Why Is Every Legislative Session Shrouded In Political Mystery?

Why Is Every Legislative Session Shrouded In Political Mystery?

Originally published in Honolulu Civil Beat, May 30, 2019

Neal Milner

Politics in Hawaii is full of mystery, but not good mystery. Hawaii’s mysteries are not engaging whodunits. They are obscurities and opacities that bewilder us and make us cynical.

By now, this politics of mystery is built into Hawaii’s fabric. It’s business as usual, you know, just the way it is. That makes it particularly insidious.

Today I want to show how the Legislature contributes to this, even though it’s just one small part of the bigger problem that implicates our media, universities, and the stories and myths ordinary people create about the way this place operates.

In my next column I’ll look at this broader problem. For now it’s the Legislature’s turn.

Selective Transparency

Citizens are really not clued into the way the Legislature works because legislators really don’t want us to be.

For our lawmakers the risks of off-the-record are less than the risks of on-the-record.

Keeping with that defense of muddiness, this year’s Legislature did what it traditionally does: confound our ability to figure out what’s going on by using their usual citizen dis-enabler. Call it selective transparency.

The message at the session’s earliest stages, as usual, was “We’re here for you. Come on down and bear witness. Testify, testify.”

But come nitty-gritty time, it’s for lawmakers to know and the rest of us not to find out. The doors shut, the cloister forms, and things happen — crucial, mystifying things.

“Attention! Be on the lookout for a minimum wage bill last seen …”

Shortly after the session ended, I listened to a group of politically involved Legislature-watchers, all with serious lobbying experience, try to figure out what happened to the minimum wage bill.

Good luck with that.

For almost the entire session the move to raise the state’s minimum wage was big news with lots of testimony for and against. Besides, minimum wage is a key national issue with a number of other states taking the lead in the absence of any movement in Congress.

The bill seemed to be smoothly moving forward until it suddenly was not. Was it defeated? No.

It was disappeared. At the lastest of last minutes. Without explanation or vote.

The legislators’ old black magic “gut and replace” puts us in a spell. Everything suddenly changes. Important bills disappear into the night. Why? What an impertinent question!

House Speaker Scott Saiki recently defended the Legislature’s inaction on the minimum wage bill. It is a reasonable defense. It’s also tardy.

But getting any explanation at all is atypical. Typically, what the legislators believe about the end of session is what the Iris DeMent song says about the end of life: “Let the mystery be.”

Good Norms And Bad Norms

Legislators have other norms to avoid transparency. A key reason is that they don’t like to talk publicly about internal conflict.

Understand that, like any deliberative body, the Legislature needs norms and rules that make its work possible, which means at times the sun should not really shine on what it is doing.

But come on.

At the end of the 2019 session House members refused to join with the Senate for the traditional closing ceremony. Now that is a big deal, a challenge to those powerful consensus norms.

Some legislators talked a little about the conflicts between the Senate and House this session, suggesting that conflict over norms was central to this.

But these were hints rather than explanations. Instead of actually telling the public what the beef was actually about, though, the legislators concealed the act’s importance by trivializing it.

The vague, passive aggressive explanations sounded more like a teenage “I’m-breaking-up-with-you-but-I’m-not-gonna-tell-you-why” pre-prom episode than an explanation by and to mature adults.

Important? You bet. It is not an internal housekeeping matter. Does this struggle reflect policy consequences? Who knows? But it damn well might, and we certainly are entitled to know more.

Within legislatures elsewhere, there are two other potential sources of demystifying information that don’t exist here.

One is a strong minority party that could leak information and call out the majority, making the private more public. Nothing against the competence of our GOP legislators, but since they are few enough to all fit into one Smart Car, they really are not significant players.

The other potential source involves factions. Because the Legislature is so heavily Democratic, most serious differences occur within the Democratic majority. The problem is that our legislators don’t talk about them. For lawmakers “factions” is the f-word.

Hawaii’s factions are especially mysterious and opaque. In other one-party state legislatures, factions are easier to identify. They break down by ideology — liberals versus conservatives — or by personal attachment — for or against a governor.

Those two breakdowns are great cues for constituents, giving a strong idea where a legislator stands. Our Legislature’s factions appear to be nothing like that.

At the end of every session we see a list of bills that passed and those that failed. That’s obviously important.

But so is process. Folks around here complain just as much, if not more, about the way the Legislature works as they do about what it passes.

Coming Attractions

Overall, political knowledge here is sparse and shallow. People think they know more than they do about how things really work, often don’t realize the importance of things they don’t know, and consequently have a low bar for what passes for good political explanations.

So much political discussion around here is gossip and guess rather than analysis — the same old tropes about corruption, inefficiency and aloha rather than deep knowledge about our place and ourselves.

For next time, how others in this community contribute to a general disempowering politics of mystery.

Letter: Fight for $15: Lawmakers fail our ohana on wages

Letter: Fight for $15: Lawmakers fail our ohana on wages

Letter: Saiki, House leave local workers worse off

Letter: Saiki, House leave local workers worse off