The Incapacitated State

I got a chance to talk to some Arizona state legislators from both parties yesterday afternoon and one thing even a very cursory chat drives home is the fairly disastrous consequences of some populist conceits about how a legislature should be organized. Specifically, the Arizona legislature combines low salary for members, short legislative sessions, term limits, and very limited staff (one secretary for every two state reps). This is all somehow supposed to keep representatives close to the people or prevent them from entrenching power, but in practice it amounts to a kind of government by lobbyist

After all, some of these issues are hard. And legislative procedure is hard. If at any given time a huge proportion of members are freshmen just learning the ropes of the institution and nobody has any time to consider the issues or staff to do research for them, who else are you going to turn to. Pondering the situation really drives home the “Lobbying As Legislative Subsidy” (PDF) model of what the industry is really about. Members need to take positions on the issues and speak about them to the press and to constituents. And without adequate staff or experience, they naturally end up outsourcing a lot of this work to other people—the dread special interests. And since “raise my salary and give me a bigger staff budget and repeal my term limits” is just about the most toxic political proposal I can imagine, there doesn’t seem to be any way out of it.

But this is something to keep in mind in the federal context when you hear about how this or that area of policy should be left up to the states. However unimpressed you may be by the wisdom of the United States Congress, it’s very difficult for me to think up complicated issues where pushing the issue down to under-resourced state legislators is likely to radically improve policymaking.