The Virtue of a Part Time Legislature

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I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on Waldo Jaquith’s call to arms on the problems of a part time legislature as it relates to Delegate Phil Hamilton.  For those who are still cloudy on the issue, Hamilton is a House Budget Conferee and a fairly high-ranking member of the House GOP who folded into the state budget a $40,000 consulting gig.

Though the House of Delegates has assembled an Ethics Committee to investigate the charges, Hamilton has dug in his heels, does not believe he did anything improper, and will continue to run for re-election.

Of course, this is an endemic problem in the House of Delegates today.  Delegate Jennifer McClellan continues to hold her seat despite her professional employment as a lobbyist for Verizon.  State Senator Creigh Deeds narrowly missed a bullet when Deeds proposed a bill in 2007 allowing GA members to join firms that participate in lobbying practices.

Pressure to eliminate the rule in Virginia was sparked in part by Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath), who recently joined the law firm of Hirschler Fleischer P.C., a Richmond-based firm with a small lobbying presence. Without the proposed change, Deeds would be violating state ethics rules.

Deeds, who describes himself as a small-town rural lawyer, said his losing bid for attorney general in 2005 made it nearly impossible to keep his small practice alive. His plans to run for governor in 2009 will require a more stable income, he said. But he said there will be a firewall between himself and the firm’s lobbyists.

“For me to be able to continue the political journey, I had to find some stability. I had to do something,” Deeds said in an interview this week. “If I thought I were doing anything unethical, I would step away from it.”

Heck — even current Virginia Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) made his millions in such a fashion (thank you LexisNexis):

The paper reported that in 1982, Mark Warner convinced Edward J. Stockton, Connecticut’s commissioner of economic development, to set up a pivotal meeting between Mark Warner and David T. Chase, a wealthy investor.  Mr. Warner and Mr. Stockton had met during an earlier political campaign.

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Hence the problem.  Deeds didn’t see anything unethical in his bill.  Warner didn’t see anything unethical as a staffer in navigating the telecommunications market for profit (even though such activities were clearly unethical and perhaps illegal).  And before we start screaming partisan-ish defense stratagems, let’s keep in mind that Hamilton doesn’t see anything wrong with his budget amendment.  Nor do lobbyists see any conflict working as lawmakers cozy with the public trust, etc.

Vivian Paige sees the problem.  Waldo Jaquith struck towards reform, and his recommendations deserved much more thrift than they received in the Virginia blogosphere.*  The solution?  Two parts — first of which is to pay them what they’re worth:

What’s interesting about this is that it shines a light on a long-standing problem of the General Assembly: we don’t pay legislators nearly enough for the work that we expect of them.

Phil Hamilton is going to lose his seat—and maybe worse—over a $40,000/year part-time job. We’re not talking about millions. Or a meaningful fraction of a million dollars. This is the sort of salary somebody can pull down managing a department of Sears. Why would Hamilton risk so much for so little money?

The answer to that is probably pretty simple: he has bills to pay, just like the rest of us. Though unlike you and me, he’s a member of the legislature, meaning that he has a job that occupies at least half of his time. And not half of his time in a convenient way, like Monday through Friday, 8 AM through noon, or two ten-hour shifts on the weekends. No, he’s got to head to Richmond and do nothing but legislatin’ for a couple of months every year. There’s a district office to run, fundraisers to hold, public meetings to attend, constituent service to provide, and the thousand small duties of the office. Then there’s the campaigning, which in a competitive race can easily eat up most of the day for a few months prior to the election. And how much do we pay legislators for performing this duty that is the centerpiece of their lives?

Second part?  Move away from the Jeffersonian-era part time legislature and move towards a full-time legislature a modern government seemingly requires:

Why do we pay them so badly? Because it allows us to maintain a happy fiction, the fiction that we have a part-time legislature with gentlemen legislators who represent the people because they are the people, who come together for a few weeks every year to do the state’s business, and then return to tilling their soil or making candles or selling slaves or whatever. This allows us to avoid a host of ethical problems, or at least pretend that we’re avoiding ethical problems. Put a banker on the banking committee that passes laws to regulate banks? No problem! Who knows banking better? A DUI attorney who introduces bills to toughen drunk driving laws, which benefits his business? That’s A-OK—because he’s obviously the man for the job.

Jaquith does a fairly good job of bemoaning the problems of the modern system: one must be an attorney, independently wealthy, or extraordinarily poor in order to be able to serve.  Had Hamilton done what former Delegate Terry Suit did and… well, followed suit, there would not have been an ethical conflict — at least in the marginal sense.

The call to arms:

This should be a call to action for Virginia. We get the quality of government that we’re willing to pay for. At $17k, we’re going to get the idle rich, dilettantes, lawyers, and a handful of selfless, civic-minded individuals…and some of the latter group will not remain so selfless, winding up like Hamilton. We need to increase legislators’ salaries tenfold and bar outside employment. If you want to be in the legislature, you’ve got to go all-in. Then we can increase the length of the session to something humane, something that allows bills to get a proper airing—12 weeks, 16 weeks, maybe 20 weeks, spread out throughout the year, in the manner of Congress. Or we can keep doing what we’re doing. But from where I’m sitting, that’s not working out so well.

Is it worth it?

It’s easy to resort to an argumentum ad Jeffersoniam in this regard.  Jefferson had a strong distaste for public officials, heavy-handed government, and the like.  This Jeffersonian trend wasn’t entirely Jefferson’s doing or thinking.  In fact, one could argue that such a perspective was Virginian in character, as Susan Dunn’s Dominion of Memories illustrated well.  The Jeffersonian ideal of an agrarian, self-reliant farmer obliviated the need for progress, for roads, for canals, for schools.

As 1776 bled into 1860, the once proud Old Dominion (the “Seat of Empire” as described by Carl Bridenbaugh) not only stayed fixed in the 18th century as New England’s mercantile and then industrial capacity grew, but slid further away as young Virginians seeking better soil and distance from the old planter aristocracy moved to Kentucky, her soldiers to Ohio, her adventurers to Texas, and so forth.  Self-sufficiency had been replaced by stagnation as tradition, and the Virginian mind continued to dwell on her glorious past as a guarantee against future change.

Just as it is easy to invoke the name of Jefferson in defense of traditions and principles, it is quite easy to whitewash their extinguished embers as the verdict of history.  In as such, I strongly disagree with the idea that part-time legislatures have expired in their usefulness, for three reasons:

  1. No legislature will be made ethical by providing it with more money. Only a cultural shift, both within the State Capitol and amongst discerning voters, will ensure an ethical state government.
  2. Just who else is on the state dole? Yes — this is a rock I’m willing to throw.  Teachers and social workers, but grant recipients and federal contractors too.  And professors.  And public assistance.  And lawyers who benefit from an intricate knowledge of laws they themselves write.  Let’s not forget how Mark Warner made his millions, either — by writing a telecommunications law and then selling himself to the highest bidder willing to have Warner navigate the byzantine system Warner himself drafted.
  3. The bigger the government the bigger the lure. Besides, does anyone seriously believe that by placing politicians closer to the pot o’ gold for a longer period of time will make them any more ethical?

The problem isn’t one of part-time/full-time lawmakers.  Nor is the problem that of self-sufficient farmers vs. self-serving individuals taking slices out of the public trust.  The problem is the culture, that somehow legislators are expected and somehow entitled to a slice of the pie.  Let’s face it, when you have so many people at the trough, with so much money being squeezed out of taxpayers and doled back out, is it so hard to see the temptation?

I would prescribe the exact opposite — avoid the near occasion of sin.  Personally, I would shorten the session.  And I’d reduce every delegate’s and senator’s pay to zero and cut their staff to nothing.  Why?  Because I do believe that public service is just that — a service to the public.

That includes Deeds, McClellan, Hamilton, Warner, and anyone else.  If you aren’t personally successful — at least enough to take 60 days out of your schedule — then your focus should be on your family or career.

This doesn’t mean that I’m immune to the calls for accessibility to governance, as both Vivian and Waldo adriotly address.  But I want to draw attention to this comment of Waldo’s, because this is really where I believe the fulcrum of the debate lies:

Generally speaking, for a legislator to live within the minimal ethical boundaries established by the General Assembly, he must be a) an attorney b) independently wealthy or c) poor.

If the demands of government are too high for the poor, the financially dependent, or anyone else to be able to participate in their government, then I ask how truly representative that government really is of the people whom it purports to serve?  How, by multiplying the salary of a legislator ten fold, do we resolve the problem of people lining up to government to make a living?  A fortune?

Reform the culture, yes.  Reform the part-time legislature?  Perhaps, but only if we make it truly more accessible to Virginians who care about their government, and not towards ameliorating the symptoms of those who seek to enrich themselves off the labor of taxpayers and the public trust.

My question is this: Will Virginia’s next governor reform the General Assembly and end the culture of corruption?  What will Deeds and McDonnell do to restore the integrity of the continent’s oldest representative government? Moreover, if there is a problem of graft, will we paper it over with a full-time legislature, or will we open the debate to real solutions and bold reform?

Better than talking about a damn thesis paper, I can assure you.

* I will add that this conversation would most definitely had occurred in the Virginia political blogosphere pre-macaca 2006.  Oh my, what we have lost…

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