Twenty years ago when I arrived at the Indiana Statehouse to begin covering the General Assembly, the beat was among the most respected in the newsroom.
Covering the legislature meant you were doing something that mattered – writing stories about taxes, highways, education and social issues, stories that helped people make decisions about their lives and at the polls. Editors and the public saw it that way too.
But over the decades – as I moved from covering state government for The Journal Gazette in Fort Wayne to The Courier-Journal in Louisville to TheStatehouseFile.com where I’ve been the editor – the position has diminished in stature inside and outside the media industry.
The public’s increasing distaste and skepticism for government and politics, a changing news business that focuses on the sensational, and elected officials who’ve been slow to eliminate perks their constituents loathe have contributed to the overall decline in the respect for even the reporters who cover the beat.
A few years ago, one of my closest friends and a fellow reporter asked me how I sleep at night after spending my days interviewing lawmakers.
The truth is, I sleep just fine.
As I move to a new position – managing editor for the Indianapolis Business Journal – I look back on the work I did as a state government reporter with pride. It’s not just that I sometimes exposed wrongdoing or alerted the public about an ethical lapse. Those stories are of course important. But it’s also about tracking the vital work that takes place in the Statehouse – the legitimate debates about how to spend taxpayer money on schools, infrastructure and help for the poor and the questions about which candidates are best prepared to lead those discussions.
And I’ve learned a few things along the way about the legislature and the people who serve there:
Lawmakers aren’t all bad – nor all good.
Indiana’s citizen legislature – a term that means lawmakers work part-time and typically have other jobs back in their communities – is fairly reflective of the state and its people. There are lawyers and teachers and police officers and retirees.
And just like our society, there are good people and bad people who serve there. There are lawmakers who are incredibly ethical and careful and mindful of their duties to serve their constituents in a fair and moral way.
But there are some who play fast and loose with the rules. There are some who can’t be trusted to stick to their word. There are others who make poor choices about their personal lives when they’re away from home.
In most cases, lawmakers are some combination of these traits: They are trying to do the right thing but occasionally make the wrong decisions. And sometimes it’s hard to judge their actions by what they ultimately do as a group.
Special interest groups and the individuals who represent them spend millions of dollars trying to influence legislators and elections – and it works. Not always. Not on every bill. But money matters.
Big money can buy the best lobbyists who can influence the most lawmakers. Big money can pay for advertising that encourages everyday Hoosiers to call their lawmakers and demand action. Big money can change an election by giving candidates the means to spread their message to voters.
But despite the public perception, money doesn’t typically buy a vote on a bill. Instead, money often follows the votes. Unions and business groups and special interests invest in candidates who already support their positions. They win by electing like-minded people into positions of power.
Voters matter more
Few things are as influential with a lawmaker as contact from a constituent. Letters, emails, calls and visits mean more to most legislators than money. They represent votes and votes mean reelection.
The problem is that we voters just don’t pay attention to the vast majority of issues.
Lawmakers will get hundreds of contacts when they’re debating issues like annexation, guns, and gay rights. And they pay attention. In fact, sometimes a small group of voters can have out-sized influence because they’re so squeaky.
But in the absence of constituent input, lawmakers are left to their own deductions – and the influence that comes from special interests. Bills about esoteric changes in insurance law or utility regulation don’t generate the voter input are the ones most likely influence by big money.
Issues are gray
It’s easy to make decisions when questions are black and white. But at the General Assembly – as in life – that rarely happens. Most issues are complicated and therefore legislation is too.
Lawmakers are constantly faced with weighing whether one part of a bill they like or agree with outweighs another section they despise. And if that one legislator was in charge, he or she could rewrite the bill and drop the offending language. But it doesn’t work that way.
Legislation is created by consensus. To pass the House, a bill needs 51 votes; to pass the Senate, it needs 26. That means few pieces of legislation make any one person truly happy.
If you’ve ever tried to plan a party with a group of friends or served on a committee at your church, you know just what I’m talking about. Remember that experience as you’re evaluating the work of your lawmakers.
So that’s what I’ve got after 20 years covering the Statehouse – two decades that I have immensely enjoyed. The truth is that, in general, I like lawmakers. I like government. And I have loved covering it in ways that I hope have helped Hoosiers make better decisions about their lives. Maybe someday I’ll be back.
Lesley Weidenbener has served four years as editor of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news service powered by Franklin College journalism students. She will become the managing editor of the Indianapolis Business Journal next month.