Working for a legislator is no easy task. In 1997, when I began working as a nonpartisan researcher for an oversight agency at the Idaho State Legislature, the agency director was candid with me about the dynamics of the work. Our little agency was to be an island of objective analysis in the sea of conflict that was the legislature.
This conflict-based model of legislative politics was a little hard for me to accept at first. Though I could certainly understand it at the national level, in big country like ours, it seemed reasonable to think things might be different in a small state of barely over a million residents whose legislators were overwhelmingly of one party. The joke was that all of the Democratic legislators in Idaho could fit in a phone booth, and considering that Republicans outnumbered Democrats 35-5 in the Senate, this was not too far from being the truth.
In practice, however, politics in a polity of any size involves the clash of interests, not only between parties, but sometimes within them. Conflict is inevitable and its resolution is not always pretty — a reality often summed up in Bismarck’s dictum that no one should know how laws or sausages are made.
With this understanding of politics as my point of departure, my expectations were relatively modest when I contacted my congressperson, U.S. Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.) in late March. I asked him to offer a bill in the House comparable to the one offered in the Senate (S. 714) by Jim Webb and Arlen Specter to create a blue ribbon panel to review US sentencing policies and recommend reforms. I thought I’d get a noncommittal response, perhaps a form letter, saying he was considering the issue. Instead, I received a voice mail from a staffer packed with peripheral, partisan comment.
Rep. Kline’s staff person told me that he would pass along to the representative my interest in prison reform, but he didn’t stop there. He added that the real problem was coddling criminals, keeping them in “plush” conditions while even military families must struggle to pay their bills in a tough economy.
My question had been a straightforward one: Would Rep. Kline support a House companion to S. 714? Yet here was his staff person, leaving a voice mail implying that the real problem was inmates living a life of leisure, maybe even playing tennis, on the taxpayers’ dime. He would have done his job better if he’d simply said he’d share my concern with his boss, instead of trying to redefine the issue as being about pampered prisoners.