The following is an excerpt from an actual email conversation between myself and a friendly state legislator in their first year serving in the state House of Representatives.
The topic was about why he/she should support increased pesticide regulation. This email was part of a series of emails between us where he/she had requested additional data/research on this topic in an effort they were making to come to terms with the opposing arguments presented by industry lobbyists.
It seemed our discussion was heading toward an endless back and forth, as every time I provided information supporting the concerns and need for regulation, the industry would respond, bringing up counterpoints, and visa versa.
While the communications thread became a little tiresome at points, clearly this person was struggling with the decision-making process, wanted to do the right thing but wanted to have the validation for the decision to be solid and irrefutable.
While this particular topic involved pesticide regulation, the principle applies to all policy decisions made by legislators and council members.
Have been thinking about this a lot.
Whether or not to support this legislation, and any legislation really — is essentially a political decision. On almost all proposed legislation (regardless of the subject matter) there will be arguments on both sides and studies and research on both sides. At the end of the day the decision will always be determined by which side of those arguments your core values are based, and whose interests you serve.
Policy-making is not mathematical or science-based in the sense that one adds up the numbers and they come to a certain total/conclusion and that determines the outcome. Policy-making deals mostly in shades of grey.
In the case of pesticide regulation, many countries have voted to ban various pesticides used in the United States — atrazine, paraquat and chlorpyrifos, to name only three that are used heavily in Hawaii. Why?
These policy-makers have access to the same data, the same studies/research and the same impacts on farmers, etc. They chose to err on the side of caution as to align themselves on the side of protecting health and the environment.
More often than not, they chose also to vote in support of what their constituents wanted, and pushed back against the corporate forces that make, sell, promote and use of these pesticides.
There is a ton of data out there that will support any position you choose. Again, this is the nature of almost all issues and proposed legislation.
As someone much smarter than I is fond to point out, serving in public office is not about issues but about interests. And the fundamental question is, “Whose interests do you serve?”
Serving in the Legislature is a tough job. I wish you all the best in reaching answers that you feel good about.
Gary Hooser formerly served in the state Senate, where he was majority leader. He also served for eight years on the Kauai County Council, and was the former director of the state Office of Environmental Quality Control. He serves presently in a volunteer capacity as board president of the Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action (HAPA) and is executive director of the Pono Hawaii Initiative.