How the Legislature works is a far cry from idealistic

Matt Pommer  Wisconsin Newspaper Association

How does the Legislature really operate? Kirby Hendee, one of the most respected lobbyists to work in the Capitol, offered what he called “immutable truths” with a touch of humor that may help us better understand the institution, “warts and all.”

The comments in speeches are more than two decades old, but they seem to still be on the mark.

What motivates legislators? “Like all of us, they want to keep their jobs. It’s sometimes called the ‘Capistrano Syndrome.’ Like the swallows they like to come back,” Hendee noted. That means pleasing their constituents.

“What the folks back home feel is frequently emotional and only accidentally logical,” he noted. On significant bills, the legislator will be receiving letters both for and against the legislation.

“I see so many people come to the Capitol with stars in their eyes and good intentions in their heart buoyed up by a cause that they know to be right, saying to themselves, ‘This bill will pass because it is right!’”

“Nothing ever passes because it is right. It passes because someone wanted it to pass badly enough to do the work required to get the votes to make it pass. When good bills die, it is usually a result of indifference, but when bad bills pass it is almost always because some skilled lobbyist knew what buttons to push, and he pushed them,” said Hendee.

A lobbyist, like any salesperson, has to like the people with whom they deal. “Sometimes it is difficult to like legislators,” he quickly added.

“There is a widespread public disdain for politicians in general, legislators in particular. They are thought to be venal, pompous, ambitious and dumb. I don’t think that is true,” Hendee said.

“There are, of course, some stupid legislators, but there are stupid businessmen, too. They deserve to be represented, and that’s who represents them,” quipped Hendee.

Currently the news media and so-called special interests are trying to convince the Republican-controlled Legislature to hold hearings on a bill changing how legislative districts are created. Those pleas and editorials have been ignored. Hendee’s words may explain:

“The importance of a hearing varies inversely with the importance of a bill. I’m sorry to tell you, but the hearings are frequently eyewash,” he said. The press and public give far too much importance to hearings, he added.

Hendee also warned not to put much promise in government studies. His comments are remembered as the Walker administration sets up gamblingissue studies.

“The purpose of a study is rarely to find anything out,” he said. “More frequently the purpose is to stall for time, putting off some unpleasant but inevitable decision; or to build up support through a long period of time; or simply to postpone a decision until after the next election.”

The next three months will be busy for the Legislature and the people trying to convince them for their causes. Hendee said the pressure builds on everyone in the final weeks of the biennial session.

“Trying to get a legislator’s attention is like trying to argue to a jury that’s wandering around Disneyland, but lobbyists can do well in the pressure cooker. “Lobbyists thrive on panic and confusion,” he noted.

Hendee, a Milwaukee Republican, served one term in the State Senate. “There were some great people in the Senate in those days. One of them was Gaylord Nelson. Gaylord and I were good friends, though on opposite sides of the political fence.

“I represented the cause of truth, justice and honor – and Gaylord was a Democrat,” quipped Handee.

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