Search This Blog


Right kind of conflict desirable in Legislature

Appropriate to yesterday’s posting comes some musing about the “divisiveness” in the recent Louisiana legislative special session. Many members seem to perceive an increase in it so that argues for a valid increase in it. The larger questions are, what does it portend and whether it is bad.

Initially, we must understand that “divisiveness” is in the eye of the beholder, if not actually created by the beholder who then accuses others of fomenting it. When the House voted down a key component of the Legislative Black Caucus agenda, satellite voting centers, first representatives of the Caucus accused opponents of bad faith, and then members of it walked out of that day’s session. The divisiveness was not there as a result of a policy disagreement, it was induced as a result of the boycott.

Which illustrates another aspect of “divisiveness” in the Legislature: it becomes undesirable only when it threatens comity and courtesy among members. Policy disagreement can cause the most possible friction but this does not create a problem unless that conflict spills over into personal attacks and lack of decorum. To use it again as an example, the Caucus began to get into trouble on this account when its leaders asserted that opposition to their agenda amounted to racism.

From my own observations (hundreds of hours of watching committee and floor action during a regular session, and dozens more during special sessions which interested parties can view summaries of at the Louisiana Legislature Log), there didn’t seem to be that much testiness concerning courtesy. (Also consider that when Caucus Chairman Rep. Cedric Richmond claims it’s the most “divided” Legislature that he’s seen, he’s only been in it a couple of years.) Perhaps, however, there was more policy conflict.

And that’s not a bad thing. Through much of its history, certainly recently, Louisiana has had a “get-along-go-along” legislature where a combination of strong gubernatorial leadership plus legislative politics that were built more upon personality and parochialism rather than engaging a contest of ideas has tended to produce fewer choices and more echoes in policy that came out of state government. If there were considerable good feelings, it’s because too often most everybody was on the same page: bring home goodies for your district or for the groups you felt you represented, and the rest of the time do what the governor wanted.

So if there’s more conflict as a result of an escalating battle of ideas, because more and more members are providing choices rather than echoes, that’s a good thing. And if existing legislators find that environment undesirable, then that’s a strong sign that voters need to make them go home, since the Framers of the Constitution were correct that debate should be as robust as possible because through it the observant can better separate the wheat from the chaff in public policy.

No comments: