are even rarer.
That’s not the way it used to be. Not long ago all-night sessions were typically held two or three times every year. But now only a handful of lawmakers can remember watching the sun rise over Michigan Avenue through a Capitol window multiple times; and they are all in the Senate, none are in the House.
It seems likely the legislature will continue with its current schedule as the quest for an alternative road funding plan gets under way. The lawmakers will probably hold hearings on issues other than road funding; have moderately short afternoon and morning sessions during which they’ll vote on various bills and go home or to their hotels for the evening. But if agreement on an alternative road funding plan doesn’t materialize fairly quickly that could all change.
Numerous people have wondered what Gov. Snyder’s reaction would be if the voters rejected Proposal 1. One distinct possibility is that he and legislative leaders will revert to the tactics of the past. That would involve jettisoning the regular business hours schedule in favor of holding nearly around-the-clock sessions. What that means is keeping lawmakers on the floors of the House and Senate tedious hour after tedious hour.
In the years before lawmakers had laptop computers on their chamber desks these hours of waiting were harder to bear. Legislators can now spend a portion of their waiting moments doing constituent work via emails. This isn’t too bad at first because working is a lot better than just waiting, but when the hours stretch toward midnight and beyond, it becomes monotonous.
The issues that become important during such marathon sessions might be surprising to many. Would the House be willing to stay in the Capitol even if the Senate has adjourned and been allowed to leave? Is it safe to fall asleep at one’s desk and risk being caught napping in a photograph or on videotape?
Make no mistake about it, this strategy is and always has been about softening opposition to potential legislation. A former Senator who served with John Engler when he was Senate Majority Leader could actually list the succession of psychological phases lawmakers go through during a series of marathon sessions. At one point they get mad, later they get silly, then they get sullen and finally they reach the “I don’t give a damn” phase. Reaching this “I don’t give a damn” phase, according to the former Senator, was precisely what leadership wanted.
With few exceptions, even when confronting sleep depredation, lawmakers won’t be willing to vote for just anything. They’ll pretty much try to stick to their guns and principles. What the hours of boredom and frustration tend to produce is a willingness to accept deals – especially deals offering some piece of what they’d hoped would be in the legislation.
Later, after the vote has been taken, they may decide they should have held out longer. Things can look a lot different following eight hours of sleep than they did at 5 a.m.
Jack Spencer is Capitol Affairs Specialist for Capitol Confidential, an online newsletter associated with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy (MCPP). MCPP provides policy analysis. The political analysis represented in this column does not necessarily reflect the views of the Mackinac Center.