Congratulations to the incoming Senators and Delegates for the 2015 legislative session. Enjoy the pomp and circumstance of today because tomorrow the real hard work should begin. I have a few suggestions for a successful session.
1. Pick up a pocket constitution and actually read it at least once a week. It is the only thing you take an oath to follow and defend so you should know what it says.
Most of your fellow legislators will never have done so, nor will they, so this will put you at an immediate and permanent advantage.
2. Learn the rules of the legislature, the House has rules, the Senate has rules and there are Mason’s rules which cover the Parliamentary procedure. You can not win an argument or floor strategy without knowing the rules of the game. The game is fixed (the Parliamentarian is a member of the majority party) and you will lose, even when the rules are on your side, because the House (Leadership) always wins. Never the less, you need to know the rules to be as effective as possible.
3. Learn to count. There are different percentages required for different votes and parliamentary actions. Various committees operate differently. If you know the rules you can participate, if you do not know the numbers necessary to achieve a goal, passing something or defeating something you are much less effective.
4. Make your word count. If you give your word, stand by it, if things change which require you to change, (a bill that said do A is amended to do B and you can no longer support it) then go to those you gave your word and explain why you are no longer on board. It is not worth playing politics with your credibility and good name. Once you lose either, they are irretrievably gone.
5. Look for ways to keep your promises to your constituents not for ways to rationalize around them. You will be threatened and bribed, including by your own party, to make an exception to those promises. Once you give in, then there is no turning back, leadership will now know you can be pressured or bribed, it is just a matter of enough pressure or high enough price. What most never realize is that no matter how angry leadership gets at you, no matter how much pressure is put on you, it is fleeting, because in mins, hours or days your vote will be needed again on another important matter.
6.Don’t bloviate. If you rise to speak, do it with passion and purpose. Those who get up to speak to hear themselves speak quickly become a signal to those used to hearing you speak that it is time to take a bathroom break or to stretch their legs.
You want your audience to be silent, cheering or booing. Yes, booing is good, it means they are listening. If everything has been said, everyone does not need to have said it. So don’t be afraid to speak. Pressing the correct button to vote is not enough, passionate debate is important, just choose when to participate and people will be more inclined to listen.
7. Be honest with the press. If you don’t want to talk about a subject don’t go on camera or do an interview and try to be politically correct where you avoid being honest. I would occasionally tell the reporters, I don’t have strong feelings on that subject but delegate so and so does so you may want to speak to them. The reporter gets a better story and most appreciate your honesty. The less you say, when answering the question is usually better. A five minute interview usually ends up being 30 seconds or less on air or one or two catch phrases printed. So, those issues I am more intimately involved in I try to have something ready to say about if a reporter asks for a comment.
8.Remember the power of No. No is an answer. It is not the answer most want to hear but it is an answer. Don’t forget that you can say, No. You will be asked to do things you do not want to do or which you do not believe in and you need to feel comfortable saying No. There is much to do and time spent working on things halfheartedly because you were afraid to say No, is time away from those important matters you should be working on.
9. Enjoy the experience. You can develop some great friendships serving in the legislature. It might be with fellow legislators, advocates, staff, or the press. Some of my closest friends became those who are from across the isle. You may not agree politically on 99% of things but get along fine otherwise. Sometimes, you find that the 1% you do agree on politically leads to a bill that you can co-sponsor successfully. Five of the ten bills I passed last session, all of which were significant bills affecting all Marylanders, were bipartisan co-sponsored bills which may not have been possible had we not taken the time to get to know one another.
10. Respect the Institution and its history. Take in your surroundings and remember that many great men and woman preceded you in this place of honor. Those who came before you made decisions within those same marbled walls that changed the course of history. You now are a part of that history. Conduct yourself in such a way as to respect the institution.