Tips for New Legislators

Article excerpt

Get to know the staff. Learn the rules of your legislature. Don't introduce too many bills. Remember who's boss--heed your constituents. And be considerate of others.

Whether coming from Arizona's Representative Polly Rosenbaum, Oregon's Speaker of the House Larry Campbell, Colorado's Representative Carol Snyder or Indiana Senate President Robert Garton, the advice is much the same.

Learn Where to Get Help

As early as possible, newcomers should learn where to go for help, says Speaker Campbell who has been on both sides of the aisle in his 14 years in the Oregon House. "Meet and become acquainted with staff members," Campbell says. "You want to know where to go for help and how to get it." And that means not only legislative staff but the key people in the governor's office and the cabinet offices.

New legislators will find themselves dealing with "3,000 issues," Campbell says, and while more seasoned legislators know they can't be experts in everything, a new legislator often tries to juggle them all. Find out who knows what, Campbell recommends, and that means on both sides of the aisle. "Other legislators have expertise and experience and you can turn to them for advice and counsel, but you have to know who they are."

In small states, where staff is scarce, legislators need to know how "to use lobbyists effectively," says Representative Carol Snyder, who was just elected caucus chairman for the minority party in the Colorado House. Lobbyists can serve as resource people if a legislator is bold enough to demand information on both sides of an issue. "Sometimes it's difficult to ask them to get you information, but it's important to do so, especially if you don't have staff," she says.

"Keep two eyes open and two ears wide open and one mouth closed," says Arizona's spunky 93-year-old lawmaker Polly Rosenbaum, who has served since 1949. "Watch and observe," she says. "See who gets things accomplished."

Rosenbaum advises new legislators to "listen to lobbyists, ask questions, but do your own thinking." Remember that lobbyists "want their own way," but they can be valuable to help a legislator sort through the myriad bills they face each year, she says.

"Lobbyists do represent some of your constituents, so listen to what they have to say," recommends Senator Garton who has served in the Indiana Senate for 23 years.

Learn the Rules

Representative Rosenbaum, who was a teacher for many years, says new legislators are going to think they're back in school. "It's like starting out in school for some," she says. "Our rules and regulations are different. You have to be careful. Learn the rules and how we operate."

You wouldn't play volleyball or tennis without knowing the rules and you can't legislate without knowing the rules, Garton says. "But you can't read them like a novel. Carry them around with you and read them as you see the process unfold."

Representative Snyder, who is just starting her second term, says learning how to use the parliamentary process successfully was one of her greatest satisfactions as a freshman legislator. "It's difficult to learn how to manipulate the process, and how to strategize it," she says.

Don't Introduce Too Many Bills

"Only introduce those bills that are needed," Rosenbaum says. "Remember, you only have one vote. You must be well-informed about your bills and be convinced that you are right, because you have to pick up 30 more votes (in her 60-member House)."

"It takes a lot of your time to get a bill through the process," Speaker Campbell says, "and even more time when you're a first-term legislator. Only take those bills that are really important to you and your constituents. If you introduce a bill in your first session your objective should be to get it passed, not just to get credit for introducing a bunch of paper."

"Don't overlook the power of committee work," Representative Snyder suggests. …