Politically savvy legislators are already thinking about the glossy mailer they will send out to constituents in the fall of 2012. Featured prominently in this campaign pitch will be — they hope — a list of bills they sponsored or co-sponsored that became law. Legislators know that failing to pass a bill is, in the political arena, evidence of ineptitude or laziness. And furthermore, their challengers will not pass up the opportunity to criticize them for failing to enact meaningful legislation, or to mock the laws they do pass.
But good governance is not piecework. Most of a legislator’s time is taken up in committee meetings, holding hearings on bills and evaluating their worth. Voting to kill a bad idea, or working to improve a good one is hard to quantify, but often is the essence of what a rank-and-file legislator does.
The Republican sweep of both houses of the Legislature means there are many first-time legislators in Augusta this month. They will be eager to prove their worth, and are probably brimming with ideas for laws that change the dreaded status quo. They also will come to town hauling stacks of bill proposals from constituents.
With their newfound control of state government, Republican legislative leaders have the opportunity to do what Democrats were unable to — wield a strong hand in determining which bills move forward to reviser, hearing and votes, and which are set aside.
Legislators have every right to submit the bill proposals they believe will make Maine a better place. The kind of leadership needed is not that of the multiple-term bully. Rather, what is needed is a leader who can persuade a legislator that his or her idea, while not without merit, does not rise to priority status.
Steve Abbott, a 2010 unsuccessful Republican candidate for governor, observed a key difference in governing between Congress, which he saw while working as chief of staff for Sen. Susan Collins, and the State House. In Washington, Mr. Abbott said, those interested in creating new law would meet and discuss ideas, plans and strategy for months before coalescing around a particular way to address the matter at hand. In Augusta, he said, a bill is printed and then the discussion starts.
While Republican legislative leaders have set limits on the number of bills that can be considered this session, it seems they could go further in their caucus meetings. Even after the budget shortfall is closed, now is not the time for legislators to plow through hundreds of bills. Governing must mean prioritizing time and energy, just as a budget means prioritizing spending. Bills that create a better business climate, lower energy and health care costs and transform state government into a leaner, more effective entity must take precedence.