The Minnesota Legislature’s destructive failure in recent years to follow the single-subject mandate of the state Constitution is now so widely recognized that ending that procedural offense is a near-certainty in next year’s legislative session.
The governor elected this November, whether Jeff Johnson or Tim Walz, can — and likely will — turn off the multi-subject bill practice by announcing that any multi-subject bill that comes to his desk will be vetoed. That announcement will protect his veto power — and end the practice.
Or the legislative leadership will change its ways.
Come January, the single-subject mandate of the Constitution will be back in force, doing its good work.
We can now turn our attention to other procedural practices of recent sessions that have undermined effective legislative performance.
There are many, but at the top of my list of reforms is to have the Legislature reembrace the use of small, bipartisan subcommittees. For some reason, the old, classic practice of processing many bills through subcommittees has been largely abandoned. But using subcommittees improves legislative performance in multiple ways.
First, legislative productivity benefits more from a sound division of labor than from any other practice. And legislative labor is divided most effectively by using small subcommittees.
Second, a meeting of even a three-person subcommittee brings together lobbyists for both proponents and opponents of the bill under consideration. The subcommittee, by asking thoughtful questions, can put both sides to work to make the bill an effective response to whatever problem gave birth to the bill.
Third, there is no need to have 15 or 21 representatives or a dozen senators, sitting in full committees, to have most defects in a bill spotted. Even with only three subcommittee members, the defect is likely to be discovered. And, with the help of lobbyists, colleagues and staff, the subcommittee will find a way to fix the problem. Then, when the bill is presented to the full committee, no time will be expended by anyone to deal with that previously discovered and eliminated problem.
Fourth, a subcommittee hearing will reveal any inherent problem or serious controversy with the bill it is examining. The conclusion of the subcommittee may be that it cannot, in the short term, ready the bill for passage. Then the bill can be kept off the full committee schedule until the problem or controversy has been worked out, saving everyone significant time.
Finally (and most significantly), when sitting with only two or four colleagues, rather than with more than a dozen in a full standing committee, each legislator feels obligated to work hard. That is, to pitch in on the legislative task of examining and improving the bill being considered.
In the small group, even lazy legislators find it difficult to ignore their legislative responsibilities.
In the smaller group, legislators listen, think, speak up and become less shy or fearful of wasting time. Much wisdom comes from shy and insecure legislators when they are only one-third or one-fifth of those responsible for evaluating a bill.
This “sense of responsibility” that legislators always feel when serving on small subcommittees is also relevant to the relationship of majority and minority legislators. In a three- or five-person subcommittee, partisanship fades. The milieu becomes one of focus on the merits and demerits of the bill and of amendments proposed.
And suggestions of the minority caucus members regularly win the concurrence of one or more of the majority members. The subcommittee becomes a team, working together.
But that is not the end of it. When the bill comes to the full committee and to the House and Senate chambers, the nonpartisan attitudes continue. This is a priceless reward for the legislative institution and for every member of both majority and minority caucuses.
And for the public.
Jack Davies, of Minneapolis, is a former appellate judge and state senator. He consolidated the state’s two 1858 constitutions into the one that the voters ratified in 1974.