What Does State Legislatures' Past Say About Their Future?

A look back at their evolution may offer some idea of what lies ahead.
by | January 2017

Alan Ehrenhalt

Alan is a Governing senior editor.

Colorado state senators discuss proposed legislation in 1967. (Getty Images)

Legislatures and time travel don’t normally find their way into the same sentence, but as the 2017 legislative season begins, let’s try a little thought experiment. Let’s imagine ourselves transported back into a state House or Senate cloakroom of 60 years ago -- the beginning of January 1957.

What we see depends in large part on what state we have chosen to travel back to, but some aspects of the scene apply just about anywhere. Virtually everyone who passes by us is a white male; they hold more than 95 percent of the legislative seats in the country. Their conversations focus overwhelmingly on rural and small-town affairs: the latest gossip involving the insurance business and county seat law practice; how the weather will affect this year’s crops; how soon they can finish the session so they can return home for spring planting.

The more time we spend watching what happens at the capitol, the clearer it becomes that only a few of these men have much impact on policy outcomes. Power is closely held among a few older members who have been serving for decades; they do most of their business outside the chamber, in cozy watering holes where they drink and make decisions.

Simple enough. Let’s start moving the clock forward, a decade at a time. January 1967: The change has been ... actually, pretty minimal. We’re still looking at a fairly close-knit power structure of white men in late middle age. But the country accents and small-town preoccupations of the 1950s have begun to recede a bit. Three years earlier, the U.S. Supreme Court had outlawed the rural-tilted malapportionment that had been an article of faith in just about every legislature. The cities have more representation now, and the burgeoning suburbs are beginning to acquire a little clout. But those are changes at the margin. In most ways, the institution of 1967 isn’t that much different than the one from 10 years before.

It’s in the next decade that things begin to look and feel significantly different. In 1977, there’s a new aura of professionalism. The informal clubbiness is fading away. The sessions last most of the year in many states. More business is conducted out in the open. Paid staffers are in place to draw up legislation and help plot strategy.

The country boys are still around, but they’ve been joined by a whole new generational cohort: baby boomers, bored by the idea of a legislature that behaves like a Shriners convention. The young newcomers are disproportionately Democrats and liberals; cloakroom bull sessions that used to focus on the price of wheat now center on civil rights and the environment.

Democrats are coming up with the candidates who know how to win elections. They believe in government activism and are willing to work hard to get their chance to practice it. Republicans, by comparison, tend to be too suspicious of government to spend much time on it. That’s why nearly 60 percent of all the state legislators in the country continue to be Democrats.

On our next visit, in 1987, we notice at once that the idealistic young politicians who entered in the previous decade have been joined by a newer and much larger baby boom cohort. But as we watch the session unfold, we perceive that their whole approach to power differs from the one we saw under the reign of the good old boys. These are individualists, first and foremost, like so many members of the boomer generation they belong to. An increasing number of them treat legislative service as a full-time occupation and are more concerned with advancing their personal agendas than in strengthening the institution or following the dictates of their leadership. We watch the elected leaders try to keep control, but we can’t help noticing that being a leader is a pretty thankless job, less an opportunity to exercise power than an obligation to serve the needs of a diffuse and sometimes self-righteous band of ambitious freelancers.

Given all this, it would seem reasonable to predict that on our next visit to the cloakroom, in 1997, the whole institution would have degenerated into something approaching chaos. But we find that the balance of power has shifted in an unexpected direction. The leaders are leaders again, and for a very clear reason: They have been placed in control of large sums of campaign money. Campaigns have gotten much more expensive very quickly, and the interests that can finance them -- mostly teachers unions and trial lawyers on the Democratic side, big corporations and chambers of commerce for the GOP -- are funneling them through the party caucuses and the party leadership. The mavericks who had so much fun flexing their muscles a few years ago risk getting frozen out.

Those are subtle changes. Others are easier to spot. In more than a dozen states, term limits have taken hold. Six or eight years is as long as members get to make their mark. Knowing their time will be brief, some begin running for speaker or Senate president on their first day. Meanwhile, the preponderance of greenhorns has shifted influence to people who remain in place -- lobbyists, senior civil servants and think-tank experts.

Those things are happening only in the term-limit states; other changes are taking place just about everywhere. Republicans are getting smarter, tougher and more numerous. Some of the campaign skills that brought success to Democrats in the 1970s and 1980s are now shared pretty equally between the two sides. New pressure groups like the Free Congress Foundation and the American Legislative Exchange Council are backing strong conservative candidates who are willing not only to run for legislative seats but also to stay in them and stay focused on an agenda. That’s one reason Republicans took majority control of 19 legislatures in 1994 -- by far the best they had done in a quarter-century.

Some things you can tell just by looking around: Women are starting to arrive in respectable numbers. Across the country, they have 22 percent of the seats as the legislative year begins. As you strike up cloakroom conversations with them, you find that these women are disproportionately suburbanites: affluent, well-educated, liberal on most social issues but determined to take a tough line when it comes to spending money.

One more small thing, or maybe not so small: After hours, the legislature of the 1990s is a wholly different place from the one that existed in earlier years. Deals aren’t made in the watering holes anymore; new ethics and disclosure rules make it harder to go out on the town at lobbyists’ expense. More members now go home at night to their districts or families. The Shriners convention years are over; many of the bars that used to be legendary capital hangouts have closed altogether.

As we move to our next visit, in January 2007, we find the legislature altered in a way that we couldn’t possibly have predicted a decade ago. Members are scarcely speaking to each other across the aisle. Party lines have grown rigid in an unpleasant and seemingly unproductive way.

On each of our five previous visits, there was an element of comity that manifested itself underneath the partisan sniping that often broke out on the floor and in committee. After-hours fraternizing was a part of this, and perhaps its decline ought to be mourned, but the tensions of 2007 run much deeper than that. Polarization and meanness seem to start at the very beginning. They come from the increasingly ideological pressure groups that demand rigidity as a price for campaign support; they are built into the recruiting process from which candidates emerge, and into the negative advertising that has become standard practice in every competitive district. The legislators of 2007 show up at the capitol primed to distrust the other party, and nothing that happens afterward serves to temper that distrust. All of this is made worse by the hyper-partisanship that prevails at the national level. Petty partisan bickering is what impressionable young state legislators observe in Washington, and they are good at imitating it.

Finally, we arrive at the present. Let’s finish by focusing on it and the future. Are there any clues to how legislative life might evolve in the months and years ahead?

Here are a couple of conjectures. The coming legislative year will be loaded with difficult choices, headed by budget weakness in many states, and it will be a very inopportune time for partisan grandstanding. And as partisan warfare continues at the federal level, more and more fundamental national decisions will have to be made in the states -- on health care, infrastructure and environmental policy. It won’t be easy to work on those problems in an atmosphere of perpetual partisan bickering, even in a legislature where one party has a clear majority.

So the demand for state-level action will become more urgent. In a growing number of states, I think that will breed new varieties of coalition politics -- or at least some form of political truce that allows vital decisions to be taken. I’m not predicting that the era of hyper-partisanship is over: Given the indignities of the 2016 campaigns, that would be foolish. But I would venture a guess -- mixed with elements of hope -- that we have reached peak partisanship at the state level, and that the near future portends at least some small steps in the direction of civility.

I wish I could say for sure, but my time machine only works in a backward direction. For 2017 and beyond, all we can do is stay tuned.

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