On Citizen Legislations – The American Conservative
A government of the people differs from a government of professional politicians. The former is an approachable group of average Joes and Janes who know the price of gas and the horrors of bus flying. The latter is a collection of fundraisers posing as representatives of the people.
Nevertheless, there are efforts to professionalize the “citizens’ legislature” in states like Oregon by drastically increasing the salaries of the legislature. This is a mistake. Politics, especially at the local level, was never intended as a profession. Reversing this trend requires addressing efforts to make state legislatures even more inaccessible.
When my great-grandfather, Cleveland Gupton, ran for the Nebraska state legislature, it wasn’t because he lacked opportunities to improve his community. By title he was a car dealer. In practice, he was a guy who did things for his neighbors. Thanks to my great-grandfather, Oxford, Nebraska got its first silent movie theater. He later played a role in paving streets in the city. He then used those roads to bring a minor league baseball team to Oxford. It was only after he had served as president of the Chamber of Commerce, headed the post of the American Legion, and sponsored a Boy Scout troop that he decided to run for office. He lost.
The legislature was not a means to an end for great-grandfather Gupton. He did not direct his life toward seeking the support of wealthy individuals. To the extent that he stood up for anyone, he was standing up on behalf of his community.
Years later, in 1952, his son-in-law and my grandfather, George Frazier, was elected to the Nebraska State Legislature. He voted on testing livestock for diseases, banning the use of garbage to feed cows and increasing “pensions for the elderly.” He and his colleagues fulfilled these tasks despite having many other priorities. My grandfather, also an auto dealer, ministered along with 12 farmers, seven bankers, five attorneys, an “oil jobber,” and several other Nebrascans, and had much to do besides sitting around in Lincoln. With six children at home, Grandpa George “retired” from his session-long tenure in the Legislature. It should be so.
The quest for elective office has become a lifelong drudgery for Millennials and Gen Z. They avoid posting on social media for fear of creating a digital skeleton in their closet. They cozy up with current elected officials and work as summer interns, getting paid in pizza and the occasional invitation to a fancy fundraiser. They constantly think about which coalition will elect them to office and base their community engagement on activities that might catch the attention of potential voters.
I know this because I was in their shoes. I figured that to add to the legacy of my family’s political activities I had to join the College Democrats, work on every campaign that would reach me, and avoid writing anywhere that would upset anyone.
The reality is that this kind of pursuit of elective office diminishes the public perception of their legislature. It turns out that “the more professional the legislature, the fewer people will agree with it,” according to Peverill Squire and Gary Moncrief, authors of State legislatures today: politics under the domes. This decline occurs despite the fact that professional legislators appear to be more responsive to policy needs.
Three Oregon state legislators recently retired because they claimed the job was too demanding given the low pay. Some people would probably cite this as evidence that highly qualified civil servants cannot hold out in a job that demands so much. However, the marginal salary reflects that legislators are not meant to stay in office forever.
Ministry is a short-term appearance—not a way to support your family. Melancton Smith, delegate from New York to the Continental Congress, pointed out that too much time away from “observing the people” would render legislators “inattentive, uncaring, selfish and inattentive to the public good [a] source of corruption.”
When citizen legislators attempt to make service their profession, or when it is truly a profession, as with officials in professional legislatures, the likelihood of escaping popular scrutiny increases. Lawmakers trying to serve decades in office will have little time to do anything but campaign, call donors, and serve special interests. Those are the keys to getting re-elected. Professional legislators will simply get to know a legislative chamber better than they do the floor of a car dealership, a farmer’s daily to-do list, or the duties of an “oil jobber”—whatever that might be.
We must deprofessionalize our state parliaments. Imagine if it didn’t take consultants, mailers, fat cats, and boring fundraisers to win a seat in any state legislature. In this mad world, doctors would have been more willing to run in 2020 – in response to the increased need for medical expertise in legislative sessions dealing with Covid. Educators may have thrown their hats in the ring to help develop sensible guidelines for schools to reopen. Before the 2022 election, in this hypothetical world, perhaps more economists would give up a year or two of their lucrative jobs to help steer their state and country through our inflation woes.
This is not the world we live in. State legislators are increasingly being rewarded for their ability to “play the game” rather than for their connections with community members. Great-grandfather Cleveland would be disappointed.
Kevin Frazier is a Fellow at the Miller Institute for Global Challenges and the Law at the UC Berkeley School of Law.