If someone were to ask, "What are the most revitalized and changed governmental institutions in America?" few of us would think to answer, "state legislatures." But that is the case made in the 25th anniversary issue of State Legislatures magazine, and it's not a bad answer.
The claim comes from someone who is anything but an unbiased source. William T. Pound, the author of the theme article in the anniversary edition, is the executive director of the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), the trade association for those lawmakers and their staffs.
The legislatures are not alone in being transformed. You could make the argument that the Supreme Court of today, with its law-and-order and protect-states-rights majority, is radically different from the Warren court of the mid-1970s. You could also argue that Congress is substantially changed, not just in having a Republican majority instead of Democratic control, but in more fundamental institutional terms. Power in the House was sweepingly decentralized in the mid-1970s, and after brief attempts at top-down leadership by former speakers Jim Wright and Newt Gingrich, the House has become once again a place where committee and subcommittee chairmen hold sway.
The Senate, for its part, has become a real anachronism, a body where a cohesive minority, especially when allied with a president of the same party, can function more effectively than a majority, if that majority lacks the 60 votes needed to override the threat of a filibuster.
But let's not argue for the sake of argument. The legislatures have been overhauled in the past quarter-century, and it's a good thing, too, because they're taking on a lot more responsibility from the overloaded and wheezing institutions in Washington.
Consider some of the changes: Twenty-five years ago, only two out of 100 legislators considered it a full-time job. Now 15 percent do. Then, the legislatures were 92 percent male; now more than one-fifth of the members are women and almost one-ninth are minorities.
Over a longer time span, the differences look even more dramatic. In 1941 only four legislatures held annual sessions. Now only seven states -- Arkansas, Kentucky, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon and Texas -- are on a biennial schedule.
The growth in the power and influence of the legislatures began with the one-person, one-vote decisions of the 1960s that ended the control of rural, courthouse gangs. In the following two decades, the newly elected urban and suburban legislators provided themselves with more staff, more research and communications facilities and began to emulate the committee system of Congress to develop expertise that liberated them from domination by governors and executive branch bureaucrats.
That process has continued with the use of computers and Internet connections. Ironically, legislative salaries -- measured in constant dollars -- have not increased in most states. But ethics rules have been tightened, a good thing considering the growth in the lobbyist colonies in almost every state capitol and the explosion in the costs of legislative campaigns.
The next quarter-century probably will bring challenges at least as great as those of the past. As NCSL staffer Rich Jones writes in the anniversary issue, "Promoting legislatures in the 21st century won't be easy. The reform agenda of the 1960s was essentially an inside game -- add staff, build facilities, lengthen sessions. It involved things over which legislatures had direct control. The 21st century agenda is an outside game of communicating the virtues of the legislative institution and representative democracy through a cynical media to an increasingly uninterested and uninformed citizenry."
Alan Rosenthal of Rutgers University, the leading academic authority on legislatures, rejects the simplistic idea that either professional legislators or citizen legislators are automatically superior. "A vital part of a legislature's capacity," he writes, "is the quality of the legislators themselves." But some states have chosen one model and others the alternative, with equally satisfactory results.
What probably counts more for their future well-being, Rosenthal writes, is the level of "concern, community and continuity" within each body. The first two refer to the willingness of members to defend the institution (rather than run against it) and to build the personal ties with other members that incline everyone to accept the norms of legislative life, notably civility and compromise. The continuity factor is jeopardized by the term limits imposed in 18 states and by the relatively meager salaries in many others.
The legislatures have come a long way. But it would be a mistake to think they are now securely anchored and ready to do their best.