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Why Lawmakers Can't Get Their Act Together on Time

Many bills die during the end-of-session rush. Some people like it that way.

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Lawmakers at work in Louisiana's state Capitol in Baton Rouge. (David Kidd/Governing)
In  Brief:
  • State legislatures are notorious for leaving major legislation until the end of session.
  • The result is an often-messy process, with bills that have strong support dying anyway.
  • Delays can offer strategic advantages, including increased leverage or a stronger defense of the status quo.

  • The New Mexico Legislature was running short of time. By March 13, with less than a week to go before the end of this year’s legislative session, the House and Senate had only cleared 27 bills and resolutions and moved them to the governor’s desk. By the end of the session on March 18, however, they had managed to clear 387 pieces of legislation.

    That kind of mad rush is common for lawmakers. Whether it’s Congress waiting until the last minute to raise the debt ceiling or legislators voting on the cusp of midnight the day before the state budget is due, lawmakers can’t seem to help putting off most of their work until they’re almost out of time. The final details of Louisiana's budget were only presented to most legislators just 20 minutes before the end of the session last Thursday.

    “It does take a long time to find agreement on certain bills,” says Jack Whitver, the majority leader in the Iowa Senate. “If you’re trying to find agreement between the House and the Senate and the governor, it takes time.”

    Putting things off until the last minute is part of human nature. There are people who do make a point to finish packing two days before leaving for a trip, so they’ll have a chance to toss anything they’ve forgotten into their bags. Not everyone is like that. Every year, millions of people rush around frantically, shocked to discover that Christmas will fall on Dec. 25.

    It’s not only a question of bad habits. Someone always benefits when legislation is put off until the end of the session. Deadlines produce leverage. Sometimes unpopular bills can be forced through, their passage expedited as part of a bigger, necessary package. More often, bills can be killed, their fate finally fixed because there simply isn’t enough time.

    That’s important, because a lot of what legislators do — and certainly what a lot of lobbyists want — is not to pass legislation, but to block it. “The clock or the calendar is always a strategy that people can pursue to kill legislation,” says Mark P. Jones, a political scientist at Rice University. “Even if you don’t have the votes, one way to kill it is to hold it hostage.”

    That End-of-Session Smell

    Legislative sessions end not with a bang but with a scramble. Legislators are like college students pulling all-nighters just ahead of finals. “The legislature here at the end of session is boisterous and funny,” Minnesota House Speaker Melissa Hortman told me a couple of years ago. “The House floor has a slight odor of Chinese food and people who have been awake too long and stale coffee.”

    People aren’t always thinking clearly and some lawmakers are visibly drunk. It’s easy to wonder whether this is the best of all possible ways to make laws.

    Last year, a commission spent months putting together recommendations to address the teacher shortage in Missouri. State Rep. Ed Lewis crafted a bill to put their ideas to work, raising salaries and providing support for teachers willing to work at underserved schools. His bill passed the state House almost unanimously but was killed in the Senate, based not on any real opposition but that chamber running out of time due to filibusters opposing unrelated bills regarding landfills and sport betting.

    “This one was poised to go through right at the end, just before the Senate kind of fell apart for the last two weeks,” Lewis told the Missouri Independent. “It wasn’t necessarily about education, it was about other things.”

    One reason his bill was put off until the end is that the Missouri House had a new rule this year, which allowed each committee to send only two bills to the floor ahead of the chamber’s mid-session spring break. The idea was that any issues were better resolved in committee, but the practical effect was that a lot of bills either got delayed or rolled into bigger packages that then presented bigger targets.

    Although some chambers impose formal limits, it’s often the case that the House or Senate will only be willing to consider some limited number of bills from the other chamber. There’s an old joke around state capitols that the other party is the opponent, but the other chamber is the enemy.

    “In Texas, usually only one hostage at a time is released,” says Jones, the Rice University professor. “That takes time and usually as a result multiple hostages die.”

    Running Out the Clock

    A lot of chambers set a series of deadlines. Bills have to be introduced by a certain date and then they have to pass the chamber by another date. Rather than regularize the flow of bills, however, that just creates a set of choke points that kill off a lot of bills.

    A lot of lobbyists earn a solid living by killing off legislation and preserving a status quo that’s favorable to their clients.

    “When you look at the systematic bias of pushing things to the last minute, you have to ask, who is it empowering?” says Alex Garlick, a political scientist at the University of Vermont. “It’s whoever is delaying.”

    Delays can also help out legislative leaders, Garlick suggests. Controlling the calendar means that leaders can push off tough votes until the end. That not only puts pressure on rank-and-file members to cast votes in support — either because their party wants them to, or because some project or priority of their own is tucked into a larger bill — but it keeps them in the dark. Not knowing all the details regarding the bill’s final form until hours before the vote prevents them from being able to organize much opposition.

    It's not just procrastination, it’s theater, says Adam Zelizer, a University of Chicago political scientist. The end date is almost always known, but leaders will often put off consideration of the budget or some other big bill because they know taking a tough vote will be made to seem easier due to deadline pressure.

    “Voters don’t particularly like it when lawmakers compromise their position with the other side,” Zelizer says. “Dragging out negotiations and making it look like you had no choice but to compromise when faced with an intransigent opponent might be one strategy to confront this.”

    Better legislation might well be achievable through better time management. Rather than bluffing, chambers in part-time legislatures will sometimes simply rubberstamp bills that come from the other chamber because they don’t have the time or expertise to counter. One 2009 study called Who Blinks First? found that professional legislatures are better equipped to face off against governors in budget negotiations because they have more time to be patient and hold off.

    But as things stand, most legislatures are stuck running as many bills as they can through a time-sensitive process. Time limits mean some bills will get pushed through due to built-up pressure, but many more bills will have to wait until next year.


    Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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