The Battle of the Bulls

I want to write about the possibility of a government shut down this week, and I will write about it.

But today I’m up to my ears in alligators, family style.

So … I’ve decided that this post I wrote at the end of a legislative session here in Oklahoma might start you off. It doesn’t deal with the specific issues at hand, and the federal stand off is almost breathtaking in its ruthlessness. What I’m describing here is healthy political give and take. However, much of the psychology is the same. Read, and think about it. Then, we’ll take up what’s happening now tomorrow.

We shut down the session Friday and it wasn’t pretty. Oklahoma‘s constitution requires that we end the legislative session by 5 pm on the last Friday of May each year. What that means in the real world is that no matter what else we do, we must pass the budget by that day. Otherwise, all the money stops and the lights go out all over the state.

We did manage to get to the finish line with a budget of sorts, but not without a lot of drama. We skated to the edge of the cliff more than once in the last week, always barely avoiding the messy business of adjourning without funding the government. Egos were bruised, names were called, deals were done and legislators and staff drove themselves past simple exhaustion into incompetent somnabulence in the process.

By the end of session, most of us weren’t fit to drive a car, much less make laws for millions of people.

This annual exhibition of legislative histrionics makes the voters mad. In fact voter anger is why we have to shut it down by 5 pm on the last Friday of May. Back in the day, we used to cover the clock with a towel or sheet or maybe some unlucky legislator’s jacket, and just keep on fighting. We went right around the dial, 24-7, until the deals were done. The people of Oklahoma, in a disgusted pique, passed a constitutional amendment by means of a referendum petition that required us to take at least 8 hours off each day and to end the session on the aforementioned last Friday of May.

It was a good idea, but good ideas are very seldom a match for human nature. That’s the force driving these annual end of session train wrecks; testosterone-fueled human nature. The Oklahoma legislature is run by people with y chromosomes. It always has been. I don’t want to sound sexist, but it’s just a fact that when men who have more ego than brains start shoving each other around, the discussion quickly descends to an unacknowledged battle over who is the real alpha male around here.

All the talk about “the people” and “policy” and “rights” devolves down to who has enough manhood to make the other guy do obeisance.

I may get myself uninvited to lunch with the boys for saying all this. It’s definitely not politically correct. But it is the truth. Decisions are made which affect the lives and futures of millions of people, including people who haven’t been born yet, based on this chest-thumping battle of the bulls.

Those of us who don’t have quite so much testosterone get into it, too. Female legislators are quite as capable of standing our ground as the guys. The difference is we usually have some vague notion of why we’re actually doing it, and we aren’t nearly as likely to offer to “take it outside” and “settle it there.” In fact I can honestly say that in all my 16 years as a legislator, I have never threatened anyone with a right hook to the jaw for disagreeing with me.

Remember: This is Oklahoma. I’ve seen legislators come to blows more than once in my tenure in office. A year before I was first elected in 1980, one legislator brought a gun onto the floor of the House with the intention of shooting one of his colleagues. I met one of the legislators who disarmed him when I was elected the next year and married him a couple of years after that. Two kids and almost  30 years later, we’re still together.

I expect some people will be upset by this view from the inside of the legislative rumbles. But I have to admit, it doesn’t bother me. I don’t mind the yelling. I don’t mind the fist fights. I don’t mind the shoving and threats and bombastic carrying on. I don’t mind because, messy and ridiculous as it sometimes is, it’s also democracy in action.

I would much rather see a messy session shut down where everyone noisily had their say than a well-mannered tea-sipping shut down where only a few powerful nabobs made all the policy. We practiced hard-ball politics this week, but we also stopped some horrifically bad bills from becoming law. I am convinced that we saved lives and protected the state’s economy from ruin by the moves we made. It took both parties and every single one of us to do it.

I was so tired last Friday that I was dizzy-headed and nauseous. I had to concentrate to vote correctly on the rapid-fire procedural votes that we were shooting at one another, something I can usually do on automatic. I saw other legislators start making speeches on the mike when they were recognized to ask a question, debate the wrong bill and repeatedly get befuddled about what they were trying to do.

All of this was exhaustion, and exhaustion to that level when you’re making law is not good. It also wasn’t necessary. We wasted a lot of time twiddling our thumbs in the days leading up to this; time we should have spent hearing bills in a more judicious fashion than this last-minute onslaught.

But I still prefer that to any “reform” that would tamp down on it. When you bring  150 people together from all over a state as big as Oklahoma, from rural folks who live in counties with more cattle than people to city dwellers who worry about gangs, you’re going to get disagreement. The only way to avoid it is for some of them to sell out the people they’re representing.

That’s what usually happens. I’ve seen it over and over. I saw it this session. But something happened this last week and the House members rose up and started representing their constituents. That’s how the bad bills died.

But bad bills which are pushed by powerful people who stand to make a lot of money from them don’t die easily. The resulting fights were why we were all so tired.

Was it worth it? Oh yes.

But I’m sure glad I don’t have to do it again this week.

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