Legislative primer 2: Universal truths, rules of the game

In order to understand and effectively navigate the legislative process, there are seven critically important universal truths that must be understood and followed. They may at first seem overly simple and obvious, but they are critically important and impact all decisions.

Truth 1: To serve in the legislature you must first win an election. To continue serving, you must continue winning. Every legislator loves serving and wants to continue doing so, as long as is humanly possible. Ensuring ones reelection is probably the most important objective of almost every legislator. This is not a bad thing. If someone is doing their job properly, loves their job and wants to keep doing that job, this a natural and positive inclination. As an advocate wanting to influence the lawmaking process, your issue, your policy objective and your priority must impact this reality — either positively or negatively. If there is no impact, it will be difficult at best to get attention for your issue.

Truth 2: Legislators avoid controversy, as controversy breeds divisiveness and divisiveness loses elections. They want to accomplish stuff, they want to be able to tell people that they are doing stuff, meaningful stuff that will help them get reelected. Again, this is not a bad thing. But unfortunately “big stuff” is always controversial, and thus legislators prefer nibbling around the edges on issues, and avoid like the plague, concepts such as “bold and ground breaking.” And yet again, your issue, your policy objective and your priority must impact this reality. The sweet spot in the law-making business are issues that are both good policy and good politics.

Truth 3: Legislators are very, very busy during the legislative session. They deal with a zillion bills on a zillion topics, most of which they do not have a deep understanding of, nor do they care particularly about. Individual legislators will feel most comfortable focusing on individual issues pertaining to their particular “subject matter interest,” and unless you make your issue important to them, they will not pay attention. They simply don’t have the bandwidth to do it all. You must break through the congestion of issues that compete for the lawmakers attention (by addressing Truth 1 and Truth 2.)

Truth 4: Majority rules – There are 25 members in the Senate. The most important number in this body is 13 which is a majority and thus controls everything. Any Senator who has 12 friends who will stick with him/her, can run the show. The majority control the “leadership structure” (President, Vice President, Majority Leader etc), they control all committees, the budget, and the entire legislative agenda. A majority of 13 can pass any policy agenda they choose, so when someone points to a committee chair, or “leadership” as to why something fails to pass, it is the majority that is responsible and not the individuals. The majority allows these singular seemingly all powerful individuals (committee chairs and members of leadership) to pass or kill bills, and thus the majority is responsible. You must count your votes and keep counting until you have a majority of members in both bodies, who are on record publicly in support of your issue. Yes, you must also court the powerful Chair and “Leadership,” but they will ultimately follow if a majority of members want to pass or kill something.

A small but very big piece of the numbers game that might make your head spin:

If 13 is the magic and most powerful number in the Senate, what is the most important number contained within that 13? No, the answer is not seven. The answer is one. For if any one member of the majority of 13 decides to leave that majority, the entire power structure collapses. This is why sometimes certain members appear to hold inordinate power and influence, even though they may not Chair a “big committee” or be part of top leadership. For without them, all others who retain their power and influence via being part of the majority, risk losing it all. The 13 must stick together. Of course in the 51 member House, 26 is the magic number but the same concepts apply.

Truth 5: The legislature makes the rules. One of the most frustrating situations that often confront an advocate seeking to pass into law some public policy initiative, is when they are told, “Sorry, you missed the deadline.” ALL the rules that govern the process of passing bills into law can be amended or “waived” at any time if “leadership” (Senate President and/or House Speaker) want to do so. The rules and deadlines are changed on a regular basis and often with very little or no notice at all.

Truth 6: When they tell you there is no money, what they are really saying is that it’s not a priority. The legislature will find the money needed for the things, the majority wants to fund. Think rail. The 2017 legislature called a special session and raised taxes to fund the rail system. With regards to education, they play “whack the mole, pass the buck and kick the can down the road.”

Truth 7: The most important person to any legislator is the person who can help them get elected. Translation: If you live in the legislators district and if you are active in politics and campaigns, you have more influence than almost anyone else (see Truth 1 and Truth 2.) The legislator needs and wants your vote, and he/she definitely does not need or want your opposition whether it be you running for office against him/her or you helping someone do the same. Unfortunately most people don’t even take the time to know who their district Senator or Representative is. So, this last truth is perhaps the most important one, and the place anyone who aspires to effect the public policy process should start.

Please. Get to know your Senator and Representative and Councilmembers, for that matter. Call them up. Send them email. Meet with them and share your concerns and hopes for the future of your community. This is where it all starts.


Gary Hooser formerly served in the Hawaii 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.

  1. RG DeSoto December 19, 2018 8:59 am Reply

    No matter what, nothing will change. No wonder voting rates are at dismal levels.
    RG DeSoto

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