Pros and cons of House GOP’s “policy working groups” replacing serious interim studies (Capitol Update)
Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1991. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.
On balance, it’s a good thing that House Majority Floor Leader Jon Echols, with Speaker Charles McCall’s blessing, has appointed interim policy working group co-leaders to work on selected issues. Their purpose is to develop the Republican agenda for the 2018 legislative session. This seems designed to bring together the Republican caucus to try to reach consensus before the session on issues that have divided it since the Republicans took control in the last decade. The divisions have, to a degree, crippled efforts to solve serious state problems in health care, corrections, education, criminal justice policy, and fiscal policy.
Many citizens don’t realize membership in the Legislature is a year-around job. It may not be a “full-time” job, but members are “full-time legislators.” To be effective they must have regular contact with constituents about issues their constituents care about, attend informational meetings of all varieties to give them an understanding of state government deeper than “coffee-shop” talk, and forge relationships that can help them get things done. Those who don’t do these things simply show up in February and spout off their own uneducated personal opinions. That will get you by in the coffee shop, but it won’t accomplish anything in a legislative body.
In years past, interim committees more regularly served the purpose of in-depth study of issues. A member would write up a proposal (as is the case now) and the Speaker or President Pro Tempore would approve only those he believed (or became convinced) were significant enough to take up members’ time and House or Senate resources. A special committee for each study would be appointed by the Speaker or Pro Tempore, usually in consultation with the study requestor and usually bi-partisan. The committee would work all interim. Sometimes legislation would be developed. Sometimes a report and recommendations would be issued. Sometimes, committee members just gained a deeper understanding of an issue and were prepared to act on it during session. There are occasional interim studies like this now, but mostly they are disposed of with short meetings of the relevant standing committee.
One limitation of Floor Leader Echols’ working groups is they are of strictly Republican membership. That’s appropriate since the goal is to develop their caucus positions, but it could signal that Republicans have decided to go it alone so long as they can. Why not have meaningful interim work with Democrats? Everyone knows the Republicans have the votes to win any argument so long they stick together. Meanwhile, improbable as it may seem, they might pick up a few good ideas from Democrats they could find useful during session. I always felt I’d had a good idea when I started hearing other people taking credit for it.