Friday, December 23, 2022

Small: In policy debate, volume doesn’t equate to influence

In policy debate, volume doesn’t equate to influence
By Jonathan Small

In policy debates, when special interests cannot justify their position with sound analysis, they increase the volume instead. Unfortunately, a political approach known as “vote your district” can allow those special-interests tactics to work.

That’s because the “vote my district” mantra misconstrues the true job of a lawmaker and makes it more likely a legislator will miss opportunities to advance thriving.

Because we are a republic with elected representation (lawmakers), the job of a lawmaker is to represent his or her constituents by being the person who thoroughly studies issues, understands the policy implications, votes accordingly—and then explains why to constituents.

Few constituents are familiar with each of the thousands of bills considered in the Oklahoma Legislature every year. Instead, they rely on their lawmakers to weigh the issues.

To declare one simply “votes my district” is often a signal a lawmaker is operating by a “squeaky wheel gets the grease” philosophy. Votes are cast based not on policy merit, but on which group makes the most noise. That favors entrenched tax-consumer interests over the broader electorate because special interests have the time, motivation and vested interest to make noise. In contrast, working families who might benefit from a proposed policy are burdened with living their lives and generating taxes for tax-consumers.

The job of a legislator is to weigh the arguments and make decisions mindful of all Oklahomans and those he or she represents.

Think about it. No one runs on a platform of “the side that screams the loudest gets my vote.” Instead, candidates clearly outline their political philosophy during a campaign. That tells voters the worldview a candidate brings to policy discussions that determines how they vote on issues.

Legislators also often have access to far more information than does the average citizen. When citizens are provided more information, their views can change. Recall the proposal to increase Oklahoma’s sales tax and dedicate the money to education. It had strong support in polling when unveiled several years ago, but when Oklahomans became aware of the proposal’s downside, polling flipped and the tax increase was overwhelmingly rejected.

Similarly, workers’ compensation reform has been a great success, saving billions of dollars, making Oklahoma more attractive to business investment, and financially restoring injured workers at a much faster rate. But if lawmakers had listened only to the loudest voices on that issue (workers’ comp attorneys and their allies), this important reform would have been sidelined.

There are certain issues where a strong majority of constituents have expressed a clear preference for a policy stance, but this is not always the case.

It’s important for lawmakers to stay in touch with all their constituents, not just the tax-consuming ones. It’s just as important for them to do the real work of policymaking. Oklahomans look forward to a majority of lawmakers doing just that in the 2023 legislative session.

Jonathan Small serves as president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs.


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