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THE ONLOOKER: The Legislature's rules empower us all

The Legislature has been grinding away for three weeks now, processing proposed legislation and considering proposed budgets. It's not all work, though. There's a reception pretty much every night. Some with dinner. Most with drinks. And once in ...

The Legislature has been grinding away for three weeks now, processing proposed legislation and considering proposed budgets.

It's not all work, though.

There's a reception pretty much every night. Some with dinner. Most with drinks.

And once in awhile, there's a ceremony.

One of these occurred early in the session, when lawmakers took time to toast and roast John Andrist, one of their own - and one of ours as newspaper people.

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Andrist published the Divide County Journal in Crosby, N.D., a paper begun by his father and continued by his son, as good an example of family business and a community based business as could ever be imagined.

Andrist left the Senate in December. His health, he said, made it impossible for him to continue as a legislator.

Andrist continues as a newspaperman, though. His column appears in a number of weekly newspapers, mostly in the northwestern part of the state, not so far from his hometown of Crosby.

I read it in the Mountrail County Promoter, which is published at Stanley, N.D. That makes the Promoter my hometown newspaper, even though I left Stanley almost 50 years ago.

Last week, Andrist sounded one of my favorite themes:

Dumb bills.

His take on the subject is important, because it comes from the far side of the railing - the working side, so to speak.

There, the tide of legislation means more work. On the near side of the railing, where we of the press position ourselves, it looks like more foolishness.

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All of that gives Andrist's perspective the authority of experience.

North Dakota's Legislature operates by its own set of rules, and the rules allow any legislator to introduce any bill he or she cares to.

That's not all.

The rules require a hearing on the bill before one or another committee of the Legislature.

And that's still not all.

Every bill must have a straight up-or-down vote on the floor of the chamber where it was introduced. Bills sponsored by senators must be dispatched, one way or the other, by the Senate. Likewise for bills introduced by House members.

No bill can be pigeonholed. Every single one must be addressed.

These rules are unique in the nation, a part of North Dakota's traditions of transparency and responsibility in government.

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These rules explain why the opening weeks of every legislative session seem to be a kind of bazaar of bizarre ideas.

Any legislator may use these opening days to bring forward any item of interest to himself, herself or any constituent.

Andrist's example was a bill that would have extended the moratorium on a new nickname for UND's athletic teams. The bill got a hearing in a committee, which voted 9-2 to recommend that the bill "do not pass" - be voted down, die and be forgotten, in other words.

The House did just that, killing the bill by a margin approaching three-to-one.

UND's President Robert Kelley told the committee that the bill was "not helpful" and that UND needs "to move on."

The second of these assertions is more accurate than the first. UND needs to move on.

The bill was helpful, though. It showed that the Legislature doesn't have any desire to interfere in this long-running controversy yet again, thus freeing the university to do what needs doing.

Of course, not all of the "dumb bills" turn out quite so well. Some dumb bills become law.

The state's history is replete with examples.

It wouldn't be hard to compile a list of dumb bills making their way through the current session. Some of them might become law - as happened last session, when the Legislature was taken hostage by the "personhood lobby." Voters put an end to that, rejecting the personhood amendment and turning out its chief sponsors.

In other words, the system worked.

This is the miracle of representative government in its North Dakota manifestation.

I find it awe-inspiring every time I encounter it.

The Legislature is a kind of collective intelligence working out a collective will. No individual ever accepts all of it. Some individuals feel alienated from it.

But it works.

Here's how Andrist put it in last week's column:

North Dakota "sets a great example for the other 49 states. Our unique rules ultimately empower your individual legislative members, and therefore also empower you.

"So it's your fault. See there!"

Related Topics: MIKE JACOBSMIKE JACOBS
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