For years, I’ve thought the Minnesota Legislature could get its business done much more efficiently by adopting something like the National Basketball Association’s 24-second shot clock.
A legislator would get two dozen seconds to make a point on the floor of the House or Senate. At the end of that period, whether the lawmaker is finished or not, a buzzer would go off and the speaker would be forced go silent.
“I’d like to add a friendly amendment,’’ said Sen. Branden Petersen, R-Andover. “A trap door.’’
All of which is to say that as the 2015 edition of the Minnesota Legislature careens toward its conclusion, there will be lots and lots (and lots) of talking, especially on the floors of the House and the Senate.
The question, as always, is whether anybody will be listening. And, more important, does it even matter: Do the debates at the Capitol ever cause anyone to shift positions?
The short answer: Sometimes. But rarely.
How to win friends and (maybe) influence people
It helps, say those in the know, to understand that the most basic keys to being a successful legislative debater are pretty much the same as the keys to being a successful employee, party guest or human being: 1. Don’t talk too much and 2. Know what you’re talking about on the occasions when you do speak.
There are a handful of other characteristics among the most effective debaters, as well. The first is to know your place in the pecking order. The more power you have as a legislator, the less you need to speak. Rhetoric may play well at the local party rally back home, but it draws yawns on the Senate and House floors. Concision is a virtue.
Or as Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville, reminds us: “Brevity is the soul of wit.”
With that in mind, let’s move quickly through the highlights of my dive into legislative debating:
- Everybody misses state Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia. He was knowledgeable, entertaining, combative and hilarious. Those who come closest to filling Rukavina’s shoes? Reps. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, and Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington.
- There are some legislators who tend to leave their fellow members cringing. For example, when Sen. Sean Nienow, R-Cambridge, gets up to talk about government’s irresponsible spending, which is often, there’s a lot of discomfort in the chamber, given that Nienow once reneged on a $613,000 loan from the U.S. Small Business Administration and a few months ago was relieved of $840,000 debt via Chapter 7 bankruptcy.
- Powerful debate speeches in the House or Senate can and do have impact off the floor. The most recent example came in 2011, when John Kriesel, a rookie Republican state representative from Cottage Grove who lost both his legs in combat in Iraq, gave one of the most powerful speeches in recent memory. At the time, the Republican majorities in both the House and Senate were moving an amendment to put a referendum on the ballot to prohibit same-sex marriage. Kreisel’s speech against the measure didn’t stop the GOP from moving the amendment to the ballot, but it received huge YouTube play and likely helped sway the minds of Minnesotans, who voted down the amendment in 2012.
- Sometimes, lawmakers do change their minds. Sen. Dan Hall, R-Burnsville, for instance, is typically a hard-line conservative vote on all issues. But this year, he did a 180-degree turn on the issue of restoring voting rights to felons after they’re released from prison. Once opposed to the idea, Hall changed his mind after having conversations with people outside the Capitol. Hall spoke briefly on the floor of the Senate about his support, and though the measure did pass in the Senate, it has gone without being heard in the House.
Even predictable debates have a purpose
But changing positions, at least in the short term, is rare — and almost nonexistent on such major bills as the tax bill. So why, if the outcome is clear, are there the long, predictable debates at all?
“Minds are rarely changed,” said Thompson, “but the public deserves to know that there are differences in approach.”
Before Monday’s Senate debate began on the tax bill, for example, Sen. Rod Skoe, chairman of the tax committee, knew the DFL would prevail on his committee’s proposal. He also knew that before the vote was taken, there would be considerable time spent on the debate. Skoe was nonplussed about what was about to unfold.
“People have to show their constituents they’re standing up for what they’d campaigned on,’’ said Skoe. So, the debate was held, the vote was taken, the DFL prevailed. Now a House-Senate conference committee will somehow have to find areas of compromise between two drastically different tax bills.
Former Rep. Jim Abeler, a Republican from Anoka, also says that debate plays an important role in reaching resolution.
“Both sides have one more chance to firmly state their positions,’’ Abeler said. “In this session, you have the governor standing ‘firm’ on his position on childhood education. He repeats that position. And you have the House firm on its resolve on taxes. So everyone has had their chance to state their firm positions. The big trick is to bring people with these firm positions to a soft landing.’’
Much of that work is done in closed door caucus settings, where leaders must start bringing people to the middle — to forget what was said on the campaign trail or what was said in the midst of a debate on the floor. “In the end, in the caucus session, you have people saying, ‘Well, I can’t accept this, but I can accept this,’’’ said Abeler.
It’s on more technical policy issues where floor debate matters most, according to several legislators. Minds can be changed. But it’s not usually because of stirring rhetoric. It’s because of expertise.
That’s largely because of the committee system. For instance, Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, and Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-St. James, have advanced legislation out of the Senate and House environment committees that mirrors Gov. Mark Dayton’s desire to require — and enforce — 50-foot buffer strips around the state’s lakes, rivers and streams. This is an issue that requires understanding of complex stuff about everything from runoff to community water supplies. In committee, legislators have a chance to hear from experts. It’s up to committee members to carry that expertise to the floor.
“There’s some ranting about ‘big government,’ ’’ said Marty, “but this is the sort of issue where people want information. It’s the sort of issue where people are going to change their minds over time because it’s just not going to go away.’’
If minds aren’t changed on the entire 50-foot buffer strip this session, Marty is convinced that more knowledge and the desire for clean water will change minds in the near future. In other words, today’s debate is often just the first step in changing hearts and minds.
Rep. Lyndon Carlson, DFL-Crystal, who is in his 43rd year of listening to debates, says that a few decades ago, it seemed as if there was less of the political grandstanding than there is now. Though he admits he’s biased, he says he believes it’s the far right that has changed the tone of some debates. “They (new-era conservatives) don’t see a role for government in solving problems.”
Yet, he says, the Legislature is sometimes able to get information and move quickly. This year’s example: adding millions to the agriculture budget in response to the avian flu crisis. This issue didn’t involve debate so much as it involved questions and answers, which led to overwhelming bi-partisan support of supplementing the budget.
There are differences between good debaters and interesting speakers. Skoe, a Clearbrook farmer by trade, recalls advice he received when he arrived in St. Paul as a rookie state rep in 1999. He was greeted by longtime Rep. Henry Kalis, a farmer and a conservative DFLer from Walters.
“When you get up to speak,’’ Kalis told Skoe, “You want people to listen. So make sure you have something to say.’’
Petersen, who as a libertarian doesn’t always follow GOP orthodoxy, makes a similar point. “If I hear six other people say pretty much what I was going to say, I try not to be the seventh person to say it.’’