AN E-MAIL sent to Paul Harris, a member of the Virginia House of Delegates, elicits an automatic response: "I will be out of the office from 3/17/98 until 1/12/99. The 1998 session has adjourned." I had forgotten: Virginia is one of the 42 states where legislative sessions are kept short and sweet.
In healthy democracies, legislatures do not stay in session year-round. They convene briefly, deal with the people's business, and adjourn. The shorter their sessions, the more likely they are not only to govern well, but to be genuinely representative.
The New Hampshire House of Representatives, for example, may meet for a maximum of 45 days and is required to end its yearly sessions no later than June 30. That is a schedule that fits most peoples' lives. As a result, New Hampshire is governed by a true citizen legislature.
State senate President Tom Birmingham is prepared to violate the rules and reconvene his chamber — which is supposed to remain out of session until next year — "in a nanosecond."
In 1995, the Granite State's 400-member House comprised — take a deep breath — veterinarians, social workers, psychotherapists, property managers, office managers, mechanics, foresters, clerks, clergymen, chefs, carpenters, business managers, auto dealers, ambulance owners, construction workers, pilots, administrative assistants, salesmen, journalists, bankers, accountants, police chiefs, executives, nurses, firefighters, consultants, education administrators, engineers, small-business owners, government employees, homemakers, and teachers, as well as retirees, students, volunteers, the self-employed, people in real estate, insurance, utilities, quality control, marketing, lumber, public relations, security, the shoe industry, and the military. Oh, and a handful of lawyers. That is about as perfect a microcosm of society as any political system is likely to produce. And since New Hampshire legislators do not have individual offices and are paid a grand total of $100 a year, the great majority of them run for office for the most admirable of reasons: because it is an honor to serve.
In neighboring Massachusetts, by contrast, the Legislature never adjourns, and members are paid a lavish salary — $46,410 to start, plus thousands more in "leadership" bonuses, expense allowances, and mileage per diems. Not surprisingly, very few Bay Staters can even contemplate running for office, while those who do tend to be political careerists. Most Massachusetts legislators list "legislator" as their occupation. Many are also lawyers.
Is it any surprise that the state whose Legislature closely resembles the public has a reputation for limited and efficient government while the state ruled by lawyer-politicians is known for its overbearing bureaucracy and intrusive rules? Is it any wonder that New Hampshire has the lowest tax burden in America while Massachusetts has the sixth-highest?
In 1995, Beacon Hill responded to a statewide cry for reform by promising to end formal sessions by July 31 in election years. As reforms go, it wasn't much: Lawmakers intended to remain in informal session for the remaining five months of the year. But at least their power to cause mischief would be restrained. During informal sessions, the rules prohibit roll calls, which are required to float bonds, seize land by eminent domain, and override gubernatorial vetoes.
The Legislature kept its word in 1996, the first election year after the adoption of the new rules. But in 1998, dozens of members are demanding that the promise be broken. Not because there is an emergency that demands their attention, but because Acting Governor Cellucci had the audacity to veto half of a last-minute, $400 million pork-barrel spending bill that should never have been passed in the first place.
Faced with a conflict between their hunger for pork and their solemn promise, legislators are doing what legislators (in Massachusetts) do best: breaking faith. Senate President Thomas Birmingham now says he is ready to reconvene the Senate "in a nanosecond" for the purpose of overriding Cellucci's vetoes. A slew of House members led by Democrat James Marzilli of Arlington are clamoring for their chamber to do likewise. "This is not an attempt to subvert the rules of the House," says Marzilli as a justification for subverting the rules of the House. "These vetoes threaten the very stability of life in our Commonwealth."
So far, House Speaker Thomas Finneran has resisted the pressure. But then, Finneran has always been one of the few politicians in Massachusetts to acknowledge the danger of permanent legislative sessions. "I don't think it is healthy for us to be here 12 months a year," he has said. "It distorts the process. It distorts our judgment. . . . We get cute. We play with the calendar, and we use that calendar for purposes that are inappropriate."
With luck Finneran's honor will hold and the Legislature will not break the rule it so recently adopted. But sooner or later, the urge to cheat will prove irresistible. Only a law mandating limited sessions — or better still, a constitutional amendment — can put an end to the delusion that legislating has to be a year-round, nonstop endeavor.
That e-mail reply from Delegate Harris makes me envy the citizens of Virginia. How civilized it must be to live in a state where lawmakers have real jobs and real lives - where they don't hang around the statehouse all year, trying to find ways to keep themselves busy.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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