Oct 21, 2019

Four Things Congress Can Learn from the States

Most people have begun to think that congressional dysfunction and low approval rates are the norm. When it comes to reforming procedures and policies that will enable Congress to better serve its constituents, state legislatures can provide valuable lessons for improving efficiency and effectiveness. What are states doing right? How can similar approaches be implemented in Congress?

To explore this further, the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) partnered with the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) on September 23 to host a panel of experts and look for reasonable solutions. The panel included two veteran state legislators: Sen. Larry Obhof, President of the Ohio Senate, and Rep. Georgene Louis from the New Mexico House of Representatives. Joining BPC’s Michael Thorning was joined by Natalie Wood from NCSL and Emily Baer, a professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire. Here are four takeaways from the panel—and what Congress can learn from the states:

  1. Use states as laboratories.

A number of the processes used by state legislatures can serve as a model in the sense that Congress can learn from what didn’t work as well as what did. The states have set up a unique system where the House and Senate can pursue reforms together and separately to discover what practices work best. Given that states deal with issues that have a parallel with the federal government, Congress can learn from state experiences to see how the impact of their reforms on issues ranging from committee structure to seniority.

  1. Don’t underestimate the value of non-partisan staff.

Especially in part-time legislatures, non-partisan staff are used as technical experts on specific committees and to help individual representatives. Their unique expertise and skills add tremendous value to the members, given that they do not have their own partisan political agendas to promote.

  1. Connect on common goals.

There must be a “give and take” from both sides. After all, that is how governing happens. Congress must acknowledge there are always issues to disagree on, but most issues have elements of bipartisan support in order to advance the underlying policy goals. The best interests and wellbeing of American citizens should be the first and foremost priority of our legislators. Most overarching goals are similar; it is in how to achieve those goals is there a disagreement between legislators.

  1. Foster meaningful relationships and respect across the aisle.

At times, it is beneficial for legislators to come together and spend time outside of the halls of Congress: that’s how critical relationships and trust—that lead to partnerships in legislating—is built. Many state legislatures, including Ohio, ensure that majority and minority members spend time together, whether through family barbeques, trips to the zoo, or other social events that humanizes the other side of the aisle and provides an outlet to connect on a personal level. The “Golden Rule,” for example, never gets old: Treat everyone the way you would want to be treated, especially regarding the minority.

As Congress looks to modernize itself through the Modernization Committee, it doesn’t need to look far for practical reform ideas than the states.  State legislatures—the laboratories of democracy—can be a well of ideas for helping Congress become more effective and efficient. Miss the event? Catch it here.

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