The new DFL majority in the Minnesota State Legislature is anxious to prove to voters that it is better equipped to lead than the previous Republican majority. The DFL agenda has essentially been the polar opposite of the Republican agenda. Whatever Republicans did, DFLers are undoing. Republicans used Minnesota schools as their personal ATM to “balance” their budget. DFLers are rushing to pay school kids back. Republicans used budget gimmicks instead of fixing the long-term structural deficit. DFLers are increasing taxes and cutting spending to close the long-term structural deficit. Republicans tried to restrict the freedom to marry. DFLers are expanding it.
Those are all good and important changes. But of all the things that DFLers could do to impress Minnesota the swing voters who will determine in 2014 which party remains in control of the Legislature, I submit that the most memorable and impressive achievement would be to adjourn early.
I’m serious. Declare victory and vamoose early. Voters would adore legislators for it.
While complex policymaking is sometimes difficult for voters with busy lives to appreciate, all voters appreciate the keeping of deadlines. We had deadlines in school. We have them at work. We have them for our taxes and fees. Our spouses give us deadlines. We have them for our household bills. Every Minnesotans has to relentlessly meet deadlines throughout our lifetime, or we will face serious punishment. Like it or not, deadlines shackle our lives.
Regular citizens appreciate deadline-making at a gut level. For this reason, it makes us absolutely bananas when the Legislature regularly and cavalierly blows deadlines. At school meetings, church gatherings, youth sporting events and backyard barbeques, I hear more complaints about this legislative habit than any other substantive issue. Missed deadlines, or even nearly missed deadlines, make incumbents look like irresponsible and incompetent children.
I understand why pushing policymaking decisions to the last moment or beyond can be an advantageous move for a legislative strategist. They employ brinksmanship to achieve their policy goals. “Nothing focuses the mind like a deadline,” the saying goes.
This makes perfect sense inside the walls of the State Capitol, but leaders need to understand the optics outside the walls of the Capitol. Voters get punished for missing deadlines, so they have a visceral feeling that legislators should as well.
Imagine how surprised and delighted Minnesotans would be to awake next weekend to news headlines like this:
“Legislature Surprisingly Finishes Work A Day Early.”
This news would be a stunner, one of those unlikely “man bites dog” type stories that voters never see. Such a headline would disarm the perennial political challenger critique: “Legislators spent all their time on X, which prevented them from getting their work done on time.” It would send a signal that the grown-ups had arrived in Saint Paul at long last.
With the news this weekend that legislative leaders have reached agreement about the broad outlines of the fiscal end-game, finishing on time might seem more feasible than usual. Still, legislative leaders are refusing to let go of pet initiatives that fall outside the agreement, so it still seems likely that negotiations will go right up to the deadline abyss. Legislators probably will finish on-time, but just barely. Just as they do nearly every year, they will look like children turning in half-assed assignments at the very last minute, and swing voters’ eyes will collectively roll.
If DFL legislators want to survive difficult mid-term elections in 2014, they should heed the sage advice of Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Bobby Womack about when to exit the stage: “Leave them wanting more and you know they’ll call you back.”