Legislative Liver

I spent ten years as a sausage maker at Farmland Foods in Denison, Iowa. I spent twenty-seven years as a lobbyist at the Iowa Capitol.

“Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made,” quipped Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898), the famous Prussian statesman and architect of German unification.

Alas, I do believe that von Bismarck may have been referring to liverwurst, sometimes known as Braunschweiger. I never ate it until I made it. Once I no longer made it, I quit eating it. But the process of making Braunschweiger was messy and an undesirable process to observe, but tolerable.

Watching legislation being made can be gut-wrenching. When I began lobbying in 1992, I was told that the occupation was not at all like the good old days. There was a time that lobbyists could sit on the benches in the back of the chamber. Not in 1992. We had to stay in the rotunda and send a note in to have the legislator come out of the chamber to talk to us. I didn’t seem to think it was so bad. Of course, it was almost an impossible feat for some lawmakers to make that trip from their desk to the rotunda. It was obvious that many didn’t want to talk to lobbyists.

At least legislators communicated with their constituents. They wrote letters back and forth to each other, and if you were lucky, they returned your calls. Then, email came along, and some legislators didn’t want to be bothered with letters anymore. A few went so far as to stop returning phone calls. You needed their cell phone number in order to contact them. Good luck on that effort. Many kept that information to themselves. But several lawmakers did post their cell numbers, and the ones that did were often in the minority and couldn’t do much about the legislation as it was. Because, you see, the majority party no longer thought amendments from the minority were worth considering.

Prior to my arrival in the Iowa Capitol, there was no such thing as an open subcommittee meeting. Beginning in the House, a few legislators began the practice of open subcommittee meetings in an effort to hear from lobbyists and the general public. I witnessed some very productive meetings during that time. But on the other hand, the outcome of some of those meetings was decided in the chamber before the meeting started. That was the old way of passing legislation out of a subcommittee – the subcommittee chair walked to the desk of at least one other subcommittee member in order to get two signatures on the approval form. You never knew what was coming up on the agenda in a committee meeting.

Now that agendas are sent out and posted online in advance you would think it to be an improvement. Not necessarily so. Prior to a committee meeting, Democrats and Republicans go to separate rooms to caucus and decide the outcome of the ‘open’ committee meeting.

At one time, legislators on a committee discussed a bill in committee. As time moved on, Republicans and Democrats caucused alone to determine whether a bill was thumbs up or thumbs down. There was no individualism, anymore. No surprise votes. As legislation proceeded to the floor, sitting through hours of debate could give you an upset stomach if you listened to a few bad speeches, some misinformation, and terrible grammar. What if a bill might be unconstitutional? “No problem, the other chamber will fix it.” Quipped a lawmaker. Often, the other chamber made it worse. “And don’t be bringing your fancy syntax, properly positioned prepositions or commas into the building. Leave them things for the media,” a stubborn old white male legislator might shout.

Media? Having media report on the business under the dome is like having a PETA[1] supporter obtaining information about an Iowa CAFO[2].

After several years of avoiding the toxic atmosphere at the Iowa Capitol, I returned this past week. The only good thing about returning was meeting a few of my favorite people, some lobbyists, and some legislators, as well as staff. The truly enjoyable part of returning was that I managed to get a parking place near the entrance. Before I return again, I would prefer to go back and make a batch of Braunschweiger.

[1] People for the ethical treatment of animals

[2] Concentrated animal feeding operation


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