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Voting rules changes can improve LA Legislature

Perhaps stricter limits on floor voting would reduce the amount of posturing and self-fulfillment common among Louisiana legislators in the performance of their legislative duties, as well as have the salutary effect of cranking out fewer but more thoroughly vetted and better bills.

This past session representatives smothered HB 373 by state Rep. Steve Carter, which would have amended the Constitution to reduce the length of the even-year “general” session of the Legislature and have limited the number of non-local bills intended to have the effect of law that a legislator could introduce to 10. Carter argued that Louisiana ranked high in the number of bills introduced but low in passage rates compared to other states, and so changing these parameters would make for a more efficient, productive, and less-costly Legislature.

Naturally, it went nowhere. Many legislators are enthralled with filing bills, some racking up dozens a session, which this time resulted in almost 2,000 being filed and almost 900 passed (and, believe it or not, in the past two decades there have been years where these figures were around 50 percent higher), and didn’t want time or numerical limitations on them. Their addiction to filing them comes from a desire to win credit from constituents and/or special interests by making a physical demonstration they support or care about something (even if there’s no chance the bill could pass given political realities) and/or from an ideological imperative drives them to express that and/or because they enjoy the process and perhaps psychological satisfaction of winning passage and having their handiwork appear in the law or the Constitution. And this is facilitated by having more days in a session to work these over.

None of this is any incentive to make good, needed laws, just a lot of laws. Ironically, many legislators moan about how they are overworked and not paid enough (leading to the attempted pay raise fiasco of 2008) for what is designed as a part-time job, but which they then voluntarily expand by filing so many marginal bills. Yet, as an idea like Carter’s requires a two-thirds supermajority vote to succeed among them, it’s clear that too many of them cherish the right to produce bills biliously to allow this reform to go in front of the voters.

Enter a tactic to accomplish this that not only does not need a supermajority, but not even needs to become law. In voting on bills, currently House members may change votes on matters previously considered in that legislative day as long as the outcome does not change, while senators can’t change them at all. Believe it or not, some years ago in the House a change could be made on anything voted on at any time during a session before its end, until the first post-term-limits class of the House, comprising a majority of members, put a stop to that. While some votes are asserted to be mistakes and changing them is desired for that reason, other times changes comes because of political posturing by wanting to appear on the side of an issue that brings them the most credit.

The merit of forbidding changes for the latter reason should appear obvious; votes should be based upon due deliberation for which a member takes responsibility, not by after-the-fact political calculations. And while there’s a natural inclination to find a way to forgive “mistakes,” at the same time that could serve as an excuse for a casual attitude to the legislative process but, more disappointingly, as a way to achieve posturing.

Worse, “mistakes” may occur because of chamber rules violations. In the House, only members are to use their machines casting floor votes, and the only time a specific member’s machine may be voted by somebody else in accordance with the rules is if another member is given permission to do so by that member physically in the chamber, as long as a lockout (by at least 20 members) has not been requested. Yet this rule appears to be violated routinely by allowing staff members to perform the deed. The Senate only requires that members be in the chamber and does not have a specific prohibition against others voting on a senator’s machine, and there also commonly staffers stand in on these occasions.

Some legislators have become disgruntled at this, and state Sen. J.P. Morrell actually has mused about introducing a rule change to allow senators to vote only their machines individually. He needs to follow through on this and some intrepid representative needs to introduce the same in the House. Not only does this improve the integrity of the process, but also it ensures greater fidelity in that nothing gets lost in translation about how to vote and the member always has the greatest incentive to ensure his vote is the way he wants it.

Better, this might bring partially the benefits envisioned in HB 373. The main reason for proxy voting, whether abiding by the rules, occurring is that members are busy elsewhere haggling over legislation. Reduce the amount of that legislation, and they might be at their desks more often to cast more votes, and without so much dilution of effort around, on better and fewer bills.

Less puffery and more thoughtfulness and usefulness can’t help but improve the quality of state governance. If a direct change in the amount of legislation potentially offered won’t make it past political obstacles, maybe rule changes, which only require a simple majority in a chamber, encouraging legislator responsibility can help move closer to this improvement.

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