For much of its history, the Kansas State Capitol has attracted well-meaning, sincere citizen legislators from the four corners of the state. Through thick and thin, Kansas has benefited from their service, despite the fiercest of political battles.
Regrettably, between 2012 and 2016, the Legislature failed the state of Kansas. In short, the legislative process just didn’t work.
In the past, committees took time and effort to work bills, to hear testimony, and to deliberate thoroughly before moving legislation to the floor. Party leaders worked with their committee chairs, with their members, and with the opposition to hammer out legislation that by and large served the interests of Kansans. Formal debate and informal discussions – while tough and sometimes emotional – made legislation better, though deliberation and compromise.
These characteristics vanished in the 2012-2016 period. Party leaders brought bills to the floor without adequate notice or discussion, often supporting an ideological governor who was becoming more detached from legislators and from the legislative process.
Fast forward to 2017. Things have changed. No, partisanship has not vanished. Nor have in-your-face threats of primary-election retribution for pushing certain policies.
But the overall tenor of legislative activity is different, and for the better.
Why? Most notably, the partisan and ideological make-up of the Legislature shifted in the 2016 elections, with more Democrats and moderate Republicans winning seats. Those results translated into shifting leadership structures and more responsive conservative Republican leaders in Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, and House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe.
Far-right Republicans, who have dominated the Legislature over the past four years, have not packed up and gone home, but most have recognized the shift in membership and have adapted to the new reality.
Moreover, virtually every legislator can play a role this year. That means Senate Minority Leaders Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, and House Minority Leader Jim Ward, D-Wichita, know that their members’ votes will be needed for the Legislature to address the state’s problems.
In many ways, the 2017 version of the Legislature is a throwback to the 1980s and early 1990s, when legislators fought serious battles with good will and collegiality.
Central here is the idea of process, which is boring, slow and complex. Ultimately, however, the deliberation and discourse of the legislative process lead to inclusive decisions, and better ones. No voices are systematically excluded. Agendas are negotiated, not handed down without warning or discussion.
In the end, people talk to each other, despite their differences, or maybe because of them.
Burdett Loomis teachers political science at the University of Kansas.