What would it take to achieve such a body?
In an ideal world, our state legislature ought to reflect a “citizen legislature,” where North Dakotans from all walks of life could run, get elected, and serve in the legislature. In doing so they could have a hand in enacting the laws that govern our state. Many of the current laws that dictate how the legislature functions are intended to preserve the idea of a citizen legislature.
For example, the North Dakota Constitution currently limits the legislature to regular sessions that do not exceed 80 official days every two years. North Dakota is one of only a very small number of states whose legislature does not convene every year. There are actually some good reasons for this.
First, this setup makes it impossible to be a full-time, career legislator. A legislator has to be able to support himself or herself for the other 20 months in that two-year cycle. This is commendable in many ways.
Second, many people make a strong argument that if the legislature would meet for a longer period, or for the same duration but every year instead of alternating years, that just gives them more opportunity to do more damage. In other words, the less governing, the better. I agree with certain aspects of that argument.
Third, legislators have to go home to their districts and live among the people they represent. No permanent hiding away down in Bismarck is allowed. The intent here assumes the citizens actually hold their legislators accountable, which these days is a lamentable state of affairs worthy of its own article.
Despite the good qualities built into our system, the problem with the current scenario is that, functionally speaking, entire segments of our population could never serve in the legislature, regardless of how good a legislator they would make. They simply cannot afford to leave their jobs at the beginning of every session and hope they will be there waiting for them when they get back after four months. This ends up limiting the sort of person who can realistically serve as a legislator.
What types of people do we often see serving? We see farmers, who are generally available from January through April (though, most famers are itching to be out in the fields in April if at all possible). We also see business owners, who either continue to make income off their businesses that other people run while they themselves are serving in the legislative sessions, or they have the ability to put their small business on hold and pick it up without too much trouble after session ends. We also see a lot of attorneys, many of whom have spots held in their practices for them while they serve. Finally, we see a significant number of retirees and people whose spouses are the primary source of income for their household.
Admittedly, at first glance one might consider this a pretty broad representation of our population. But just consider all the normal, everyday North Dakotans who work jobs. How many of them can expect to have their job held for them if they get elected? And what about people who rely on those jobs for health insurance for themselves and for their families? The current setup of the legislative sessions effectively prohibits an overwhelming number of North Dakotans from even considering running for legislative office.
What do I propose? Hold onto your hats, because most people who are probably still reading this will balk at my solution. But bear in mind I believe there are three necessary components to my proposal.
First, the legislature ought to be a full-time body. I can hear the outcry already. Paying people to serve as full-time, year-round legislators would be a massive cost increase from the current situation. I understand. That’s why there are two more components to my proposal.
Second, we must enact term limits. Even without full-time legislators, we still have produced an awful lot of career legislators in our state. Term limits would prevent career legislators, even if they served full-time for a number of years.
Lastly, we need to enact an overarching Constitutional principle that forces the legislature to reduce the number of active laws on the books and to limit spending. Thus, the legislature’s full-time job would be to truly examine and pare down our century code, making it more efficient, rather than more cumbersome and more confusing, and to limit the spending, preventing the massive budgetary increases we’ve seen especially over the last two decades.
There are undeniable problems with this proposal, but then again, the current situation has undeniable problems as well. Complex problems rarely have overly simplistic solutions.
Let’s think about the potential benefits of my proposal. If we paid legislators to do their legislative duty full-time while they held office, we wouldn’t constantly hear from our legislature that they just didn’t have time to consider issues because their Constitutionally limited session time was running out, or because they were itching to get back to their fields or their homes or their regular jobs. That exact issue reared its head during the recent special session this past November. It was more than obvious that most of the legislature intended to get out of there as quickly as they possibly could. And there’s no reason that they would have to be in session in Bismarck full-time, so legislators could still, at least much of the time, live in the districts they represent. They might even be expected to sit down with their constituents throughout the year every year, and not just when in session or trying to get re-elected.
With term limits in place, we would not be saddled with legislators who have consistently damaged our state and our livelihoods for 20, 30, or even 40 years straight. And combine the first two elements with a requirement to reduce the number of laws on the books and to constrain spending, that would inhibit the amount of damage that could be done by government overreach.
Will my proposal ever occur? Not likely. But this is what I believe it would take to truly achieve a citizen legislature in the Peace Garden State. And if the flavor of this proposal is too unpalatable, then the voters of North Dakota had better start truly holding their elected representatives accountable.