civic renewal in a state legislature

I’ve recently met several state legislators in basically social situations. It occurs to me that their job isn’t all that great nowadays. People strongly dislike politicians as a class, yet legislators must interact daily with strangers–and consistently treat everyone politely. As candidates, they are asked to complete questionnaires that will commit them to the specific legislative priorities of various interest groups. Once they are elected, the interest groups and parties closely track their votes and expect loyalty and consistency. Reporters generally ignore the legislature, but are ready to pounce at basically arbitrary moments.

Vote-counts, questionnaires, and investigative news articles provide accountability in politics in much the same way that multiple-choice exams promote accountability in schools: they are crude measures that overlook subtler but more important forms of excellence. For example, legislators get no points for changing their minds as a result of good arguments and evidence, for making especially thoughtful arguments in public settings, for wisely compromising to get “half a loaf,” for working across the aisle, for bringing new people into public life, or for focusing on neglected issues that lack attention from organized groups.

As Abraham Lincoln said when he heard about a man who had been tarred, feathered, and run out of town on a rail, “If it wasn’t for the honor of the thing, I’d rather walk.”

To restore the value of their own work, a bipartisan group of legislators in Minnesota has created a Civic Life Legislative Working Group. In some ways, they are following in the footsteps of the bipartisan “Congressional Retreats” of the 1990s, which were replicated in some state legislatures. (I attended one in Virginia.) But the Congressional Retreats attempted to improve bipartisan comity by addressing shared issues such as the quality of life within the legislature. The Minnesota Working Group has chosen a different approach–improving the civic culture of the state.

The Working Group has already met intensively, but they came out publicly last Sunday by publishing an op-ed in the St. Paul Pioneer Press:

We see the Civic Life Legislative Working Group taking a number of different approaches that will allow the Legislature to assume a variety of leadership roles in this effort, depending upon the issue.

For example, on issues where the dissemination of information is needed–such as senior issues–legislators could act as conveners, connecting constituents with information, helping them sort through the options available to them, sparking conversation among seniors about these options, not only with us as legislators. Think Medicare Part D or the myriad of options for home health care.

On issues where a comprehensive and statewide approach is necessary, the working group would take the role of architect, helping build consensus, mapping out a plan and tapping citizen and community energies to solve problems. The model for this would be the bipartisan Early Childhood Caucus, which since 2002 has helped to influence and shape public policies that impact Minnesota’s youngest children, their families and caregivers.

One of great things about the caucus–and one of the primary reasons it has been successful–is that it has not only helped educate legislators, but also created a dialogue within our communities and provided a vision of where we need to go when it comes to early childhood issues.

Finally, we also see the working group as a philosophical body, defining who we are and what we want to be as a state. There are numerous examples of the Legislature fulfilling this role. Think back to the Minnesota Miracle and the debate about the role the state should play in funding our public schools, or the creation of MinnesotaCare in the early 1990s, which established Minnesota has a leader in health-care innovation and access. Both of those accomplishments required genuine bipartisan cooperation and community involvement, as well as a view to the long term.

I’m told that the idea of being “philosophers” came from the legislators themselves and especially motivates them. They are brave to use a word that could sound corny or pretentious. Presumably, they see a “philosopher” as the opposite of a legislative infighter, a deal-maker, or an instrument of organized pressure groups. Good for them.

(As the Minnesota Daily reports (pdf), this project is part of a broader initiative called “Minnesota Works Together” that has beensupported by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation through the University of Minnesota’s Center for Democracy and Citizenship: