You've heard the silly cliche about states as "laboratories of democracy" in the American federal system, and there is some truth to it. When a policy implemented in one state produces a positive result, other states imitate it. This assumes that state legislatures are innovative and more willing to try new things than Congress, which sounds pretty neat. Unfortunately, it turns out it's much easier to get elected to most state legislatures compared to Congress, which means a lot of state legislators are crazy people.

Legislative professionalism is a key concept in the study of state politics (see Squire 2007, "Measuring State Legislative Professionalism" SPPQ 7(2): 211-227 – warning: political science content) referring to the resources available to legislators. In some states, being in the legislature barely qualifies as a part time job and pays almost nothing (ex: Kansas) while others like California resemble the U.S. Congress in terms of salary, days in session, staff, and financial resources available.
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In low professionalism states, the people who serve are not necessarily the sharpest knives in the drawer.

Consider New Hampshire. The small, lightly populated state elects 400 members to its lower house and pays them $100 per year. If you move there, the odds are half-decent that you can serve in the legislature at some point. You might not know squat about government or politics, but don't worry. You'll find yourself in good company.

This is a partial explanation of why we see so many stories passed around the internet of some Republican state legislator saying something borderline insane and why we see so many truly idiotic things passed through state houses (recent favorites include the Alaska nullification bill and North Carolina's proposal to establish Christianity as the state religion). It is possible that these legislatures propose such bills to attract attention or to make an ideological statement. It is equally possible that they do it because they are composed of people who are dumber than a sack of doorknobs and/or mentally ill.

Not being an optimist by nature, it's hard for me to argue that this scenario produces a net positive in terms of "innovation". In South Dakota, the state house recently killed in committee a bill to criminalize texting while driving. Such bills have been passed with little opposition in other states, and experiments have shown that TWD is at least as dangerous, if not moreso, than intoxicated driving. Furthermore, the bans are a rare example of legislation that enjoys near-unanimous support among voters. You'd have better luck finding people who support legalizing drunk driving.

If such a bill died in committee in Congress, we would follow the trail of money to discover the cause. It would turn out that, in this example, big phone and internet companies hired armies of lobbyists and spent millions to turn members of Congress against it. But that doesn't explain what's happening in South Dakota. The bill died because the lower chamber (it passed in the state senate) is full of people who are too stupid to live, yet somehow judged bright enough to craft legislation. Why bribe or lobby people to support a repugnant issue position when you can simply sit back and let some yahoos convince themselves to support it for no reason other than their own bizarre worldviews.

States certainly are laboratories, but they're ones available to untrained, amateur, and potentially unstable scientists who usually produce the legislative equivalent of an exploding beaker.

36 thoughts on “BRIGHT ENOUGH”

  • The north-central mountain and plains states aren't as big on "driving safety" restrictions — a lot of their residents do a lot of their driving on long, lonely, straight stretches of road (and a lot of residents have multi-hour drives as a regular, daily thing). IIRC, it's legal to drink *while* driving in Montana.

  • Ah, being a car nut, I often used to check out "The Truth About Cars" website. Unfortunately it has ended up being more nut than car nut- that is according to its writers the drive while texting legislation is "fascism", most likely of the liberal kind. Just why is it that car guys (and it is mostly guys) are such a bunch of angry, white males? Is it a similar story with South Dakota?

  • Middle Seaman says:

    The crazy saturates the air in our country. It's not only marginal states with $52 salary per legislator. It's also with the GOP in general that still misses the warmth of the Spanish Inquisition. It's also most liberals who whenever Obama missdeeds are mentioned, constant supply of these, they blame Clinton for a worse crime. It's in Europe where modern economic medicine is blood letting. Crazy is the normal.

  • I'm down with the general point, but I wonder if that's what actually happened in South Dakota.

    The assheads who killed it were citing studies saying "the data about texting while driving is inconclusive"

    One of the reps cited in that article had 5% of his 2010 campaign donations come from a telecommunication industry group.

    I dunno. There's some smoke.

  • @ Middle Seaman: Too right, Bruddah! The First World is crazy-go-nutz! Future Shock has metastasized! Has someone spiked the reservoirs? WHEEE!!

  • Nobody seems to learn the lessons from the laboratory experiments. Here in Cheeseland we have gone from Midwest nice/pretty progressive to full on Teabagger and watched our economy drop to the worst in the country. Austerity, or at least Scott Wanker's version of it (cut public workers salaries while giving the tax breaks to the wealthy) has killed the state. But nobody has noticed That It's Not Working. All you see are presidential hopefully Walker's terribly ugly mug (and seriously, the guy seems incapable of taking a pic that doesn't make him look like a complete tool) at CPAC.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    The problem ain’t in our government(s), per se.

    The problem is the people who feel that they own the government(s) – and have the receipts to prove it.

    And lastly, what's not amazing to me, is that our politicians can be bought – it's how low a price they set for themselves.

    "Insane," is now this nation's default position.

  • How crappily most states pay was something I only recently learned.

    I'm not sure if it's idealism to the extreme that lead to this. Ie good, noble, wise citizens will see it as their moral duty as citizens to give back to the community their noble and wise governance. Which sort of makes sense in some idealist parallel universe sort of way.

    What boggles is that it's these states run by these randian free market idealists that run their legislatures this way. First rule is that if you want quality, you have to pay for it. But if your idea of a quality feed is Golden Corrale…

    @Glen: seat belt and helmet laws in the States are only about 30yrs old. They were effectively bank rolled by insurance companies. Not out of the goodness of their hearts, but by what countries w single payer healthcare had known for years. It's cheaper to legislate and enforce than clean up afterwards.

    Giving another talking point to the Thayz gunna take ur gunz! Crowd.

    We see the same kind of flimsy arguments from the get rid of bicycle helmets crowd in Sydney. People won't ride bikes because helmets…

  • Twisted logic that triggers certain fantasies or nightmares is what politicians use to communicate with the part of the public that doesn't use (or have) much forebrain. Even if there is no money behind silly-season legislation, whether for or against, politicians need to refresh the manipulation periodically or the conditioned response fails. A public that doesn't give a damn when you ring the bell will not vote for you, either.

    We have huge problems in this country, but let's talk about how anti-texting laws deprive us of our rights! It's much easier to work up narcissistic rage about a faux-libertarian non-issue than it is to think about the economy (which involves math and is therefore hard), or the war (which turned into a Hoarders-style mess years ago), or the crumbling infrastructure, or the dangerous concentration of wealth in our society, or or or.

  • Molly Ivins used to call Texas "The national laboratory for bad government".

    There seems to be pretty stiff competition for that title in recent years.

  • Rick Massimo says:

    Whenever a conservative squawks about how the best governing happens at the lowest possible levels, I just ask them "So how do you feel about YOUR state and local government? Are they responsive and efficient and non-corrupt?" Some of them get a good 15 seconds into a rant about how terrible they are before they realize why I'm grinning at them.

  • The VA Legislature only meets once a year for a month. Texas is only once every two years.

    This is why people were sighting Obama's lack of experience saying he was 'only' a state legislator in Illinois, people from these part -time legislator stateshad no idea that in some states your in session year round.

    Every time I hear one of these 'insane Red/Small state stories' I think it is time for a amicable fifty state divorce. Divided we stand, united the crazies drag us all down?

  • Ed, you're being too hard on scientists – I've known some top-notch scientists who "blew up beakers" and damn near killed themselves. A 'common-sense concern for safety' is often not part of what makes a trained, professional, first-rate scientist. That's one of the things that makes science so exciting, if a little too exciting sometimes. At least, though, you have to have some training to become a scientist. Legislatures nowadays are filled with people who are experimenting on all of us, following the protocols given to them by either crazy dead guys or the voices in their heads. At least in a lab, you can usually repair the hole in the wall and a few days in hospital will take care of most unfortunate results. Out here, people are dying from the 'lab' mistakes and the bad results are incredibly bad and a lot more long-lasting than most of us are.

  • mother earth says:

    Currently living through our first Republican controlled House and Senate in Arkansas, this shit show cannot end soon enough. I've never thought very highly of the Arkansas legislators, this bunch made them look like fucking geniuses. The full first half of the session was spent restricting women's reproductive rights, who said Roe was law of the land? Then they tried their best to fully arm our state citizens. Schools, churches, open carry, we just couldn't have enough gun rights. The last couple of weeks they got around to the Koch agenda, cut taxes on the wealthy, weaken environmental laws. The Mayflower oil spill was just a bump in the road.
    Now they are passing a "compromise" on Obamacare. Instead of doing exchanges with the fed, they've conjured up a "private" option. Insurance through private carriers, which will cost more, but hey taxpayers will pay and it's sooooo much better than socialism.
    It's been a tea party shit show.

  • It was clear to me at twelve that something was off with demo-crazy when my uncle was elected mayor of the hometown: what a crank. Then the class president malarkey in high school. Then, Nixon. A lifetime of cynicism ensued.
    A process that brings the worst together (where do they get these people?) and brings out their worst (is there a bat-shit contest going on?) is worst than useless – it's a thing to behold in wonder. Random wouldn't be as bad. It takes effort and commitment to be so wrong so often about so many things for so long in so many places. King George couldn't possibly have screwed up so many things.
    Still, "crazy" doesn't explain explosions in the laboratory: you can't just mix a bunch of shit together, ya gots to get just the right mix of things to make it pop. How does that happen? Riddle me that. I'm stumped.

  • Hey, mother earth, it could be worse – you could live in Arkansas North, aka Alaska. All the things you cited, plus selling the state to corporate oil for cheap.

  • hey, we got Jindal here in La. and Landrieu, owned by Big Oil and Diaper David Vitter. and it has always been that way. lol. i mean you in the 49 other states have just been introduced to crazy. we grow it generation to generation.

    Jindal cut mental health financing, kaput, gone. and now he's trying to gut business taxes. the poor people here can pay for the businessmen's taxes, right?

    and BP destroyed our coastline,thanks to Obama. my hero. lol. oil spill are a regular ordinary fact of life. know you know why people love our seafood!

    the crazy, ha, ha, ha. Texas hasn't a clue. Jindal obviously blieves in a caste system, at least that is what we will have after he gets finished. and Jindal talks about not talking "stupid". he means out loud. lol

    welcome to the New World Order

  • Everything you need to know about South Dakota's attitudes on traffic safety and politics can be summed up by doing the briefest of searches on Bill Janklow.

  • $100 is alot of money. That means a guy has to move one less half cord of wood. Since half the economy of NH is based on selling firewood to each other it's a pretty big deal. In fact they should double the size of the Lower House. They could put up another row of toll booths to pay for it. To borrow from the late, great Bon Scott: It ain't easy, living free.

  • Andrew Laurence says:

    You of all people should realize that it's the states with highly PROFESSIONAL state legislatures that serve as laboratories of democracies. The others are laboratories of inbred insanity and intolerance. I thought this went without saying.

  • OneMadClown says:

    Happy to see Ed point and laugh at my ridiculous state government…welcome to NH, home to 1.3 million people but with the 3rd largest legislative body in the English-speaking world. And since they only get paid $200 for their 2 year term, it isn't a job that attracts the normal well-adjusted individual. Instead we end up with a frothy mix of retirees (almost half of them), wealthy pricks who have enough cash to spend their days fucking you over for free, batshit lunatics, and the odd sprinkling of decent people. It's a delight.

  • Doctor Rock says:

    I tell my politically active friends this all the time-if you don't vote or participate in state and local politics, you are not politically active or aware, and do not deserve to call yourself such.

    State governments are where you get all the exotic oppressive shit and nobody pays attention to them. If a sorcerer for some reason said you had to choose between voting in state and national elections for the rest of your life-choose state-9/10 times it's more important to your rights. People know their Senators and Reps. But these same people don't know their state legislators!

    Look, state and especially local politics are hard. Because there's less info, less pundits and smart bloggers to help you digest information. But you have to try. You don't get to complain if you don't try.

  • Davis X. Machina says:

    I had a college classmate who ran for, won election to, and served in the New Hampshire lower house as a poli sci honors project. They only gave her 9 credit hours for it.

    The dean's justification? "It's only the New Hampshire House…"

  • the Missouri legislature, who I've had the pleasure of coming to know well by working for non-profits, is about as scary as it comes. most of them are Tea Bagger true believers, ie. complete and utter idiots. I see Koch brothers fingerprints over all kinds of crappy legislation and lots of bad ag legislation funded by the usual suspects…

  • I grew up in Montana. We may have some fucked up ideas, but drinking while driving is not legal (if that were the case, my brother would not have had three DWI's and been on a suspended license before he killed himself in a drunk driving accident). Perhaps you were thinking of the fact that until 2007 or so it was legal for a passenger in the car to drink but it was not legal for the driver to do so. Now it's illegal to have any open containers in the car. But given the fact that you can literally drive 300 miles without seeing a MHP or even a local cop, it's sort of a moot point.

    That's why last year one of the legislatures decided the DWI laws were anti-American and anti business. His bar in the middle of nowheresville, MT was apparently suffering due to the tyranny of drunk driving legislation. Thankfully, the bill never found any traction.

  • Don't insult the mentally ill. I used to be a chaplain in several mental hospitals. Many of the patients were more sensible than many state legislators.

  • Phoenix_rising says:

    In my experience it's easier to persuade a certified person to take his meds than a state legislator to read a position paper. So comparisons to the crazies are off-base.

    Molly Ivins responded to Texas' ranking of 38th on a list of state legislatures was "Holy moly, there are 12 worse than THIS??!?!!" and all of us who have lobbied can tell you that you feel that way daily.

    Here in New Mexico, where we don't pay our solons and they only pretend to work 45 days a year, we have just about all the laws we need now. If we had the budget to do anything differently, I'd be biased toward enforcing the laws we've got, rather than hiring smarter and more emotionally stable legislators to write new ones.

  • Look, I'm from NC. The most pathetic legislator Ms Presnell did not want to establish Christianity as the NC religion, she wanted to establish Baptist. There is a difference.

  • The drinkin and driving stuff you are thinking of is probably Wyoming, which only a few years ago finally outlawed drinking while driving, and then a few years after that passed an open container law to regulate the passengers as well… I haven't been there lately but I'm guessing they still have a lot of drive-through bars and liquor stores.

  • I was going to push for a law setting e to 2 and the Liouville number to zero and save us all some time and hassle.

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