After the New Mexico Legislature had been in session for a couple of weeks this year, the Albuquerque Tribune ran an editorial suggesting New Mexicans would be better served by a 10-day session than by the “lengthy” 60-day session we were embarked upon.
Surely the business of the state could be handled adequately in a couple weeks of hard work, the unsigned piece opined, instead of wasting so much time and money on nonessential debates and inconsequential initiatives.
As one of our state’s 112 “citizen legislators,” I must disagree strongly with that viewpoint. It is the kind of flippant, nonspecific critique that one expects to hear at the corner barber shop or from a cab driver making conversation at a red light.
It only adds to the widespread sense of dissatisfaction with government without adding any usable information or enlightenment and is unworthy of a newspaper that purports to be interested in furthering the education of the public. It was a cheap shot of the sort that talk radio specializes in, not the voice of a mature commentator.
My own sense is that democracy takes time. As infuriating as it can be to have to listen to some long-winded amateur orator cover the same ground for the third time in a morning, the measured pace of our legislative processes serves a valuable purpose.
It stems from the hallowed traditions of our collective past: the councils of elders mulling matters carefully, refusing to be panicked into a rush to judgment, an ill-considered response or an immediately regretted action.
When the Legislature makes its biggest mistakes it is invariably when it has been pressured into acting too quickly. The last-minute measure hurried to the floor with an urgent message from the Fourth Floor--too important to go through the usual leisurely scrutiny in a series of committees--most often turns out to be something that desperately needed precisely that cautious examination … and re-examination.
I am a relative newcomer to the legislative method and it has taken a few years for the genius behind the madness to sink in. What I now am beginning to understand is that we don’t, in fact, have a 60-day session one year and a 30-day session the next. Rather, we have a system for examining, testing, redrafting and improving proposed laws that usually stretches over many years.
An idea (let’s say, banning the death penalty, ending cockfighting or permitting marijuana for terminally ill persons) is introduced for the first time. It is debated in a committee and quickly rejected. But the following session it is reintroduced and debated again. Between sessions its advocates attempt to educate legislators about its value.
A few new supporters rally to the cause but the opposition mounts as well and it is again dumped. In the third, fourth and fifth years, the pressure from both sides mounts. At last, it passes a committee! But it still lacks the momentum to get onto the floor for full consideration—for a few more years.
When it passes one House it still has another body to circumnavigate. By now the editorial writers have awakened to the validity of the initiative. The crowds in the committee rooms grow increasingly one-sided. The movement picks up speed and rolls inexorably toward passage. It is clear it will happen … but even then it can be delayed, possibly for a year or two, by well-positioned opponents.
At last, even that wall is breached and the bill becomes law, after a campaign of many, many 60- and 30-day sessions and of just as many information-filled interims.
So it was that both the ban on cockfighting (after 18 years) and the medical marijuana (after at least 12 years) measures crossed the finish line this year and will be enacted into law. The ban on the death penalty will have to wait for another year (or five), but it is getting closer with each year the debate is revisited.
Of the 2,700 pieces of legislation that were introduced this year, fewer than 10 percent will actually be signed into law. The rest will either vanish from the scene altogether or will come back with added vigor each year until they are enacted. It is a process calculated to make sure that only those ideas with genuine public support get through.
It is not “efficient” in a factory production sense of the word, and it is not foolproof: “Bad” legislation can sneak through and regularly does. Even then, however, my definition of “bad” legislation probably doesn’t accurately reflect the great unwashed public’s view of the item, so even the legislative “mistakes” might be demonstrated to be faithful renderings of what the people want.
The governor has called the Legislature back into a special session to consider four remaining items on his “to do” list. My own view is that none of them are truly urgent enough to merit the cost and potential for mischief that reassembling the lawmakers will entail—but that’s why he gets the big bucks.
By the time you read this, the “Special Session” of ’07 will be history, and you will know if my fears or Bill Richardson’s optimism were the more accurate predictor of what might transpire when the machinery of a citizen legislature democracy is turned back on for a day or two.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.