When I was a newly minted state senator in January, 1993, one of my first private goals was to end the special treatment which chosen lobbyists received through special access to the legislators. The names of lobbyists who had assisted Democrat and Republican members of House and Senate leadership in fundraising and campaigning were placed on a special list directing the security team to allow them nearly unfettered access to the Senate and House chambers and lounges. In some cases, anointed lobbyists were also given access to the leadership offices, desks, and phones (this was before widespread use of cell phones) adjacent to the chambers. The preferred lobbyists also had full kitchen privileges, jockeying with elected legislators for coffee, soft drinks, and snacks.
Ending Special Privileges
When I raised my concerns with a trusted colleague, he reminded me of a political quote from the early 19th Century, “To the victor go the spoils.” He told me that the practice was not actually preferential because leadership in both parties maintained lists of preferred lobbyists equally. When I pointed out that the preference was not between party leadership, but between a powerful lobbyist’s access to the legislative process and an ordinary citizen’s access. That senator agreed to join me in my campaign to end the practice.
I distinctly remember one occasion when one of the sergeants-at-arms came to me during the debate on the floor of the Senate informing me that a certain lobbyist would like to see me in the lounge. I told the security person that if the lobbyist wanted to see me, they could send in a blue note like every other citizen. I also made some public comments criticizing the preferential treatment saying that a homeless person in Pioneer Park should have just as much access as the highest paid lobbyist. I was summoned to the office of a member of leadership and told that I had broken the unwritten rule of loyalty, that senators were expected to avoid publicly airing the body’s dirty laundry. With this warning, I was even more determined to end this discriminatory practice.
Preferred lobbyists were also commonly allowed on the floor of each house during debate. News stories reported that during heated debate on a controversial bill on the House floor, lobbyists participated in a voice vote as the Speaker had to ascertain the result by whether the Ayes or Nays were loudest.
In those days members of the media were also allowed access to the House and Senate chambers and lounges. More than once during floor debates a newspaper reporter would approach me at my seat on the floor attempting an interview.
I was so grateful when in the second year of my first term the preferential practices for lobbyists ended, including reporters having free roam of the chambers and glad to see leadership deciding to hold media access following each day’s floor session.
Lobbyists Are Essential to the Process
Lest there be any misunderstanding, I believe lobbyists are an integral part of the legislative process. They are as essential as the Legislature’s legal and fiscal staff because they passionately and persuasively provide data and research that an impartial staff cannot provide. As a whole, they represent their clients’ views with great skill and provide information to assist legislators in making informed votes. Legislators who hear the pros of an issue from one lobbyist and the cons from another are better equipped to enact good public policy. The most important trait of a good lobbyist is integrity. If lobbyists ever provide false or misleading information, they lose their effectiveness and don’t last long.
The Mushroom Caucus
About a third of the way through my 26 years in the Senate I began to realize that the House and Senate leadership teams would act like they were our ecclesiastical leaders. It was almost as if once the caucus ‘sustained’ members of leadership, we were all expected to comply with their decisions. I realized that while this may work well with inspired church leadership, it is not appropriate to empower legislative leaders to make decisions and expect the caucus to support their unilateral decisions. I learned from colleagues from other states while attending national conferences that their leadership teams had a responsibility to distill the will of their caucuses and then do the heavy lifting of carrying out those positions in their negotiations with the opposite house and the governor.
The recurring manipulation of our caucus became so frustrating especially near the end of each session that I had my intern make a batch of political campaign style buttons with the Ghostbuster red circle and red slash but replacing the ghost with a mushroom. Near the end of the session, once again the leadership team excluded caucus members from decisions about the budget priorities. During the caucus meeting just before the deadline for printing the budget, leadership announced their decisions to the caucus. Several legislators including myself expressed frustration and opposition to the process but we were told one more time there wasn’t time to change their proposal.
As the Senate legislative floor action, eight or ten legislators wore the mushroom buttons on our lapels. The Senate President, having gaveled us back to order noticed the buttons and was concerned so he signaled for me to join him on the dais where he asked about the buttons. I posed the question, “Do you know how mushrooms are grown? They’re kept in the dark and fed manure, and that’s what just happened in our caucus meeting. So some of us have formed the Mushroom Caucus.” Concerned that the press would pick up the story, he immediately called for a recess and we went back to caucus and aired our grievances. From then on, caucus meetings were the place where all members gave their input on positions taken by the caucus and our leadership team knew they had our support in negotiation with the House and Governor. Some of the Mushroom Caucus members later became Senate President, Majority Leader and Executive Appropriations Chair and stayed true to the standard of a democratic caucus process.
Peer Pressure and Tribal Mentality in Legislative Bodies
I believe the Utah Legislature is without a doubt the most efficient, effective and equitable of all 50 state legislatures and is light years better on these factors than the U.S. Congress. But there is still significant room for improvement.
From my 26 year experience inside the legislature and 44 years lobbying local governments and school districts on taxes and spending, I have often wondered why policymakers sometimes give in to pressure from their colleagues when they don’t agree in principle for the thing they’re voting for or against. We expect everyone to stick to their principles regardless of what others think or say.
I’ve done a lot of research about human decision making and why so many individuals are not willing to take the heat for their vote that agrees with their strongly held beliefs. Two of the books that represent the research I’ve done are Decisive by Chip & Dan Heath and Thinking Fast & Slow by Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman.
Most people believe the decisions they make in the presence of others are affected most by their own principles and strongly held values. But this is not the case for most people in social situations. Instead, the more powerful influence on individuals is the influence of the tribe and the acceptance of tribal authority, whether conscious or subliminal. We all belong to several tribes and decisions in a particular moment are affected by the proximity of the tribe in both distance and time frame. Classic experiments have demonstrated a person’s willingness, under peer pressure, to discard their sense of right and wrong and give in to short-term emotion. Sometimes the pressure to give up one’s beliefs is based on what appears to the person to be a conflicting, but higher ‘principle’ such as unity, or being a ‘team player.’
For example, the members of one house in the legislature comprise a spectrum of political ideology while there is a mirrored parallel spectrum of ideology in the other house. You would rationally expect legislators with similar political ideas in both houses would work with each other to advance their common agenda. This is usually the case. However, when the caucuses in each house meet together as tribes it is common for political ideologies to take second place to the group decision used to stand against the contrary position of the opposite house.
School Leaders Expected to Put Unity Over Equity
This tribe mentality has been prevalent among members of Utah’s local school district leaders when they meet together in their statewide associations. In the legislative battle for local school property tax equalization, most of Utah’s local school district officials have been more concerned about maintaining relationships with their colleagues in other districts than advocating for equitable funding resources to better serve their own kids. The differences in spending per student are extreme: Two neighboring districts of similar size have as much as a $10,000 difference in spending per student. When a few brave leaders in underfunded school districts advocate for funding equity, they are shamed for speaking out and violating the tribe’s rule of unity. The bottom line is that school officials feel more pressure from their colleagues who oppose the funding equalization proposals than they do from district patrons, teachers, parents and taxpayers who are largely unaware of their own district officials turning away funds. The principle of unity in the tribe has become a higher priority than equity for students.
Isn’t it time we convince local school officials to put their own students, teachers, and taxpayers ahead of their desire not to upset their colleagues in wealthier districts?