Like sausage? I do. But do I want to see it being made? Uh, no. Something about raw meat being ground turns my stomach. I prefer to focus on the product and not the process. That’s what most folks do not only for the sausage on their plate but for the laws on the books. Making sausage and making laws are not for the faint-hearted or for the weak-stomached.
That the law-making process can be stomach-turning has long been recognized. Certainly you’ve heard the famous statement that “Laws are like sausages. It’s better not to see them being made.” This comment has been attributed to Otto von Bismarck, the first chancellor of Germany, although it is disputed whether he actually said it. Assuming Herr von Bismarck uttered these words, we can assume he thought that lawmaking was one of the wurst processes to behold. (Sorry for the sausage humor; I couldn’t help myself.)
Back in my college days, I was a naive political science major. I studiously pored over the large and expensive textbooks purchased at the university bookstore to learn the details about how American government works. Of course, I already has a general idea about the law-making process from watching the Schoolhouse Rock series on TV. Who could forget the catchy ditty “I’m Just A Bill” about the bill sitting on Capitol Hill hoping and praying it will one day be a law? I dutifully learned the steps for a bill to become law and marveled at the wonders of our governmental system. Well, at least I did until I graduated.
Upon entering the big, wide adult world, I had a rude awakening about the realities of government. And what better place for that awakening to occur than under the big gold dome of the Georgia State Capitol? I was hired to work on the reapportionment staff at the beautiful capitol building in downtown Atlanta. I was thrilled that I would get to see our government in action firsthand.
To say that I was disappointed does not accurately reflect the effect seeing the actual legislative process occur had on me. I was disgusted and disillusioned. Boy did Schoolhouse Rock miss the mark. Sure there were committee meetings and floor debates on a bill, but what was going to happen to the bill in the end was decided in some closed door meeting. Government was not occurring in the sunshine. What happened in public was just for show. Legislators would say one thing to the press and something completely different off the record around staff. I was appalled at the blatant racism and wheeling and dealing taking place.
In all fairness, I must admit that some aspects of the process were fun. Lobbyists put on fabulous shindigs which we staff could attend and eat, drink, and be merry. Most of the staff were poor students (I was saving for law school which I’d be entering a few months down the road), so we weren’t going to turn our noses up at free food and drinks. And Coca-Cola (based in Atlanta) scored huge points by stocking all refrigerators in the Capitol with free Coke products. But, of course, there’s no free lunch. People or businesses who provide things for free have an agenda. They want you to like them and to like whatever bill they desire to become law.
It was with this cynical perspective that I recently traveled to Tallahassee, the seat of Florida’s state government. The group I was with in the Sunshine State capital received tutoring from a former lobbyist in the fine art of bills becoming law. An eye-pleasing flow chart set out what the process was. Visions of college textbooks and the tune to “I’m Just A Bill” came to mind. And, sure enough, my suspicions about the actual process were confirmed by the former lobbyists’ comments. A bill’s passage isn’t necessarily dependent on its merit. Who owes what to whom is a key consideration when it’s time to vote on the bill.
While my younger days at the Georgia State Capitol led to me being cynical of the legislative process, my trip to the Florida seat of government led me to being scared. What am I scared of? Well, to quote what my dearly departed father used to say, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” Elected representatives are drafting, proposing, and pushing bills on subjects about which they have no real experience or understanding. Legislators know just enough about the issue to be dangerous. Their hearts may be in the right place (“I want to fix this problem”), but in some cases the solution may be worse than the problem.
Compounding the problem is the fact that legislators typically only hear from individuals with an agenda. These people may or may not be experts on the topic and may or may not represent what most citizens feel is the appropriate action to be taken. But, as they say, the squeaky wheel gets oiled. Legislators are elected to office, so popular opinion and the power of political contributors cause them to pay attention. When E.F. Hutton talks, people may listen, but when voters talk, legislators listen. As I strolled with my group through the Senate Office Building (fondly called “SOB”) in Tallahassee, I prayed that the legislators we targeted would listen to the information we offered and give it the weight it deserved based on our expertise in the area.
Do you contact your elected representative to voice your views particularly on subjects on which you may have some knowledge or expertise? Do you even know who your elected representatives are? If you answered “no” to either of the above questions, heaven help all of us. It is simply not enough for a citizen to vote and do nothing else. Being a responsible citizen involves keeping up on current issues, knowing who your representatives are, and communicating with said representatives on issues of concern. Sure, you can sit back in la la land and believe that the bill on whatever capitol hill it sits is going to objectively and responsibly be considered, You may be interested in some swamp land I have to sell you if that describes how politically naive you are.
Unless you are an employee of a meat company, you may not be able to participate in the sausage making process. However, any citizen can (and should) participate in the process of bringing laws into effect. Sorry, Herr von Bismarck; every citizen DOES need to see laws being made and act to make sure that the finished product is as satisfying and appealing as a freshly made sausage.
JUST WONDER-ing: Are you aware of any bills which will be considered by Florida legislators in their legislative session next month? What area of interest or expertise do you have which might be useful to help educate a legislator? Do you view yourself as a key part of the legislative process?