JACK SPENCER: Voters get a break when lawmakers go home

There’s a misconception about legislators and the legislative process that surfaces year in and year out. It’s that when there’s a high priority issue lawmakers should plant themselves in the Capitol to hammer out a solution. “Darn those lawmakers,” people say. “Here we have an unresolved road funding issue and instead of rolling up their sleeves and tackling it, the representatives and senators take several weeks off in the summer.”

That way of thinking is almost entirely detached from reality. Big issues, such as reaching an allusive agreement on a funding stream for roads, aren’t hashed out by the 148 state legislators; they’re negotiated between a handful of legislative leaders and the Governor’s office. If and when this smaller group works out some kind of potential deal, the legislature can be called back to Lansing to either pass or reject it.

There are only a couple of reasons for making lawmakers stick around the Capitol while such talks take place on an issue like road funding; and both reasons – when properly understood - would likely leave a sour taste in the mouths of voters.

One reason would be image enhancement based on creating a false impression that the entire legislature is working on the problem. Any suggestion that the vast majority of the state’s lawmakers would accomplish anything by being at the Capitol to supposedly “work out” the road funding tangle is illusionary. Trying to get 148 people to reach an agreement on something like a potential road funding plan would be like attempting to herd cats. The only thing achieved by their presence at the Capitol would be the presentation of a charade to mislead the news media and the public. The lawmakers would make themselves look busy while the real action was taking place behind the scenes as their leaders argued over what should be done.

A second reason for having legislators hang around the Capitol would be to pressure them into buckling under and supporting a measure they didn’t like. Considering the dynamics of the road funding issue, this would almost surely be a large gas tax hike. All the forces in Lansing, including Gov. Rick Snyder, seem to see a tax increase as the only acceptable solution; and keeping the lawmakers cooped up at the Capitol would be like locking them in a government-centric echo chamber.

The fact that the legislators have been sent home to their districts, at least for the time being, bodes well for those who oppose a big gas tax hike. Members of the legislature who have stood up for the concept of getting at least a solid portion of road funding dollars from existing funds are more likely to stick to their guns after spending some time as far away from the Capitol as possible. The alternative of keeping the legislators in Lansing would invite the traditional circus-like atmosphere of marathon sessions designed to make them crack. Again; that approach would favor those who want a big increase in the gas tax.

The situation might be different if there was a good chance that a true compromise was in the offing. However, the dominating principle to which the influential interests in Lansing are dedicated is that virtually every government program should be immune from budget cuts. This community of special interests within the 10-block radius of the Capitol building remains poised to try to block any deal that doesn’t rely heavily on a tax hike.

Setting aside the road funding issue, the usual complaints that lawmakers aren’t currently in Lansing working on other issues might seem to have some validity. However, the perception that lawmakers do all their work at the Capitol is the product of superficial thinking. Being a legislator is not a job that’s carried out on a 9 to 5 schedule in an office building or on a factory floor.

Arguably, the work legislators do in their districts, going to events, listening to constituents and reacquainting themselves with ‘the folks back home’ is at least as important as what they do in Lansing. Think about it; do we really want our legislators spending all of their time in corridors of the Capitol building? Aren’t we actually better off making sure they split their time between Lansing and their districts? After all, the typical criticism of Michigan politicians is that they are out of touch with the voters and their policies are centered too much on the culture of Lansing. In that context it seems sort of silly to complain that they aren’t in Lansing enough.

The premise that legislators should be constantly occupied in Lansing, holding hearings, meeting with each other and with lobbyists and passing laws is subtlety akin to the idea that most governmental actions are positive. Yet, we all know that is assuredly not the case.

The time to feel safe and secure isn’t when the legislature is in session at the Capitol. It is when the legislature leaves town that the ‘all clear’ signal can finally be sounded.

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.