Less-is-more mindset may aid Congress

I recently read the parting reflections of retiring Republican state Sen. Alan Lasee of Wisconsin, a gentleman cowboy who has spent half his life in the legislative process. One observation he made when discussing retirement, parsing 36 years of political experience, rings particularly true, resonating with polling I see. If Lasee had his “druthers,” there would be less legislation. “About 1,200 bills are introduced in the [Wisconsin] Legislature every session, and that’s way too many,” said the wise one.

Lasee doesn’t know how bad it can get. Congress sees over 10,000 bills introduced in each session.

There are other dots to connect here. Movements are afoot in states like California, Michigan and Pennsylvania to transform their “full-time” legislatures into part-time organizations. Some reform advocates are touting a Texas model in which the legislature meets only in odd-numbered years. My client Terry Branstad, a candidate for governor in Iowa, recently proposed a move to biennial rather than annual budgets in that state. My client Meg Whitman, a candidate for governor in California, is topping the polls there by promising to focus on just three priorities — spending, jobs and schools — if she gets elected.

(Full disclosure is appropriate here. Neither Branstad nor Whitman ever discussed these initiatives with me prior to their launch, and neither pre-tested these concepts in polls that I am aware of. Their ideas were completely their own, Branstad’s based on his accounting and finance background and previous gubernatorial experience, and Whitman’s drawn from her considerable managerial experience in the business world. I am learning from my clients, not vice versa.)

All these dots are concepts suggesting less may be more when it comes to legislating. This less-is-more philosophy is not the same as limited governance in a constitutional sense, where constraints on powers are imposed in a negative, controlling manner. Less-is-more is a positive and proactive strategy for achieving more by taking a narrower and more focused path voluntarily.

Branstad explains his biennial budget proposal: “This method of budgeting will remove the incremental cost increases due to annual budgets, and will provide stability to entities dependent on state resources. Implementing a five-year financial plan will meet critical needs while avoiding budget cliffs for years into the future. Current practices focus on a year-to-year approach with little regard for impact upon future budgets, new burdens for taxpayers or ability to meet critical needs.”

Says Whitman, “You have to focus on three things and put all your political will against [those] three things.” She backs this up with a proposal to create legislative “teams” focused on each priority. “I think it would focus the mind of the legislature on what it is that we have to accomplish.” The Republican also sagely advises, “Let’s stop doing new things and fix the problems we have in front of us.”

Congress could rip a few pages from this playbook, reducing the size of members’ and committees’ staffs, meeting fewer days each year and limiting bill introductions. What could it hurt? Congress is spending more time and money than ever on its own operations, and congressional job approval is in the doldrums. Maybe members could write a better speech than their staffers. Perhaps passing one bill in two sponsored would be seen as more effective than enacting a handful out of hundreds. Fewer days in D.C. and more in the district could pay dividends. Or maybe just a few days thinking rather than legislating could provide some clarity.

This week I heard a Tea Partier exclaim that their electoral goal this cycle is to ensure “gridlock,” unseating just enough incumbent Democrats to neuter any action. A few less-is-more initiatives might be a more elegant way to get Congress headed in the right direction.

Hill has been a Republican pollster since 1984. This cycle he is polling for gubernatorial campaigns in four states.