What Do Do-Nothing Legislators Do?

There is a class of legislators who pundits sometime pick on for not being “effective.” They are politicians who typically stand a little to the left (for Democrats) or right (for Republicans) of their party. Then tend to come from relatively well-off, safe districts. Their constituents are more ideological than most and less in need of the pork barrel projects that are the stock in trade of other legislators. And they often serve in the minority party in the legislature, so they have little impact day to day legislative business. That gives them some freedom to push the envelope on policy by taking stands in advance of public opinion. Sometimes they push the envelope simply by being who they are—a woman, an out gay or lesbian, or the member of some other minority.

These politicians are often criticized because they don’t have a lot of legislative achievements. They don’t have a long list of bills with their name on them. And so they are criticized—sometimes by other legislators and often by journalists—for being all talk and no action.

(Interestingly enough, legislators who are all action and no talk are also criticized, often because action requires not only compromises with other legislators but deals with special interests. Journalists, it seems, can always find some basis on which to criticize politicians.)

I want to point out, however, that do-nothing legislators are sometimes really critical to political and social progress.

Just how important they are came back to me the other day when I attended a press event put on by bunch of progressives in Philly. I wasn’t in on planning it and when I heard about it, I encouraged the planners to delay because I expected exactly what happened: the event got very little press. One reason they got so little press is that they had not managed to recruit any political leaders to speak. For one of things we advocates learn about getting press coverage is that we are likely to get a reporter in the room if we can find an office holder to attend our press event.

This can be a hard lesson to learn because, quite frankly, issue advocates often have a bigger impact on legislation that run of the mill legislators. I know a political director for a major union who has rebuffed requests to run for state representative because he “didn’t want to give up a lot of influence just for a title.” I learned this lesson early in my career as an issue advocate when a few community leaders and I organized an effort to save two historic building on Johnson Street and the Inky reporter gave our state representative—who basically showed up for the picture taking—all the credit. I asked the reporter what was going on and he just said, “I know you did all the work, but the public cares about where political officials stand.”

(During the health care campaign, a reporter told me he didn’t like to cover “artificial”  events. What he meant, though, was that our artificial events were not exciting enough.  I once got world wide press for an event in Philly I organized with Action United and PUP. We broke a half dozen laws and took over Aetna’s annual meeting at a Philly hotel. That was as artificial event  as I’ve ever done. But the reporter who criticized us for other events couldn’t get enough of it.)

So legislators who are willing to push the envelope on public policy—and who have little influence in the legislature—help us get attention for our causes with the press. That’s not our choice—it’s how the press works. They also help issue advocates in so many other ways. They get people to come to our rallies and marches and conferences. They bring out people to our fundraising events. And the price they charge for all this is pretty low: they get to give a speech—and most of them are pretty good speakers—and sometimes they get to take home a plaque.

Does all this do-nothing work really amount to anything? It sure does precisely because very little good happens in our legislatures if we issue advocates can’t get the attention of the press, which creates the discussions that move public opinion.  Little good happens in legislatures if we issue advocates can’t mobilize people to lobby legislators or march or rally. And we can’t get press attention or mobilize people if we can’t pay our staff or phone bill or internet services. Do nothing legislators are really helpful to us. And thus they are to the public as well.

Do nothing legislators also help elect other legislators who share their views—or who can led to share their views by encouraging voters and campaign contributors  to support them.

If you’ve read this far, you may realize that this piece is inspired by a recent criticism of Babette Josephs written by my friend Chris Satullo. But I don’t really mean to defend Babette or again take sides in the recent election. For my guess—indeed my greatest hope—is that Brian Sims is going to be a really great do-nothing legislator. Just by virtue of his being an out gay man, he already is. He’s well on his way to being an effective speaker who will draw people to events and raise money and otherwise help progressive activists push the envelope. If we are all lucky, someday he’ll have a chance to be legislator who actually does play a role in enacting legislation. But one way or the other, he’s going to have a great impact on our politics. And if he never advances beyond do-nothing legislator, I hope that, when the press and his constituents get tired of him, he will go out with the kind of class Babette is showing now.

It shouldn’t surprise us that a lot of journalists don’t know what do nothing legislators do. Great journalists are great story tellers who like heroes and villains. But great stories tend to oversimplify. The same story telling instinct that leads journalists to give legislators good at the inside game too much credit for legislative success and to minimize the impact of issue advocates, large political trends, and impersonal historical forces gets in the way of their understanding what do nothing legislators do. If you want to tell a good story about how the Civil Rights Bill of 1965 and Medicare were passed, you start and end with Lyndon Johnson’s legislative legerdemain overcoming Senator Richard Russell’s conservative coalition. If you want to tell the real story,  you start by talking about the role of unions, the civil rights movement, and the huge Democratic majority. And you can’t leave out the role of do-nothing legislators like Hubert Humphrey who talked about civil rights when no one in Congress was listening to them. It’s a lot longer, messier story.

But that’s OK. Journalists have their job, political scientists have their job, and we organizers have our own. Still it’s important for legislators, organizers, and most of all citizens who might be motivated to become activists just how important the work they do is, and how important do nothing legislators are to that work.

Throughout the health care campaign, I would tell our activists that, some day in the future their kids of grand kids would come home from school and say that Barack Obama passed health care reform in 2010. I told them they would know the truth: they passed health care reform with the help of Barack Obama. I would add now, also with the help of a bunch of do nothing legislators who, for years, helped keep not only the dream of health care reform, but the organizations that  worked for it, alive.

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