New Legislative Faces — and an Experience Deficit

Legislating isn’t easy. It’s not as hard as figuring out string theory or John Cage’s music, but it is complicated and it takes time to learn how to do it.

The 150 House members who will be assembling in January will include 43 new legislators and 24 sophomores who have only done this once before.

The new members aren’t stupid, and some are quite smart. But they are inexperienced, and that will become evident as they run into issues they prepared for during the campaigns — things like voter ID and women’s health and standardized testing in public schools — and issues they have never encountered, like the intricacies of tax exemptions and the state budget.

New members have new ideas, and many of them are elected by people who are tired of what has been happening in government and who want their new representatives to fundamentally change the way things are done.

It takes time. All a new member gets is a parking place, an office and a chair in the House. New members get a vote when things come up. They don’t have much to say about what comes up, when it comes up and what’s in it when it gets to the full Legislature. They don’t have the knowledge yet about which legislators are powerful, which ones are bullies, which ones are smart, which ones are honest and which ones are just decent human beings.

Some of that knowledge will come quickly. The legislative session lasts 20 weeks. Lawmakers can only vote on “emergency items” during the first 60 days of a session — bills designated by the governor as urgent or legislation that a supermajority of lawmakers deems worthy of immediate attention. Mostly, those first few weeks are used to build the relationships that get tested and sometimes torn apart in the session’s tense final weeks.

The new folks will figure out where the soft drinks are, who’s got the best coffee in the Capitol, a little about which lobbyists to hang out with and which ones to avoid.

It’s an old line, but a true one: This is like high school — with money. All of the characters from high school — the cool kids, the nerds, the bullies, the supermodels, the jocks and the aggies — are here, wearing nicer clothes.

It’s a rare high school freshman who becomes an important part of the machine, and it’s the rare freshman lawmaker who makes a substantive mark on government. There might be a future governor in the new class, or a felon, or a future governor and felon. But it’s not worth worrying about now — their skills, for good and for evil, aren’t yet apparent.

Some advance quickly. Back in 1965, Ben Barnes, Democrat of De Leon, became speaker at the beginning of his third term. Joe Straus, Republican of San Antonio, was elected speaker with a little less time on task; he took office in February 2005 after a special election and became speaker in January 2009.

Most never rise to that post, but while their names might not make it into the state history books, they do become proficient at lawmaking. And it’s the lawmakers who have been around for a while who are both burdened and enabled by the multitude of naïfs.

They will have to stop and explain almost everything, at least at first. New members haven’t formed all of their political alliances yet, which makes them prime targets for lobbyists and outside groups looking for relationships and connections that might be useful for the next decade or so; that’s as much of an opportunity for veteran lawmakers as for outsiders.

And the new folks will be looking for guidance, for some insight on which innocent-looking issues might jump up and bite them in a future election season, or which commitments made too early might come back to haunt them.

In high school, the juniors and seniors can make you or break you. It comes around. The next batch of tenderfeet will look to the upperclassmen for guidance. That’s where juniors and seniors get their clout, and it works the same way in the venerated halls of the Capitol.

They will be trying to make the changes they promised their voters during the elections. But give them time. First, they have to find their way around.

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