Legislators may vote only yea or nay on what may be a very complex issue before them. Since majority-rule voting is the method by which public policy decisions are made, there must be some elements of the process that provide a needed nuance to policy formation. Indeed, the best policies are those in which the legislative process distills opinions from a wide range of stakeholders to achieve policies that work reasonably well for everyone.
In the simpler cases a bill is proposed to solve a specific problem, entities affected by the proposal weigh in with their comments and suggestions, the bill is altered to accommodate various needs expressed, and a solution is reached that wins the approval of almost all of the stakeholders and legislative committee members. Such a bill is often passed by the full legislature without further discussion.
Especially for major policy changes, it is sometimes impossible to accommodate everyone and the contentious bill comes from the committee with a closely divided report, often along party lines. These are then argued extensively, sometimes for hours, before finally being accepted or rejected by close votes. Policy made in this fashion is rarely good policy since the process failed to bring a range of viewpoints together.
Subtleties of process appear between the two examples above. Consider a case in which you are opposed to a proposed policy change and believe that its consequences would be devastating. You have a choice: try to defeat the bill, or try to modify the bill so that it is not so bad. People with similar attitudes about an issue often find themselves on opposite sides of this strategic divide. For those that oppose the bill, the only further activity is to work on convincing other legislators to defeat the measure. For those that try to improve the bill, a variety of negotiations may take place, all with the understood contract of “accept some changes in the bill to win enough approval for it”. Skillful negotiations can produce a significantly changed (and improved) bill. A legislator may have more influence changing a bill than trying to defeat it.
Working hard to negotiate a bill to a better place and then voting against it at the end signifies that the negotiations were performed in bad faith. Though that can work once, it destroys the confidence others may place in you for future negotiations. Although fighting against a bill may seem to be of little value in comparison to negotiating, it actually provides additional influence for those who are negotiating. These types of power struggles depend upon being able to anticipate each side’s voting strength at various stages in the negotiations. Since stakeholders and legislators on all sides are involved in conversations and negotiations, the outcome often appears chaotic.
This sausage-making process may appear to the public as corrupting, thereby discouraging their involvement. Actually, it is the public’s continued involvement that keeps the process focused on producing good results.
–Ralph Chapman 326-0899 chapmanHD37@gmail.com ralphchapman.org