Sunday, May 14, 2000
Govern Less, Govern Better
By Barbara Anderson
"That government which governs
least, governs best".
This Thomas Jefferson quote has hung on my office wall
for two decades. So if the Massachusetts Legislature rarely meets, this is fine with me.
The only reason I might like to see it meet more often
is to undo some of the damage it has done while meeting in the past. Come to work, guys,
and repeal that income tax rate hike. Repeal the gun control law. Repeal the payraises you
gave yourselves in 1994.
It would be nice if major items were not done in
informal session, without roll calls, or in the middle of the night.
Every now and then there's a real debate like those on
abortion, parental choice in education, or the death penalty, with most members
understanding the issue and voting their real convictions instead of merely following the
leader. At such times one can almost imagine what "governs best" might look
like, whether one agrees with the final decision or not. But look quick; it's not an
The problem isn't a shortage of time spent in session.
In some states, the legislature meets for only a few months and/or biennially. A citizen
legislature like New Hampshire's is more representative of the people than the
professional legislators who define themselves as "them" vs. "us."
Over the years, citizen groups have tried to come up
with a magic formula that will fix Beacon Hill. The first in my memory was the League of
Women Voters' successful campaign to cut the size of the Massachusetts House; the theory
was that a smaller body would be more manageable. This turned out to be true, but with
almost a majority of legislators getting, or in line to get, leadership pay if they do
what the Speaker wants, the Speaker gets to do the managing. The League "reform"
made things much worse.
The next was the Rules Reform initiative petition
drive led by Citizens for Limited Taxation (CLT), Citizens for Participation in Political
Action (CPPAX), Common Cause, the Massachusetts Republican Party and dissident Democrat
activists. The idea was to open up the legislative process and give citizens all across
the political spectrum a level playing field. Instead, we citizens were told by the
Supreme Judicial Court to get off the field altogether.
The Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation tried to get a
constitutional amendment for a six month legislative session. CLT later tried a statutory
approach for a shorter session: legislators would be paid only for six months, then
expected to live and work in the real world for the rest of the year. Neither petition
made it to the ballot.
Remember the popular Term Limits petitions of the
early '90s? The legislature and the SJC killed them too.
Common Cause recently won its version of a reform
issue with its voter-approved Clean Elections Law, to limit campaign contributions and
allow public financing of elections. The House just put it in a deadly "study
Republicans have argued for years that the best reform
would be a viable two-party legislature and I'm sure they've been right, albeit generally
not elected. Voters complain about the process, but usually vote for the usual processors
even when there's a choice.
Despite the fact that I've supported many of the above
concepts, I've finally faced this reality: there are no magic formulas, and if there were
one, the SJC or the Legislature would kill it at the first opportunity.
If Jefferson was right, that the government which
governs least, governs best, then our best hope is that legislators won't show up too
For almost $50,000 a year base pay, that's the least
they can do.