What exactly does my legislator do? What power do they have and what exactly can they do, or not do?
The quick and dirty answer is:
- They have the power to pass laws (but not really).
- They have the power to keep laws from passing (if they are brave, have their facts together and know how to talk- or they are a committee chair)
- They have the power to convene (but often they do not realize they even have this power or the power of this power)
- They have the power to “shine a light” (if they are brave enough, smart enough and articulate enough to actually do it)
- They do not have the power to change a light bulb or pave a road.
Most people equate the job of being a legislator to that of being a “lawmaker”.
However, in terms of actually passing into law a new idea or change of public policy, an individual legislator is limited to the power of “bill introduction”. Bills are proposed laws that in theory are put into the legislative pipeline for public review. The ability to introduce a bill is clearly a significant power in what is supposed to be a marketplace of ideas, but it’s a long, long way from passing something into law.
The power to actually pass a new law is held by the majority. And of course the mayor, governor or president must also agree (or be overridden by a supermajority).
Individual legislators, of course, are needed to “hold a majority together”. Therefore that proverbial “swing vote” (that one vote needed to gain a majority position and ensure the passage of a measure) can be critically important. Individual legislators positioned as the “swing vote”, can thus possess significant individual political power – possibly even shaping the final outcome of the proposal.
Power to kill bills:
It is actually easier (IMHO) for an individual legislator to influence the killing of bills, than passing one into law.
IF a legislator is willing and able to publicly articulate why a particular piece of legislation is “bad”, and IF they can substantiate their position with credible facts and research- a single legislator can sometimes sway the majority opinion such that the proposed bill either is amended to “fix” its deficiencies or is killed. Note “bad” is in the eye of the beholder.
The most notorious example of a single state legislator’s ability to kill a bill is tied to the power of a committee chair. Through the power granted to them by the majority, individual committee chairs can and do kill bills in a myriad of ways, the most common of which is simply by refusing to schedule a hearing.
Power to convene:
The individual legislator has the power to “convene” – to simply call a meeting (official, unofficial, public or private).
The power to convene is an important but often underutilized power that many new legislators do not even know they possess. The truth is that if a legislator from the state, county or federal government requests a meeting with any agency or organization (public, private, profit or nonprofit)- they are normally granted the opportunity to meet. This power can be used simply to educate the participants and or to bring various interests, groups, and individuals together in order to address common issues.
The power to shine a light:
Last and most certainly not least – individual legislators have the power to “shine a light”- the power of the soapbox. Legislators have their title and their responsibility as voices elected by the people in their district. The media recognizes legislators as a legitimate and credible (until a legislator proves them wrong) voice of the community and will normally listen to and sometimes place their concerns front and center. Whether used to expose wrong-doing or to promote positive and meaningful public policy proposals, IF they are prepared and willing to use it, the power to “shine a light” is often the most important power possessed by the individual legislator.
When asked, the general public will often say that the main job of a legislator is to balance the budget, pave the roads, clean our parks and in general keep our government doing what the government is supposed to do.
While approving a balanced budget (depending on who is doing the math) is a responsibility of every legislative body, legislators do not enforce laws and they do not manage government employees (other than their own). Generally speaking, the enforcement of laws is strictly the domain of the administrative branch (president, governor, and mayor).
According to the County Charter, a member of the Kaua’i County Council may not direct any county employee (outside the council) to do anything. All directions for administrative action must go through the Mayor’s office. The Mayor is the boss of county employees, not the Council (except of course for Council staff). Ditto, for the most part – for state and federal legislators.
Individual legislators cannot order a road to be paved, a park cleaned, or even a light bulb to be changed in a government building – those tasks can only be ordered by the administrative branch.
Even when a “majority” of the legislative body (council, congress or a state legislature) agree – the most they can do (outside of seeking judicial action) is request or ask the administration to do something. As a last resort, a majority in the legislative body could use their “budget authority” and/or “audit power” as leverage to pressure the administration to act.
So please remember, the next time you demand that a legislator pave the road, or clean the park or crackdown on crime – that is really not their job. To be clear, they can be a squeaky wheel on your behalf (and certainly sometimes that is appropriate) but they cannot direct government employees other than their own staff.
At the end of the day, legislators are responsible for making sure the people actually doing the job (the administration) have the resources they need (via passing the budget), for passing new and improving existing public policy initiatives, and for providing public oversight and accountability.
Gary Hooser –
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