May 30, 2016
Other Voices

Gov’t process ain’t sexy — but it matters

Daniel J. Klau

Watching the Democratic and Republican presidential primary season unfold has confirmed for me an important, although admittedly obvious, truth: When it comes to our politics, we tend to focus as a society primarily on the personalities of the people running for office and secondarily on the policies they espouse. A distant third on the list, if it is on the list at all, is the process of governance.

By process I mean the structure and design of our government institutions, the formal rules and informal conventions and customs that govern the manner in which individuals are elected and how government operates, including the rules for enacting and implementing legislation.

Public dissatisfaction with government, both federal and state, is at all-time highs. Consistent with the primary focus on personalities, many voters believe that the problem with government lies essentially with the people we elect to represent us. From this perspective, the way to improve government is fairly simple, at least in theory: Throw the bums out and elect better people.

This focus on personalities over process is understandable. Debating the qualifications of candidates and the merits of their policy proposals is interesting, even fascinating. By contrast, process just ain't very sexy. Yet, as an ingredient of good government, the rules that govern the decision-making process are every bit as important as personalities and policies. All three "P's" — people, policy and process — matter.

Moreover, we ignore the rules concerning decision-making processes at our peril. Good decision-making processes do not guarantee good policy outcomes, but bad processes surely do, no matter the quality of the persons we elect, appoint and hire to run the government. If we put "better" people into a dysfunctional system of governance, there is no reason to expect any meaningful improvement in government's ability to address the difficult problems we face as a society.

I think our systems of governance, particularly at the federal and state level, while not necessarily dysfunctional, are in serious need of repair. Let me offer a few examples of problems at the state level in Connecticut.

First, the process of developing and enacting the state budget is deeply flawed. The biennial budget is perhaps the single most important piece of legislation the General Assembly passes during the regular session, yet it is put together in the dark by a small group of people in legislative leadership and from the governor's office. It is then shared with rank-and-file legislators, who have no meaningful opportunity to review and debate it before casting their yea or nea votes.

That is no way to craft a $20 billion budget. In these trying economic times, the budget process needs to be reformed just as much as the budget itself.

Second, rules of the state Senate and the House provide too many ways for legislators to avoid public hearings and debate on important legislation. One rule in particular, known as emergency certification or "e-cert," is oft abused. E-cert authorizes the speaker of the House and president pro tempore of the Senate to jointly propose a bill and send it directly to the House or Senate floor for action without any committee referrals or public hearings.

Third, the General Assembly should amend its rules to limit, if not prohibit, the appearance of "rats" in the end-of-session implementer bill. The implementer bill is a very large document, often many hundreds of pages in length, which is supposed to implement the budget — and only the budget.

A rat is legislation intended to benefit a special interest, which one or more legislators sneak into a larger piece of legislation, like the implementer bill, with the hope of avoiding public scrutiny and debate. The persistent introduction of rats into large bills serves only to undermine public confidence in the integrity of legislators and government in general.

Fourth, it is elemental in a representative democracy that proposed legislation becomes law only if a majority of both houses of the General Assembly pass the legislation and the governor signs it.

In Connecticut, however, collective-bargaining contracts become law if the General Assembly does not vote to reject them within 30 days after they are presented to legislators; absent a legislative vote to reject, the contracts are "deemed approved." Gov. Malloy has recently argued for the abolition of the deemed approved system. He wants legislators to vote, on the record, to approve or reject union contracts.

These are just a few examples of flaws in the process that our government employs when it makes decisions, particularly in the legislative arena. The rules that govern the decision-making process matter as much to the effectiveness of our government as the quality of our elected officials and the policies they propose.

We should press our elected representatives to adopt rules that are consistent with good governance. Rules that increase transparency, accountability, participation and ethical decision-making will, on balance, produce better policy outcomes and improve the confidence of citizens in their government.

Daniel J. Klau is a Hartford attorney and the author of CT Good Governance (www.ctgoodgov.com).

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