Wednesday, September 12, 2012
SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: Two-Year Terms vs. Enduring Dominion
There is a ritual that occurs bi-annually where Legislators in the House of Representatives begin to assess their reputations and standing among their colleagues. It is an exercise in measuring their political capital and portends the coming of a great clash of egos known as Leadership Elections.
Just days after the general election, those who are victors and members of the majority party assemble themselves to select who shall be the Speaker of the House. The ballot is secret. Due to the high stakes and intense pressures of the vote, many Representatives consider the confidentiality of their decision one of their greatest privileges.
It is difficult to observe the Legislative body as it is subdivided into clans who support one individual over another. The very essence of being a Representative requires understanding and an ability to work with others. Rarely are policy decisions founded on the idea that a Legislator dislikes another or likes one colleague more than another. Yet, this pettiness is the essence of Leadership Elections.
Utah has a unique history of electing Speakers of the House. The tenure of Leadership via the election process used to follow a natural progression with an unspoken rule of limited terms. It is a little publicized fact that every Speaker of the House to serve prior to 1998 (all 52 of them) served only one term. Speaker Stephens was elected by the body in 1998 and served an unprecedented three consecutive terms through 2004. Other Speakers succeeding him served multiple terms as well.
It is difficult to explain this shift in tradition. Regardless of the reasons, however, the impacts are significant. Let's review a couple of the consequences associated with multi-term Speakers.
Consolidation of Power
The Speaker holds a great deal of control over who is appointed to serve as Committee Chairs. Committee Chairs in turn have control over the agenda of their meetings and dictate which bills will or will not be heard. It is a powerful position to hold. Since the Chairperson serves at the pleasure of the Speaker, natural alliances form among appointed Chairpersons and the Speaker who appointed them. Without the moderating effects of altruistic self-imposed term limits, this dynamic galvanizes a power structure within the body, for better or for worse, that is self-sustaining. The entrenched power structure has the potential to stymie the policy making initiative of the body.
Depletion of Talent
One of the benefits to the State that occurs with changes in Leadership is revitalization of the organs of government. With new Speakers come new Committee Chairpersons. The appointment of new Chairpersons allows institutional knowledge and memory to be accumulated by a new generation of leaders. In essence, Speaker and Chairperson turnover replenishes and expands the State's reservoir of governing talent. The monopoly grip of multi-term Speakers and Chairpersons does a disservice to this limited talent pool.
My initial personal experience with leadership elections was quite unique. Considering my upset victory at the general election, my vote was not part of the leadership election calculus until the day before they were held. It was then that the surrogates and candidates flooded me with phone calls trying desperately to establish some rapport. The most memorable calls were groveling approbations. Such as "Jeremy you are super awesome! Sorry I didn't help you in your campaign and you don't know who I am. But hey, I am running for leadership. Vote for me!"
One of the key arguments made by surrogates for a candidate for Speaker that year was the concept of self-imposed term limits. The facts of this once-prominent tradition in the House of Representatives were presented and it made a compelling case.
So does this "forgotten" tradition warrant consideration today? Are the arguments for it just as compelling as they were then? I believe so on both accounts. A lofty institution such as the House of Representatives deserves a lofty tradition. Restoring self-imposed term limits would bring great honor, respect, and vitality to the legislative body.