The open secret ? who runs the show?

Paul Jacob

12/19/2004 12:00:00 AM - Paul Jacob

Politicians are suffering. And last October former Florida Supreme Court justice and sometime lobbyist Wade Hopping was hopping mad about it.

The trouble? Term limits. They really irk politicians, as the citizens who have supported term limits had every reason to expect. The longer representatives serve in office, the more removed the representatives become from the concerns and interests of citizens. But boy, how expert they become in serving their own interests, and the interests of the biggest wheels!

But that's not how Hopping sees it. He doesn't see citizens as winning anything with term limits. But there are winners. "The legislative staff," he says.

I hear this a lot from "experts" in the capitols of the states with term limits for their representatives. The problem, it is said, is that with less experience, legislators rely more heavily on staffs.

That sounds bad, doesn't it?

In Arizona, two recent studies each explored the terra incognita of the state's term limited legislature. They came to some dramatically different conclusions, most of which were downplayed in the media. The study by a group called ThinkAZ was so not "The Sky Is Falling" that most coverage consisted of quotes from hysterical politicians arguing against term limits, and not about the study itself; it just wasn't "good enough" copy. The other study had a more consistently negative spin to it, so it got more play:

[W]hile power may have been lost by legislative leaders, it seems to have been ceded to others. Unelected others.
The Morrison study found that the lack of institutional understanding of the legislative process has increased the influence of those people who know where the skeletons are buried: Capitol lobbyists, for example. And permanent staff, especially the partisan staff aligned with legislative leaders. Anecdotally, we have observed partisan staff ? people who historically remained on the sidelines ? assuming major roles in promoting legislation.

Now, the idea that lobbyists have gained power with term limits is laughable. Oh, you can probably find lobbyists who will advance the claim, when they argue against term limits, but such talk is a ruse. All in all, the shorter the terms served, the more time lobbyists have to spend re-investing in new representatives.

Politicians are hard to buy, actually. It's often said that you can only rent them. But with term limits, lobbyists are limited to the length of the rental agreements. That's why lobbyists are so consistently against term limits.

The idea that their staffs might gain power over legislators, however, sounds more plausible. And yet . . . something seems wrong.

If one is going to rest one's case on "anecdotal" evidence, then I suspect the anti-term limits folk are choosing the wrong anecdotes.

The most striking anecdote showing legislators being "played" by their staffs made national headlines a few weeks ago. You remember the story. Another humungous omnibus bill was pushed through Congress, pushed so quickly after committee that no representative had time to read it. Considering its size, over 3,000 pages, it's a wonder anyone could.

But, after passage, and after the forklifts had delivered the bill to flummoxed reps, then the reading process began. And inside was found the most peculiar provision. It allowed staffers on the House and Senate appropriations committees to examine the tax returns of individual U.S. citizens.

Suddenly, the Hill was abuzz. How did it get there? At first, fingers pointed to Rep. Ernest J. Istook, Jr. of Oklahoma. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist took to calling it "the Istook Amendment." But Istook would have nothing to do with it: "I didn't write it; I didn't approve it; I wasn't even consulted." Quickly, the creepy little provision was removed.

The culprit turned out to be one Richard Efford, a 19-year veteran staffer on the House Appropriations Committee. He had been frustrated in doing his job, inspecting IRS facilities unannounced. The IRS objected to his presence, claiming he might accidentally see a return on somebody's computer screen. So, as a bit of housekeeping, he and his comrades put the provision in. He was surprised that anyone would mind. He couldn't see why such a little thing had to be vetted by his bosses.

It was just a little thing.

Well, the Omnibus Bill itself is made up of a million "little things." These things come from everywhere, including staffers. And who knows how many more little provisions went into the bill without any real consideration by an elected representative? We know that no representative outside of committee read much of the monster before voting it in, and no one representative read it all.

But a million little things add up to a big mess, a simple arithmetic truth I often have occasion to make in my Common Sense e-letter. And what we witnessed in this Istook-mistook episode is not the tip of an iceberg; it's the tip of Antarctica.

The legislative staffs at the federal level as well as in the states have far more power than it is polite to talk about. Usually, politicians fear bringing the subject up. They don't want us to realize how much they rely upon their professional staffs to keep cranking out their never-ending batches of half-baked legislation.

They only bring it up when they have to: when a goofy provision just seems too goofy even for Congress. Or when their careers are threatened with term limits.

When congressmen confront term limits, their knee-jerk reaction has often been to protest that the staff will run the place. But the open secret shows how hollow a threat that is: with career politicians, the staff is already running the show.