Leaders Are the Key to Strong Legislatures
Connor, Robert T., State Legislatures
This month's cover story describes the work of NCSL's Legislative Institution Task Force chaired by Representative Nancy Kopp of Maryland. The task force recommends a number of actions legislatures can take to improve their effectiveness and increase public support.
The most important finding that emerged from its two-year study, however, is the critical role that leaders play in improving legislative operations. If legislatures are to be improved and strengthened, it will require the commitment and active participation of leaders. Without strong leadership these efforts are doomed to failure.
"Legislatures are a reflection of their leaders," says Bill Hobby, former Texas lieutenant governor and Senate president. Through their style, character and personal conduct leaders set an example for other members, staff and lobbyists in terms of ethics, fairness, trust and public purpose. Leaders are a public symbol of their institutions. Many citizens know the legislature primarily through exposure to its leadership. By communicating with the public and media about the importance of the process and actions their legislature has taken on policy issues, leaders develop and enhance public support for the institution. To increase public understanding, the task force recommends that leaders make it easier for the public and media to get information about legislative activities such as committee and session schedules, bill status, bill summaries and voting records.
Leaders can also hold orientation programs for new members of the media that describe the legislative process and major issues. Bipartisan conferences involving leaders and editorial boards could be used to inform the media about the legislature's actions and focus attention on the policy process and not just partisan conflict.
How legislatures discharge their constitutional responsibilities influences public support for them as legitimate institutions. Leaders exert considerable influence over the policymaking process. They set agendas, help identify critical issues and work toward developing consensus on solutions to problems. They are in a position to encourage members to look beyond the specific needs of their districts in favor of policies that are good for the entire state. The ultimate goal of the legislature is to craft laws through a democratic process that benefit the broadest definition of the public interest. Only through the efforts and attention of committed leaders can legislatures reach this goal. To improve the lawmaking process the task force recommends that leaders encourage their chambers to adopt and adhere to rules that improve the use of time such as floor and committee scheduling systems. Leaders could also encourage committees to deal with major issues early in the session. And leaders must enforce standards of decorum on the floor. To encourage greater public participation in the process leaders could hold legislative hearings around the state, use technology such as teleconferencing to communicate better with citizens and hold regular press conferences during sessions. …