The Art of the Legislative Deal

The Art of the Legislative Deal

As most anyone watching national politics can see without reading the polls, there are a lot of angry folks living in these United States.

Anger is a powerful, useful and dangerous emotion. If one can channel one’s anger into a particular physical act, one may be able to generate more force than one might in a more placid moment. And if one can channel other people’s anger toward some particular target, one might become a force that intimidates or overwhelms one’s opponents.

But if we are honest, we must recognize that anger ultimately cannot build anything. Anger lacks the detachment, the cool analysis necessary for sound construction. Anger can be the fuel of action, but it cannot provide the steady warmth for contemplation. As such, it a potent weapon in the personal and societal arsenal . . . but it cannot be the only one.

One place that anger fails us badly is in the legislative process.

Whatever one’s view of the best policy paths for our state with regard to tax cuts, health care, job creation, education and environmental preservation, I don’t think many observers would describe last year’s regular legislative session as a success. The necessity of a special session simply to pass the budget was costly and embarrassing for Florida’s one-party state government. Subsequent failures to adopt district maps for the state Senate and the U.S. House compounded the embarrassment.

That our legislative leaders drew the same conclusion seems evident from the fast-off-the-blocks start to the legislative session in January of this year. In a pretty explicit gesture of mutual good will and reconciliation, each chamber took up a legislative priority of the other chamber’s leadership and passed it, sending two major (and not uncontroversial) pieces of legislation to the governor’s desk almost before the echoes of the gavels heralding the opening of the session had faded.

It is worth noting the kind of leadership this move required. The Senate president and the House speaker did not, it seems clear, have a meeting of the policy minds that was without tension. Yet each allowed the other to have his way on some important points. Rather than digging in and forcing a battle, they yielded to each other on some things in order to secure, not only their own preferred legislative outcome on another policy matter, but a larger message of comity after a season of angry finger-pointing that had damaged their reputations and that of their political party.

The question now, with the calendar pages flying inexorably toward March 11, is whether what was well-begun will be all done in time.

The toughest and most essential part of the legislative process is the task of budgeting, of deciding how much to spend on what and where that money will come from. It’s the toughest because a dollar taxed is a dollar transferred from some interested party’s pocket to the government, and a dollar appropriated is a dollar spent to deliver a service to meet some interested party’s need or want, and not that of some other interested party.

Policy can be full of nice ideas and grand visions; budgets impose actual burdens on people with limited assets and spend limited dollars to deliver a finite amount of certain services.

It’s easy to get angry as the hard budget choices are made. But without a budget, there won’t be any services delivered at all.

Crafting a budget deal is an art, not a game for bullies. At the end of the day, even if a chamber’s leader can coerce the rank and file of the party into grudging submission, it’s awfully difficult to exert that kind of dominance across the Capitol Rotunda . . . or into the Governor’s Office.

It isn’t a game of chicken, either. We’ve seen what happens when legislative leaders play chicken with the fiscal fate of our state . . . and our nation. It’s a costly wreck.

It isn’t a game for purists . . . because the political coalitions that must be formed are simply not ideologically pure.

The art of the budget deal can be about building consensus around big ideas. But it also, as a practical matter, will be about compromise. One must compromise the purity of a policy vision to secure a senator’s vote.  One must assign a hundred thousand dollars to a project that otherwise wouldn’t qualify for program funding to remove a representative’s opposition. It’s coalition-building at a micro-cosmic level with macro-cosmic implications.

Last year, our state’s elected leaders showed us what can happen when they forget these fundamental facts of the art of legislative deal making. Let’s hope they have learned the lesson well.