THE KEY TO understanding how the Legislature works is volume. Hundreds of bills and thousands of amendments are introduced every session. Some are extremely simple; some are maddeningly complex, proposing changes to dozens of laws, each complicated in itself. Some are straightforward; some are written with the goal of obscuring their effect. Some are a single sentence; some go on for hundreds of pages.
There’s no way a legislator can read every word of every bill introduced, and probably not even of every bill that advances to the full House or Senate — much less do the legal research necessary to understand the effect some of those bills would have. Although attorneys assigned to each committee are supposed to be able to answer questions about the bills, it’s often hard even to know what questions need to be asked.
So legislators have to rely on each other to be honest about what the bills do and say. They have to trust that their colleagues will warn them if something buried in the details of a bill conflicts with their values.
This was my first thought when Wes Climer asked me what it takes to be an effective senator.
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Well maybe not first. First was how ironic it was to hear such an inquiry from the man who had just defeated one of our most effective — and best — state senators. But I stifled the impulse to say, “You should ask Wes Hayes,” because it was also encouraging: It suggested that the new Rock Hill Republican wants to be effective — and recognizes that this takes work.
It’s something I wish more new legislators recognized. For that matter, it’s something I wish more voters recognized, and accepted, because while the idiosyncrasies of the South Carolina Senate certainly come into play, being an effective senator requires pretty much the same skills and mindset that most of us accept as necessary in our personal and professional lives:
1. Make friends. Get to know the other senators as individuals, without regard to political party or geography or race or any other characteristic. Find some bill you can work on together with every one of them. That’s easier than it sounds; the overwhelming majority of bills pass unanimously.
2. Be honest and dependable. If you tell another senator your bill does X, make sure it does X. And don’t leave out the fact that it also does Y. If you promise to vote for a bill, vote for it, unless something changes that makes that impossible. If that happens, own up to it immediately.
3. Become a trusted authority on at least one complicated topic — not one hot-button political issue; one important topic. Wes Hayes is one of many great role models on this. He became Mr. Ethics: He understood our ethics law and was committed to strengthening it and knew what the courts would and wouldn’t allow. If he said a reform was needed, you could take it to the bank; if he said the language wouldn’t accomplish what you wanted, you could take that to the bank.
4. Do your homework. Nobody can be an expert on every issue, but every one can look through the bills on the agenda, ask questions before the debate and then, if more information is needed, ask informed questions during the debate. You’d be amazed at how many legislators don’t bother to do this.
5. Play well with others. Be willing to negotiate and to accept partial victories. It’s fine to have some non-negotiable positions, but pick and choose. Nearly all matters should be subject to negotiation. Remember (and urge your constituents to remember) that the other 45 senators represent just as many South Carolinians as you do; the fact that you disagree with their position doesn’t make their position illegitimate. If you’re in the majority, work to improve the current law — even if the result is far from perfection. If you’re in the minority, work to mitigate what you see as the damage a new law will have.
6. Don’t play gotcha with our government. Don’t introduce bills you know can’t pass just so you can force other legislators to cast an uncomfortable vote. Don’t keep trying to attach the same amendment to bill after bill after bill after your colleagues make it clear they’re not going to vote for it.
7. Play by the rules — and then work within those rules to change the rules, or the agenda. The Senate runs on seniority. If voters remain angry, you’ll move up quickly. Even if that doesn’t happen, you still can have an outsized voice if you become a dependable expert on important issues.
After I wrote the other week about a few of the many important reforms that Sen. Larry Martin had been instrumental in passing, I got a note from the just-defeated Judiciary Committee chairman with an explanation I had not sought. When he was a junior senator, he said, “the Senate leadership usually sat on what most of us viewed as positive change.” He vowed then that if he ever got in a position to do so, he would act differently. And he did.
Others can as well.
Ms. Scoppe can be reached