Legislative Burnout

Mr Smith burns out

Berlingske has been running a series on the work culture at our capitol of Christiansborg. Entitled “Is Christiansborg’s work culture sick?”,  the series was apparently launched because “a number of politicians, officials and journalists at Christiansborg have recently reported on a stressful work environment, which has not only led to sick leave among the elected representatives, but which also affects the quality of political decisions.”

The series includes interviews with political leaders speaking frankly about the various causes and effects, as they see them, of the dysfunctional work culture at Christiansborg.

If you can read Danish, or have figured out how to get translations on the fly, the first article of the series is here. Additional articles are here and here.  

I’m not going to parse these articles the way I normally do: it’s not necessary and it would take too much time anyway.

But there seems to be actual journalism going on here and the politicians interviewed seem to be speaking with unusual candor (or to be faking it really well).  As a result, the articles raise some points that are worth reflecting on in every western democracy in this annus horribilis 2021, because the problems described aren’t unique to Denmark.

The price of legislative dysfunction is obviously bad legislation, the same way that dysfunction at the pizza parlor is going to result in bad pizza. Nobody wants a lousy pizza, and nobody wants lousy laws.

One of the dysfunctions is that we seem to have turned a wrong corner at some point and arrived at the conclusion that every problem requires a legislative solution.  Not all problems do.  In fact, the vast majority do not.  (Remember how America collapsed during the last U.S. government shutdown?  Of course you don’t: it didn’t.)  Legislatures are pressured from every side for solutions to every imaginable problem, however, and even those lawmakers who understand that not everything can be solved with a wave of the magic legislative wand are sometimes pressured into supporting “solutions” that they shouldn’t have.

A lot of that pressure is amplified by the 24-hour news cycles and the ceaseless hysteria of social media.  Every problem is the worst problem in the history of the world ever, and if it isn’t solved yesterday then children will die and civilization will collapse.  This unrelenting, round-the-clock pressure is one of the things cited by almost all of the politicians interviewed by Berlingske.

That constant pressure from every side to solve problems with legislation compels legislators to hurry through every bill they work on so they can get it done, collect their plaudits, and move on to the next thing: toward this end, they often work until the wee hours of the morning.  Unsurprisingly, many politicians expressed a sense that agreements hammered out after midnight are often deeply flawed.

What’s more, all this urgency to hurry up and fix everything means that there’s inadequate time to give things their due consideration.  Many of the legislators complained of reports reaching committee too late, of inadequate communication and coordination between various legislative silos, and other logistical problems, all of them rooted in the need for speed.

America’s no stranger to this kind of “hurry up and legislate” mentality. The most spectacular example of the past two decades is probably the Patriot Act, one of the most recklessly cobbled together and passed pieces of legislation to that point in American history. America had been attacked on its own territory for the first time in generations, and the pressure to do something was overwhelming, so the haste was at least understandable. Not much more than a decade later we got the Obamacare, a bill the size of a big city phone book, a bill rammed through Congress on entirely partisan lines using every legislative trick in the book—a bill so massive that when asked what was in it, Nancy Pelosi said we’d have to pass it to find out. Talk about legislative dysfunction – if our own lawmakers can’t answer a question like “what’s in this bill?” with a straightforward answer, and if we’re willing to accept the Speaker of the House telling us that we can’t be told what’s in a bill until it’s made law… it’s hard to imagine how things could get much worse.

(2020 says: “Hold my beer…”)

Many of the politicians interviewed for this series comment on the need for media attention. The need to score a big media soundbite is not to be underestimated. Time on the parliamentary floor is wasted as legislators try and try again not to clarify their arguments or persuade their peers, but to give them a clip that’ll find its way to the news or social media, preferably both.

The end result of all this is the monstrous dysfunction apparent in most western legislatures.

Many of the legislators interviewed propose solutions to address one or more of these particular problems, but most of them are very narrow and, frankly, seem a little short-sighted: limiting the number of bills that can be considered in a legislative session, for example, or prohibiting legislative agreements from being made after midnight. The simplicity and obviousness of the solution have probably made it invisible to these poor frazzled souls.

It’s so obvious and simple, in fact, that it’s the subject of a joke that’s older than I am:

A guy says to his doctor, “Doc, you gotta help me, I’ve tried everything and nothing seems to work: it just hurts like hell whenever I do this.”

Doctor says, “Don’t do this.”

We need to remind legislators who acknowledge they’re passing bad legislation for any reason that they’re under no obligation to pass any legislation at all.

There’s no law I’m aware of in Denmark or America requiring legislators to pass laws. They can, but they don’t have to. There’s no Constitutional requirement in either country that they do so.

I think Danes and Americans alike would be surprised just how well we’d all get along if our legislatures took a year or two off.

We’d be just fine.

Maybe that’s the fear that’s really keeping our legislators up at night…