Legislator as Analyst

Earlier this year at a town hall type breakfast meeting I had the chance to ask Senator Bennett what he considered to be the most important task of a Senator. I was not very impressed with his answer that the most important thing was to try to see the future clearly. I still argue that keeping their oath of office is what all the actions of an elected official should revolve around, but upon further reflection I think I have a better understanding of what he meant and it was closer to acceptable for me. His third item in the list of of most important jobs was that they should do their homework. I think that what he was trying to get at was that legislators need to study the information that is available to them and then make wise decisions about how to deal with whatever information is available. After all, that is the whole point of a representative form of government – voters are essentially selecting someone who will have access to more information than most of them with the expectation that the elected official will make a better than average decision with that more comprehensive information.

While that task of analyzing information to make decisions should be anchored to keeping the oath of office it is truly one of the most important tasks of a legislator. As an analyst, a legislator must always be seeking as much information as possible on the issues they are called to decide upon. They should seek that information from their constituents as well as all the official sources of information that are brought before them (such as task forces and committee reports). Their job is to take all that information to put together as accurate a picture as possible of the reality they are dealing with and then make as wise a decision as possible with that understanding.

10 comments for “Legislator as Analyst

  1. Scott Miller
    October 29, 2009 at 2:06 pm

    What did he mean by seeing the future clearly?

    Also,because of the sheer volume of information that Senators have to understand and absorb, staff is required. How does the Senator assure that he is getting adequate and competent advice so that constituents can be relative certain that it is the Senator representing them and not the unelected staff representing them?

    • October 29, 2009 at 2:21 pm

      First off I would like to make it perfectly clear that what I have written here is not specific to the office of a U.S. Senator – it should be as applicable to a city council member as it is to a federal senator.

      With that said, I believe that what he meant about seeing the future clearly was that a legislator should try to accurately predict what will happen based on various choices that could be made. In my opinion that’s really just about being able to make as accurate a picture of reality as is possible with the information at hand – that is not possible for any legislator who filters everything through partisan spectacles.

      I agree that at higher offices, such as U.S. Senate, there is too much information for one person to digest all of it. I don’t believe that there is a way for constituents to be certain in any degree that their Senator is representing them rather than unelected staff. It is the task of the Senator to determine if the advice and assistance they are getting is accurate and competent. The most that the constituents can do is evaluate if the actions (votes and otherwise) of their elected official are the kind of things they expect of their elected officials – functionally it does not matter to them whether those actions are driven by the official or the official’s staff.

  2. Scott Miller
    October 29, 2009 at 3:08 pm

    I like your first thought about the responsibility to the oath of office as opposed to the “vision” thing. Not to take away anything from the concept of seeing, but I look at the role of the governmental body’s executive (irrespective of level of government–federal, state, local) as the one who creates the vision. The senator, councilman, etc. should recognize and understand that vision and then legislate relative to that vision and the vision of his constituents.

    That said, and recognizing that we are not a true democracy but a representative form of government, the legislator can legislate independent to his constituents. But doing so may be contrary to the oath he has taken and thus I come back and agree with your original idea.

    As to staff, they will influence decisions–no different that an executive in a company relying on staff to evaluate the endless proposals that are presented. One thing that might need to be evaluated is whether there is adequate transparency to the constituents of the representative’s staff and their background, experience, and political perspective.

    • October 29, 2009 at 3:22 pm

      I think it’s fair for constituents to be able to expect some transparency and adequate information on who their elected officials have hired to assist them, but in the end if the constituents do not like how they are being represented their course of action is the same whether the staff is driving the decisions or whether the official is driving them.

      I agree that the executive branch of government is better positioned to provide whatever vision is necessary to the institutions of government. The beauty of separate branches with checks and balances built in is that the legislative branch can (and should) impede the implementation of that vision if it runs contrary to what is best for the nation.

  3. October 29, 2009 at 7:12 pm

    As far as seeing the future, the senator’s job is to:
    – Clearly comprehend threats to our Constitution in the matters brought before him.
    – Ensure the security of the nation and work to develop appropriate relationships with other nations.
    – Ensure the solvency of the government.
    – Comprehend opportunities within the scope of the Constitution.
    – Consider proposals for changing the Constitution in order to take advantage of currently extra-constitutional opportunities.

    By that yardstick, I’m having difficulty defining Mr. Bennett’s three terms in office as a success for the Republic or for the citizens of Utah. I will be quick to confess that I see no serious challengers on the horizon that would do the job well either.

    • October 29, 2009 at 7:24 pm

      I like the yardstick that you have outlined – how do you think I might stack up against that yardstick based on the things I have been writing for the last few years? (Leading question, I know. Feel free to not answer.)

      I did not intend this to be a commentary on Senator Bennett, but I will say that by the measure that you and I have each outlined in our different ways he is among those who are found wanting (sadly a majority of our incumbents are wanting) – and like you I have yet to find a candidate seeking to replace him who gives me confidence that they would not also be wanting in either the same, or different ways.

      • October 31, 2009 at 2:11 pm

        I think that most that enter politics have never delved into matters the way you have. Thus, I think you have a very good basis for what I would consider to be a proper approach to governance.

        However, I have noted that some with a good grasp of principles of good government that have sought office have had difficulty appealing to enough voters to get elected. Then, I have noted that when good government types do get elected, they end up falling into one of two categories:

        1) Those that end up fighting the system and being a burr under the saddle of their political colleagues. These usually have short terms of service, as they believe in limiting their own time in office (and perhaps due to battle fatigue). While this comports with principles of good government, it limits their effectiveness in battling bad government. Were they to stay longer, however, they would likely end up in the next category I will mention.

        2) Those that discover that the reality of governance ‘requires’ them to push aside their naive principled idealism in favor of political realism. They excuse themselves because, as Sen. Hatch says, such an approach is necessary “to get things done.” In short, these officials end up becoming exactly what they ran against when they originally campaigned.

        I would very much hope that you would remain a true proponent of good government throughout your service. I mean no disrespect, but none of us can see the future, so I can’t see what you would become over time. I’m sure that Sen. Hatch inwardly believes himself to be a better advocate of good government than when he first went to Washington in January 1977.

        • November 2, 2009 at 1:54 pm

          I absolutely agree that none of us can see the future. I think only a foolish person would attempt to guarantee that they would not fall into either of the categories that you have described. I can totally understand how the burr-in-the-saddle types could fall victim to battle fatigue. Once upon a time I believed in the idea of campaign promises for a set number of terms. I still think it can make sense if the limits are generous enough (for example, 3 Senate terms or 8 House terms seem ample) but the real limit should be as you once wrote “when the music no longer moves you, you should leave.”

          I think that anyone who is trying to get in on idealistic principles, as I would be, needs to do so with a full appreciation for the way the struggle will wear on their energy and enthusiasm. I also understand how people would fall into the second category. That transition may be much more subtle and difficult to recognize. The idealists may well miss some of the aspects of governance that truly are necessary – basic principles of compromise for instance – and as they begin to realize the appropriate place of such tactics and practices it is not easy to see where the line should be drawn between no-compromise, and no-principles.

          In my opinion, the best defense against staying too long and becoming part of the problem is to maintain communication with constituents that is open enough for the constituents to indicate when the officeholder is compromising too much (or not enough in some rare cases) and the integrity to step aside when the officeholder finds that they consistently cannot act in accordance with the feedback they are receiving from constituents in good conscience. I would work to have that kind of open communication and would hope to demonstrate the necessary integrity if my constituents no longer wanted or could be convinced to want what I believed to be good government that I would step aside and allow them to elect my replacement.

          Of course that all assumes that I am ever able to appeal to enough voters to get elected.

  4. Scott Miller
    October 30, 2009 at 11:51 am

    David-I will answer! You do have a very clear view of issues and this is coupled with a well-reasoned and understood perspective of the role of the Constitution in governing. I was going to say solve problems, but I am not certain that is the role of government. In short, I would just say that “you get it”. I have never read anything that you wrote to which I had a serious difference of opinion.

    Of course, take it for what it is worth–I could be completely out to lunch on my view of government and the various roles it plays. My experience comes from one Political Science class and 25 years experience in the business world, so I clearly have my biases, but from my perspective, you have a sound mind on these matters.

    • October 30, 2009 at 12:01 pm

      “Well-reasoned” and with a good “perspective of the role of the Constitution in governing” and “{getting} it” are about as good as I could hope for. Even if you had a serious difference of opinion with some of my views I would be happy with those three.

      Thanks.

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