During 17 years of working in the world of our state and national legislatures, I learned firsthand that while writing law can be messy, it is not necessarily a bad process. It may be unappetizing, but that does not mean it is broken and should be discarded.
The diaries, letters and biographers of many past American political leaders, such as presidents Lincoln, FDR, Eisenhower, JFK, and many others, reveal that throughout history the process of making law has been complicated, filled with give-and-take, and slow moving.
In Lansing, 148 legislators write the laws that affect nearly 10 million residents of Michigan’s 83 counties. In Washington D.C., 535 lawmakers in the U.S. House and Senate write law governing nearly 317 million Americans.
Writing and adopting any law takes a tremendous amount of research, discussion, disagreement, and eventually compromise.
In America’s early days, it took a very lengthy process to write the documents that are the foundation of our democracy and many of the structures of our government. A web search of the “Connecticut Compromise” will reveal that even in those early years, reaching agreement on one single issue was tough.
Now, America and the world watch law-making through the filter of cable or network television shows, talk radio, or on computers or smartphones. How do we assess the overwhelming amount of information not only from trained professional journalists, but also from a growing cadre of self-styled commentators and bloggers? Unfortunately, quick electronic “sound bites” or snappy headlines often form the basis of our knowledge of the lengthy and complicated process occurring in Lansing or Washington.
Instantaneous, up-to-the minute reporting must, by its very nature, focus on conflict, and deliver it in short bursts lasting only seconds or minutes. It’s all about building viewer, listener or reader interest.
It always frustrated me to have television news programs air a four- or five-minute segment featuring lawmakers from both parties sparring verbally over a complex subject. Citizens deserve more detailed and accurate explanations. Instead it creates the impression of constant disagreement. National television producers say it makes “great television.”
Yet, after cameras leave, it was not unusual to see two lawmakers from different parties walk away from conflict before the camera chatting amiably about bills they were working on together, or an upcoming committee hearing, all while speaking with respect and interest about developing legislation to achieve common goals.
I don’t intend to infer that everyone in state Legislatures or Congress “plays well” with everyone else. Clearly, debate in Legislatures across the nation, as well as in the halls of Congress, has become less civil, and the conflict of politics frequently drives debate rather than the question of what is best for our state or nation.
Between national television and radio networks needing viewer/listener interest to boost ratings and profits, print media struggling to maintain a share of the markets, and many half-truths or outright wrong information on the Internet, it has become a bigger challenge to be responsible voters and supporters or opponents of issues important to us and our families.
Getting past the filters and understanding the full picture means going around sound bites to find the “rest of the story.” Ask questions, reason it out, and develop a line of communication with lawmakers who serve you and your community regardless of their party affiliation. Letters, email, phone calls, Facebook, Twitter and dozens of other methods are available to help make a one-on-one connection.
Lastly, don’t forget to consider this: Who benefits from Americans thinking that elected officials can’t talk to each other or reach compromises? By failing to be good listeners and accurately informed, we become part of the problem ourselves.
Sylvia Warner, former editor of The Daily News, worked for the Michigan Legislature and retired as press secretary for a U.S. Congressman.