Where’s Waldo? State Legislators and Their Caucuses

Here’s an abbreviated version of Webster’s dictionary’s definition of the word “caucus”: “A closed meeting of a group of persons belonging to the same political party … to decide on policy.”

Few people pay attention to how their state-level elected leaders organize inside their legislative chambers. In my home state, for example, Republicans and Democrats each have a caucus in both the Illinois state Senate and the Illinois state House. If few people know this, it is because rarely is a sound ever heard coming from them.

Illinois has become infamous because of the poor quality of its political leadership, but no state is without its challenges. Despite the high number of low information voters, there is usually a general awareness that serious problems need to be addressed. Again using Illinois as an example, our state constitution requires a balanced budget. Yet our state government has been running a deep deficit for many years.

If you think your state is wonderful, you might want to reconsider. As BarbWire reported recently, Joshua Rauh, a professor of finance at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, says that because of dishonest accounting regarding the cost of government employee pensions, “there is no state or local government in the U.S. that has run a balanced budget in any economic sense in a very long time regardless of what their own governmental accounting says.”

Back to our Illinois example. If an Illinois resident pays even a little attention they’ve no doubt heard about the state’s bond rating being lowered, the long list of unpaid bills, and the government employee pension crisis.

Illinois gets a lot of national attention due to the severity of its fiscal problems, so you have to assume there are a good number of Illinoisans who are up on our state’s problems. The problems have been getting worse at a faster rate since the Democrats won the governor’s mansion and both chambers in the General Assembly a little over a decade ago. So you would think there would be a backlash against the party of the political left.

If you thought that you’d be wrong. In fact, Illinois Democrats gained a lot of ground in the 2012 election and no one is expecting the Dems to lose control of the General Assembly in 2014. How can that be? Don’t the polls keep telling us that the public wants to “throw the bums out?” Why hasn’t there been a political earthquake strong enough to turn this “blue” state “red?”

There are several reasons for that, of course.  The number one problem in politics is always a personnel problem — and the Illinois Republican Party’s leadership has been completely incompetent. Is that too harsh? No. How can you lose to a group of people (the Democrats) that the public knows has screwed up the state?

State legislators hold relatively small offices when you look at a state as geographically big as Illinois. It would be asking a lot to expect any one member of the House or Senate to make a statewide impact on public sentiment. There’s good news, however: as I noted above, the Republicans in each chamber caucus together and in a lot of ways work as a team.

One way they’re clearly not working as a team, though, is when it comes to attempting to inform their fellow Illinoisans about exactly what’s wrong and what exactly the Republicans are proposing to do about it. One state senator or state rep is small; as a team, the Republicans in both chambers have sufficient numbers to get statewide attention to their cause.

So why don’t they? I started my last column with what the book of Proverbs has to say about a lack of vision. That’s what it is. No vision. No imagination. No big thinking. There is no credible outreach to the voters or even the press. Instead of working as a group to advance one or more policies, the Republican caucuses act as silent bystanders as the state slides further into the hole.

What about the reality that there is disagreement within the caucuses about what to do about any number of issues? I’d argue that if there isn’t enough common ground within the caucus on the solutions to the state’s massive problems, then it’s time for the caucus leaders to start thinking about financing primary challenges against those among their colleagues who might be a better fit inside the Democratic caucus.

Up next: The right and honorable (and useless) members of Congress.

(Updated version. First published October 2013)