A cynical public will lost more of its faith in the lawmaking process.
Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made, said John Godfrey Saxe in a quip later falsely attributed to Otto von Bismarck. That quote is remembered, noted an editorial in The Guardian two years ago, “because so many legislators act as if their craft is best carried away from public view.”
Amen, Hoosiers are surely tempted to say this year. They got a peek behind the lawmaking curtain during this session of the General Assembly and discovered two things: 1) A lot of very important stuff goes on there and, 2) the public isn’t allowed to know any of it.
There is this legislative institution known as a “caucus,” which under normal circumstances is a justifiable private meeting among party members that enables them to speak freely without fear of reprisal. Because of the need for confidentiality, members are sworn to secrecy and punished if they blab.
But these are not normal times. Republicans have a supermajority in both the House and Senate and a governor in the executive mansion, which means they can do anything they please despite opposition from Democrats or misgivings by the public. That means their caucus is, for all intents and purposes, the General Assembly itself. Whatever they decide in private merely has to be ratified with a public vote.
And Hoosiers get to know only how they voted, not what they discussed on the way to the vote. We know only the what and not the why.
That became painfully obvious twice this session.
The first time was the stunning turnaround on the proposal to authorize a referendum on whether to put the state’s anti-gay marriage law into the Indiana Constitution. The measure passed easily last session, and the assumption was that it would again. But enough Republican legislators joined Democrats in approving a wording change that the measure will be put off at least two years and perhaps forever. Since they thrashed it out in caucus, we don’t exactly know why. Were they intimidated by being told they were “on the wrong side of history,” or did they listen to business interests that demanded more gay tolerance?
The other case was even more embarrassing for legislators. Rep. Eric Turner had recused himself from voting on a one-year moratorium for new nursing home construction, because his son and daughter had connections to a firm building new homes. But The Associated Press reported that in the closing days of the session, Turner lobbied fellow Republicans hard in their caucus to kill the measure.
Too much is going on behind closed doors, and an already cynical public is going to lose even more faith in the lawmaking process. Legislative leaders really need to address the lack of transparency.