4 Lessons On Legislating In Kansas And Missouri From Two New State Lawmakers
They may have each spent only a single session in their respective statehouses, but Kansas Rep. Rui Xu and Missouri Rep. Matt Sain have already learned some important lessons about how state government works, why it sometimes doesn't, and what their responsibilities are to the people back home.
Those lessons are colored by the fact that both lawmakers are in the minority party (Sain is in the superminority), but they're still worth paying attention to. Politics is cyclical, after all, and today's legislative rules will affect the way future politicians do their jobs.
Power in the House is concentrated
"It's really frustrating," says Sain. "I'm making a joke but it's true: We're kind of an elected dictatorship, where two people hold all the power and if they don't want your stuff to get done, they're not going to get it done for you."
In Missouri, those people are Majority Floor Leader Rep. Rob Vescovo and the Speaker of the House, Rep. Elijah Haahr, both Republicans.
In Kansas, Xu says, there's a strong speaker and a strong committee chairperson. The House there, and its 29 standing committees, are currently all led by Republicans.
"Whatever the speaker wants, (that's) what gets done," Xu says. "Whatever the chair in the committee wants is what gets done."
Because the chambers make their own rules, legislators could vote to change them. But the party in power — Democrat or Republican — wants to remain in power, so things tend to stay the same.
Xu says Nebraka's legislature, which has a single chamber and is officially nonpartisan, could be something to emulate.
"They do an interesting thing where every single bill that gets introduced is guaranteed a hearing" he says, and "the committee votes on their own chair," which can help ease partisan bickering.
Learn the rules and exploit them (for good)
Just because you're a minority member doesn't mean your constituents will excuse a lousy performance at the statehouse.
"There's 37,000 people in my district, and they voted for me to go down there and be their voice," says Sain. "(That) makes us try and figure out where can we get things done."
One way of doing it in Kansas is called a "gut-and-go." It's when the language of a bill is deleted and replaced with something that often has nothing to do with the original. The process has been criticized by political observers and members of the House.
"It's not my ideal way of doing it, but when the power is funneled like that, that's the only option that we have to get really good policy passed," Xu says.
The example he cites is a Medicaid expansion bill that passed in the Kansas House of Representatives but not the Senate.
"We decided to use that as a tool to get healthcare access to 150,000 more Kansans," Xu says.
Gut-and-go is illegal in Missouri, but lawmakers there have found a different workaround: They change the title of a bill.
"So if you have a very specific narrow bill about, let's say, pencils," Sain says, "you could get an amendment to change the title from 'pencil' to 'judicial,' and then anything under the sun could come under that bill that relates to 'judicial.'"
Despite their differences, everyone is cordial (and even sometimes friendly)
"Even though we're fighting over controversial issues," says Sain, "most of us are actually pretty good friends."
That includes Rep. Andrew McDaniel, who made national headlines by introducing bills requiring all adults in the state to purchase a handgun and people ages 18-35 to buy an AR-15 rifle.
"He's a good guy," says Sain.
For the record, McDaniel has said his bills were only intended to prove a point about mandates.
Xu says things in Topeka are friendly, too, at least at the beginning of the session.
"Everything gets kind of weird once votes start taking place," he says.
Despite the weirdness, Xu says, "on probably 80% of the votes, I probably voted the same way as the Republicans. You know, it's really when it comes down to abortion and guns and all those issues, where it takes up most of the time and it gets all the headlines."
This job will always inspire awe
"Every single time I have to press a button to vote I still get the jitters a little bit, because somebody's life is going to change," says Xu. "It's a really big responsibility for me."
When you add for these freshmen lawmakers the scale and grandeur of a state capitol, you've got a pretty swell place to work.
"The building is so old, there's all these small, intricate little designs that you just pick up every single time you're there," Sain says of the Missouri statehouse. "Going out on the floor, even if you're kind of in a bad mood, you just go, 'Wow.'"
Xu, too, can't help but gush a little.
"The day that it doesn't inspire awe is the day that I probably need to quit," he says.