The short answer is driven by pure unadulterated self interest, which not-so-coincidently is also what drives most political decisions:
“If you don’t do politics, politics will do you.”
Politics, policy and government action can add value to your life, and it can take value away – both literally and figuratively. The legislative bodies that drive policy and budget decisions on the federal, state and local county level, operate with similar dynamics but obviously on different scales (national, state and local).
My hope is to shed a little light on the process, encourage your increased participation and provide an insiders perspective combined with a heavy dose of reality and pragmatism.
Learning to count is where it all starts. Whether it is congress, the state legislature or the county/city council, all conduct their business under the principle of “majority rules”.
There are 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives, 100 U.S. Senators, 51 members of the State House of Representatives and 25 State Senators. At the County level, Kauai has a 7 member council, Hawaii County, Maui and the City and County of Honolulu each has a 9 member council.
The most important number in the U.S. House is 218, in the U.S. Senate it’s 51, the State House is 26, the State Senate 13, on the Kauai County Council it’s 4 and for the other Counties the magic number is 5.
Remember majority always rules. If you are a Hawaii State Senator and you have 12 solid friends, you can run the show. Ditto to all the other legislative bodies.
The single most important thing that each of these 645 individual legislators have in common, is they love what they do and want to keep doing it. They each want to get reelected and/or they want to run for “higher office”. This in my opinion, is not a bad thing and is a natural instinct shared by anyone and everyone who loves their work, regardless of occupation.
Understanding the fundamental self preservation dynamic that drives all decision making, and knowing the importance of counting – are the two most important factors involved with influencing elected policy makers.
The core responsibilities shared by all 645 legislators boils down to money and policy. What do legislators do? They create and pass law. Arguably, the budget being the most important law they deal with.
To be clear legislative bodies legislate. They do not administrate.
Public Administration 101 – The president, the governor and the mayor are the administrators of government services and programs. Governors and mayors spend the money placed into the budget and approved by the legislative body. Legislators (which includes council members) do not spend money, they only budget money. The administrator cannot spend whatever amount of money they want for any purpose they want, but must follow the direction of the legislative body. Yes, of course there are exceptions…lots of exceptions and wiggle room for administrators…but in general the legislative body sets spending guidelines.
Legislators do not have authority to manage or supervise or instruct employees of the administration. That is the president, the governor and the mayors job. Legislators manage their own staff, and that’s pretty much it. In fact it is against the county charter for councilmembers to order county employees (other than council employees) to do anything at all. County employees work for the mayor, they do not work for councilmembers.
Ditto for state government employees, and the governor. Legislators may of course request information from the administration and its employees, and legislators may suggest to the administration different ways of managing, and they may express dissatisfaction with the administration and its employees – but they do not hire and fire, nor supervise anyone except their own legislative staff.
Legislators can cut the budget and eliminate employees via the budget making process, but ultimately it is the administrators choice as to how to implement such a budget cutting tactic.
In addition to approval of the budget, legislators are responsible for lawmaking. Only the legislative body can pass laws, not the administration. The administration is responsible for enforcing and implementing the policy enacted by the legislative body. However, the administration sets priorities on law enforcement and so whether it’s building code violations, drug laws or hate crimes – enforcement can be ignored or selectively enforced depending on the resources available and the political perspective of the administration.
Whew! Got through the basics without losing too many readers I hope!
Now back to the crux of this. Why does it matter?
If you have children in public school, you want the best education possible for them yes?
Large multinational corporations pollute our air, water and soil. Our oceans and our near shore reefs are literally dying. Homelessness, poverty, drug addiction, and suicide rates are all increasing.
You care about this stuff yes?
Most if not all legislators, care about this stuff too. But for many reasons, they too often fail to take the bold action needed and too ofter err on the side of big business and on maintaining the status quo.
This is why it is up to you, the regular citizen on the street, the rank and file tax payer, renter, homeowner and worker bee just trying to get by and make a living.
Regular people must engage the system and push, pull, cajole, threaten and demand that our legislators pass the budgets and change public policies to deal with the pressing issues, threatening regular people – and the planet.
It starts with knowing who exactly your legislator is. You have a County Councilmember, a State Representative, a State Senator, a U.S. Representative and and two U.S. Senator’s – who represents YOU. The very first step is to know their name. Please, learn their name. Just for starters…learn who represents you at the Federal, State and County level. It is difficult to ask them for help, if you don’t know who they are.
If you are serious about taking your civic responsibility to heart, and you truly want to make a difference, I can help walk you through the process.
It does not have to be like a second job or a new marriage, but you will need to put some time and effort in. Trust me on this. If you have read this far, you will enjoy the next steps. More importantly you will be participating in making our world and community a better place, and you will quickly realize that you can in fact, make a difference!
Next week, there will be a test. Once you know their names, we can move on to the next step.
First published in The Garden Island Newspaper, June 5th, 2019