Lloyd Omdahl, Published November 22 2010
Omdahl: Election changes minimalEven though the state’s voters gave Republicans a significant addition to their legislative majorities, the election will have little impact on the workings of the 2011 session.
Republicans gained nine seats in the Senate and 11 in the House, building their majorities to over two-thirds in both houses. Without regard to three recounts still in progress, Democrats have been reduced to 12 senators and 25 representatives.
If it is any consolation, the Democrats have seen worse years. In the legislative sessions of 1957, 1967, 1969, 1973 and 1984, Democrats had fewer Senate seats than they will have in the upcoming session. In 1957, 1967 and 1969, they had fewer representatives. So the 2010 losses aren’t really unprecedented.
The truth is that the Republicans didn’t need to gain any seats to have their way in state policy decisions. Consequently, the election will have minimal impact on the direction the state will be marching in the next biennium. Republicans had all the horses they needed before the election.
A more important reason that the new political arrangement will not impact the Legislature is because partisan politics are not critical to the legislative process. Political parties organize the Legislature, manage the flow of bills and generate some competitive dialogue, but the heart of the entire process is the nonpartisanship that is imbedded in our political culture.
The proof of nonpartisanship in the Legislature can be found in the voting records. Less than 20 percent of the bills find a majority of Republicans voting against a majority of Democrats. In partisan states, such as New Jersey, some 75 percent of the bills would be partisan.
This nonpartisan tradition means that ideas will be entertained more on their worth than on their political sponsorship. Consequently, Democrats would be heard even if their numbers had been reduced to two floor leaders. Nonpartisanship prevails regardless of elections.
Undergirding this nonpartisanship is another virtue of the North Dakota political culture – recognition of the inherent dignity and equality of all people. Everyone is important enough to be heard, in and out of the Legislature – even Democrats, regardless of numbers. Committee chairs let all folks testify, even when they have nothing to say and take forever to say it. Respect for equality continues regardless of elections.
When it comes to policy, the state’s political culture predetermines almost all actions of the Legislature. Because the state’s culture is conservative, its parties and policies are conservative. We have two political parties – conservative and less conservative – and they both come up conservative. Conservatism marches on without regard to elections. That’s called representative government.
Within the parameters of this conservatism, legislative policy will be made, meaning that there will be no dramatic conservative-shattering legislation in the 2011 session. The creation of the Bank of North Dakota and the State Mill was our one abandonment of conservatism, and that aberration was forced on us by chronic exploitation of Minneapolis interests. Though we continue to love our Bank and Mill, we won’t ever do that again.
So if you are a serious Legislature watcher, don’t be shocked if you are not shocked by the 2011 session. The past will continue into the future.
Omdahl is a former North Dakota lieutenant governor and retired University of North Dakota political science teacher. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.