Clutter gathers and grows unto itself. Drop a pair of gloves on the kitchen table and a day later the table resembles a bedroom closet stuffed with clothes. Somehow a telephone message jotted on a sticky note and left on the kitchen counter for your spouse multiplies until there are four pens and a papers scattered all around.

Laws are like this. One session a seemingly good idea is enacted into law by the Legislature. The next session it is amended to fix a problem in or improve the original law. Then another good idea is tacked on. And pretty soon, you have a clutter of laws that even a Portland lawyer can’t figure out.

The process of enacting those laws is ever more cluttered, inefficient at best and nearly always beyond the understanding of most citizens. You ought not to depend on the process that is described in the pamphlet describing how a bill becomes a law. That’s just the textbook by-the-book system — seldom if ever followed as the 1,600 bills that were filed this year wended their way to the finish line.

At least 1,200 of those bills were doomed before they were launched. These would include bills that are offered every session on the theory that persistence pays off or simply because new legislators don’t realize these issues are perennial losers. Sunday hunting would be a good example.

One major reason the legislative process is so inefficient is because so much valuable time is spent on bills that have little or no chance of success. Legislators mark some bills “by request,” a signal that they only sponsored the bills because constituents asked and they don’t intend to spend their political capital getting these bills enacted. Rarer than the Hope Diamond is a “by request” bill that actually becomes law. But legislators waste a lot of time and money on them.

In addition to the “dead on arrival” bills, there is a second category that a lot of legislation fits into: simple bills that are easily understood, contain good ideas, and will be enacted without opposition — although each will take up a lot of valuable public hearing and work session time. Many are technical in nature, fixing errors in existing statutes. There should be an expedited process for these.

A third category of legislation comprises issues of terrible complexity including the budget. This session has tackled a lot of these, most especially health care and education. Complex issues are extremely difficult for legislators to understand and resolve, and they often don’t get to the House and Senate until very late in the session.

A single committee of 13 legislators works for months on an issue and then passes on its work to the full legislature for debate and votes. There is neither time nor a way for individual legislators to gain the in-depth understanding of these complex issues before they vote on them.

This process begs for reform. Rather than draft every bill and send it to a public hearing, legislators could simply offer a list of their ideas and proposals by topic with brief descriptions. All the ideas for the moose hunt, for example, could be gathered into a single list, and those ideas could go to a single public hearing and be worked on together by the committee – all before a bill is actually drafted. All of the suggestions for the topic that gain the support of a majority of the committee’s members could then be drafted into a single bill, and proceed on to the full House and Senate for action.

You can’t imagine how much time this system would save, perhaps giving legislators the opportunity to learn more about each of the major issues and topics, before they vote. Some of that reclaimed time could also be spent getting to know each other and building the relationships that would foster a more collaborative, cooperative, effective, and efficient system.

Sessions of the full House and Senate could be speeded up too. While I have enjoyed many fine debates in the House and Senate, it would be valuable to limit debate to only the most substantive issues. Bills without the support of at least 1/3 of a committee’s members ought to be dead, with no further action.

Quite often at public hearings legislative committees limit the testimony of each member of the public to 3 minutes. Might not that also work for House and Senate debates? I’ve certainly heard legislators tell me, often, that if I can’t make my points in three minutes, I’m wasting their time.

George Smith is a writer and TV talk show host. He can be reached at 34 Blake Hill Road, Mount Vernon, ME 04352; or george [email protected] Read more of Smith’s writings at www.georgesmith


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