How Parties Can Save Our State Legislatures

Political scientist Alan Rosenthal, who passed away in 2013, spent his professional life writing about, and sometimes working toward, the improvement of state legislatures. He argued that legislatures could be evaluated in terms of three major features:

  • Balancing power (how well they can compete with the governor for political control)
  • Representation (how well they represent and serve their various constituencies)
  • Lawmaking (how well and fairly policy priorities become law)

The key to all of these, he further argued, were what he called facilitating factors. This includes things like legislative pay, the presence of staff, and the preservation of institutional knowledge. Through many reforms enacted in the 1960s and 70s — some at the direct urging of Rosenthal — a number of states made major strides in these areas. Still, our state legislatures notably lag in capacity.

Pay is still pretty weak. $30,000 a year is generally considered a good salary for a state legislator. In such chambers (especially when they only convene for part of the year), the only people who can serve are those who are either independently wealthy or who have flexible and well-paying jobs that will accommodate their political careers. This means political service just isn’t a realistic option for many people, especially those of more modest means.

Staffing is rather paltry across state legislatures. As I wrote here, there are nearly as many staffers in the U.S. Congress as there are in all state legislatures combined. The median state legislature has 3.8 total staffers per member, including personal staff and specialists for the chamber. (That number is more like 56 for Congress.) Legislators rely on staffers for information and expertise; if they can’t get that from their own staff, they’ll get it from lobbyists or the governor’s office, who certainly have their own agendas.

Institutional knowledge suffers greatly in states with term limits. In 2007, the year after Nebraska’s term limits law kicked in, that chamber convened with nearly half its members being freshmen. In California, the state with one of the harshest term limits laws, the last Speaker of the state Assembly, John Pérez, became Speaker after having served in the chamber for a little more than a year. With average experience in legislatures so low, members have less of an idea how to get things done. So they turn elsewhere for expertise — again, lobbyists and the governor’s office.

But it’s not all so bleak! Many of these same states with such limitations (particularly the former Progressive states that now have term limits) are also the states with some of the strongest political parties. Yes, that can seem like an annoyance for many political observers; in split-control states, that means gridlock, and it may mean terrifyingly rapid ideological activity in unified government states. But parties can also help legislatures overcome many of their shortcomings.

No staff to help with expertise or policy ideas? Parties have that. No institutional memory? Parties definitely have that. Many state party organizations consist of former officeholders and staffers and others who have spent decades working in or around state government. Working closely with incumbents, parties can provide legislators with the ideas and expertise they need to function well. What’s more, through party discipline, a legislature can better stand up to the governor, allowing a greater balance in policymaking.

So while observers are right to note the increase in legislative partisanship in nearly every state in the past few decades, there’s reason to celebrate that. Strong parties have the potential for improving our legislatures, allowing them to compete with their governors and create a healthier space for lawmaking than we’ve had previously.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

Seth Masket

Seth Masket is an associate professor of political science at the University of Denver.