Lloyd Omdahl, Published February 07 2011
Omdahl: ‘Folks at home’ is a ploy“This is what the people in my district favor” is a common claim made by legislators as they support and oppose measures in the legislative process. Much of the time, they don’t have a clue where their constituents stand on specific issues. We all think we have the majority view, whether we have substantiating information or not.
In a democratic society, it is important for politicians to pay homage to the will of the people. “The people in my district” is a sure defense because none of the other members of the assembly have any way of knowing whether the claim is true or not. The constituents don’t know, either. Consequently, the claim gives legislators license to do what they want, and they certainly do that.
When legislators return to their districts during the session, the Democratic legislators talk to the local Democrats and the Republican legislators talk to the local Republicans. They get partisan reinforcement and anecdotal information, but nothing like the consensus they claim on the floor.
The claim that legislators are only doing what the “folks back home” want has been made for a number of measures in the current legislative session. In fact, such claims in this session have been more exaggerated than in previous sessions.
On the basis of “support of the people back home,” some legislators have proposed to cast aside the state constitution, especially the provision for a Board of Higher Education insulated from legislative politics. They forget that it was politics in the 1930s that drove the people of the state to support separation of the board from political machinations.
At various points in time, the people of the state have voted on the provisions of the state constitution. It represents the consensus of the people. Yet, legislators feel they can disregard the people’s document and run rampant over the board. It looks more like vengeance than anything else.
“Whatever we do is considered constitutional unless overturned by the courts,” one legislator stated, reflecting a degree of arrogance. In other words, they are at liberty to push their authority as far as they want.
Then there is the proposal to take the tobacco settlement money and use it to beef up the University of North Dakota Medical School. Now, the medical school needs the money, but the use of the tobacco settlement for anti-tobacco education was approved by the people in an initiated measure in 2008. The people have spoken. North Dakota isn’t so poor that we have to rob Peter to pay Paul. Here again, it looks like vengeance.
Defending their subversion of the public will, some legislators have implied that the voters may not have known what they were voting on. Legislators would like to believe that to be true when it comes to all matters submitted to the people in the initiative and referral process, especially when these tools of direct democracy make decisions contrary to the wishes of the Legislature – such as forcing the use of the tobacco settlement money for an anti-smoking campaign.
On most bills, legislators have no system for measuring public opinion in their districts. Almost everything they get is random opinion. In this information vacuum, they make their own decisions, most of which are good. However, decisions smell of vengeance or arrogance when legislators defy the will of the people as clearly expressed in statewide elections. Elections should trump the claim of representing the folks back home.
Omdahl is a former North Dakota lieutenant governor and a retired University of North Dakota political science teacher. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.