It says much about the degree of dissatisfaction with the partisanship that infuses modern American government that a state House committee last week took up a bill that would end party designation in the Legislature.
Just as noteworthy: The bill’s sponsor is not a starry-eyed rookie. He’s eight-term Republican Rep. Jim Knoblach of St. Cloud, chair of the House Ways and Means Committee.
The bill may not advance beyond the House Government Operations and Elections Policy Committee in this year’s short legislative session. It was set aside “for possible inclusion” in a larger measure, with committee chair Rep. Tim O’Driscoll, R-Sartell, making no promises.
We’re rooting for more discussion of Knoblach’s idea. It’s not a new one. The Legislature operated without party designation from 1911 until 1973. Through many of those years, caucuses named Liberal and Conservative were de facto DFL and Republican, respectively — but it’s not a given that a newly nonpartisan Legislature would again organize itself in that way.
Knoblach touts a number of ways in which losing party labels would lead to better lawmaking. Legislators would be freer to represent their districts rather than their parties or the parties’ special-interest patrons, he said. Candidates for the Legislature would no longer be nominated in partisan primaries, but in a nonpartisan primary open to the entire electorate. Two candidates would advance to the general-election ballot in every district in which two or more candidates file for the office. That would bring the benefits of competition to more districts. “Safe seats” could largely disappear.
To be sure, dropping party labels also would have downsides. Among them: A shorthand cue to voters about the governing philosophies of their candidates would be lost. Legislators’ ties to Congress and the White House would be less evident and perhaps less fruitful for Minnesota.
A public weighing of those pluses and minuses — perhaps for the first time in 45 years — seems worthwhile. Minnesotans’ frustration with today’s pervasive partisanship is real and growing. Now, while some of the Minnesotans who served in the pre-1973 Legislature are still available, would be a fine time to ask them about lawmaking without party labels.