Thursday, June 04, 2015

Roles Legislators Play: You Can't Tell the Players Without A Program

Having spent a fair amount of my life at university committee meetings gives me a certain insight in how people behave at meetings.  There are lots of ways I could cut this, but I'm trying to keep it simple.   So let me spotlight some types of people who make meetings longer and unproductive.  And a few that make things actually work.

While I'm naming distinct types of players and their motivations and behaviors, living flesh and blood people often play multiple roles at different times or even the same time.  And legislators can play these roles for noble or less noble reasons.  I've also spent a session in Juneau blogging the legislature, so I've worded my examples to apply more to the legislature.

Power - The motivation for this group is power.  Power is important.  Without it a legislator can't get anything done.  The current leadership, while seemingly consumed by power issues, have been unable to finish business, which is the legitimate use of power.    We're seeing some very unproductive uses of power this session, even more so than normal; games, like "I've got bigger balls than you."
The Bulldozer - comes to the committee meeting to get his pet project approved.  He'll do or say whatever it takes from persuasion to threats.  He tries to smile and be polite, but when things get tight and people get in his way, he can lose it and get nasty.  Truth is a tool to use only if it works.  The importance of the project (say an important assist for a key constituent) determines the pressure to get it passed.
Strategy:  There's no strategy that will deter the bulldozer except superior power or covert sabotage.  The advice  “Never strike a king unless you are sure you shall kill him” is apt here.

The Ego - Getting something passed or blocked is not the key motivator here.  Rather, power for the Ego is used to remind people the Ego has power and not to cross her.  She needs others in the committee to regularly acknowledge her importance and if they don't, she'll punish them, even if it means blocking an important and non-controversial piece of legislation.
Strategy:  Regular acknowledgements of her position of power will generally protect one from her wrath.  This won't necessarily get one's bill passed.

The Game Player - The GP doesn't really care about the content of the legislation.  For him all human interaction is a competitive sport;  he's there to win.  Winning is the purpose of life and he's honed his skills to win as often as possible.
Strategy:  Get the GP to bet on your cause before the game starts.

The Turf Protector -  The TP is playing a defensive game.  He's making sure he's not losing something - some power, some ideal, some respect.  He weighs each new proposal against its impact on him.   If there is any perception of intrusion on the TP's turf, he will fight it tooth and nail.
Strategy:  If there is a chance that the TP's turf will be infringed upon in any way, add in some offsetting benefit the TP wants. 

Order, Rules, Tradition - The motivation here is security, stability, order.  Change disturbs these folks, who tend to have at least a touch of OCD in them.

The Rule Stickler - For some people, the rules must never be broken.  While Non-sticklers also consider whether the potential consequences meet the spirit of the law, the RS, ignoring consequences, clings to the letter of the law.  Maybe this represents a personal struggle to find security in a rapidly changing world.  This conflict between rigidity and flexibility with rules is not something new to humans.  I've discussed this conflict  in more depth at  Let Justice Be Done Though The World Perish.   The RS would let the world perish before deviating from the rule.
Strategy:  Find a contradictory rule, better yet two.

The Typo Tyrant -  The TT loses all track of time while pointing out typos, spelling errors, and deviations from what the form specifically asks for.  The TT can argue over a single comma for 45 minutes. Typos cause the TT an actual physical irritation, like a bug bite, and they'll scratch it red while the rest of the committee waits to move on.
Strategy:  Spell check and grammar check aren't enough, but be sure to use them.  Ideally the chair will cut the TT off by putting her on a subcommittee to work things out with the bill's sponsor after the meeting.

The Ideological Virgin - IVs have some inviolable value that they will never compromise.  It could be preventing abortions, even if the fetus has no brain and the twelve year old mother was raped by her father.  Or it could be protecting ethnic minorities or the disabled from offensive language, even if the language is constitutionally protected.  Some legislators think cutting government is a sacred duty.   This form of ideological purity has been linked to Emanuel Kant whom I discuss in the " perish" link
Strategy:  Reason plays no role here.  Sometimes you can change words.  I heard one legislator who had pledged to vote against any tax, but who thought he might be able to vote for it if it were called a fee.  Best strategy is to get the Bulldozer and Game Player on your side. 

Image - Substance doesn't matter to these folks, they just want to look good in any number of ways.  Often the Power types have significant image issues - particularly the Ego.

The Slacker -   They come to meetings unprepared.  They didn't come to Juneau to work for crying out loud.  Yet they want to look like a real legislator so they feel compelled to comment on things they know nothing about.   They might randomly pick a sentence in a bill and ask a question about it.  It doesn't matter that it's already answered in the next line or it was just discussed.  They want to show they've done their homework, even if it was at the bar and the bill never got out of their briefcase. 
Strategy:  Tell them the bill protects their pet issue.  It doesn't matter if it's not true because they won't read the bill anyway. 

The Poseur -  The P is someone who feels like a loser and has copied the style, language, habits, and beliefs of people they consider the winners.  Being in the legislature is part of the disguise.  It gives them a sense of respectability.  Their makeover has fooled enough voters to get them elected.  In Juneau their biggest job is to avoid detection as a fraud.  They tend to be among the better dressed and better coiffed legislators and are particularly disparaging of people who remind them of their real selves.  Their vote is based on how they think it will impact their fake identity.
Strategy:  Compliment them on their tie or shoes, make them feel like insiders, and convince them their vote for your bill will improve their winner status. 

Public Service   These are the legislators who go to Juneau for the right reason - to make government work well to serve Alaskans.  Party isn't a big issue. Legislators motivated by a commitment to public service get past party labels and work things out.
The Do Gooder - Although this phrase is often used sarcastically,  I think it should be proudly reclaimed by those who are in the legislature to serve the public good and who are smart enough to recognize 'the public good' most of the time.  And I believe that most legislators think of themselves this way.  DGs aren't limited to one party or the other.   DGs  judge bills using rationality and empathy,  enriched by a value system based on the rule of law, the constitution, and the belief that humans can collectively improve their lot in life.   They may also take on some of the other roles at times.  They could act as Bulldozers to get an important law passed or become a Rule Stickler to block a bad bill. DGs are human beings and can get caught with image and ego problems just like all of us.  And they certainly get labeled as Game Players and Ideological Virgins by their opponents. 
  Use reason, logic, appeals to fairness, justice, and the other values in the constitutions of the US and Alaska.  
The Leader - This rare bird uses her power to pass legislation that gets the state's business accomplished efficiently and effectively.  She understands all the various types of legislators and how to appeal to each to keep everyone moving fast enough to get things done, but slow enough to get them done well.  She takes advantage of the Rule Stickler's knowledge, but cuts him off when he's wandering from the task at hand.  She helps the Poseurs and Slackers become Do Gooders.  And she doesn't let Ideological Virgins prevent necessary compromise.  And she gets agreement on a balanced budget by the end of the legislative session.  She's helped by various Process Facilitators who are skilled at cutting through the bullshit, clarifying issues, and constructively outing  obstructionists. 
My guess is that this year we have more of the problem types in the legislature, fewer Process Facilitators, and no Leaders in leadership positions.

I hope this list is helpful in identifying behaviors of legislators, but be careful not to label too hastily or to assume that any of these roles is always bad.  The trick is to figure out a) which role is any particular legislator playing at any particular time, and b) to understand the legislator's general underlying motivation. 

Using power is NOT necessarily a bad thing. A Do Gooder who can't get legislation passed doesn't actually get any good done.  There are times when being a Rule Stickler is important - either to prevent unintended future problems (was moving the special session to Anchorage actually legal?) or to strategically prevent a bad bill from passing.  Even the Poseur may be an important role to play.  If you're in the minority, you have very little power and may have to pose a bit for the majority to get anything done.  And just because someone is well-dressed doesn't make them a Poseur. Be careful. 

I'd add one more type to consider:  Liars.  I was going to include them in this post, but it's already long enough.  I'll talk about this dimension in another post soon.

One last note.  I've written this using my experience on university committees as well as watching the Anchorage Assembly over the years and a session blogging the Alaska Legislature.  Lots of people have worked on lists like this.  I did not look at what others have written, though I'm sure ideas I've read in the past have resurfaced here.  But I'd argue similarities to other lists like this result from the fact that human behavior repeats itself around the world. 


  1. Steve, well explored and stated. I can see by this list that on any given day, I would have to admit to having played too many of these roles. Me bad human.

    Yet more importantly, it points out how, as I possess admitedly deficient "emotional intelligence", I do rather poorly at playing well with others. Kinda like a friend once said, "I love humanity; it's people I can't stand".

    I think I'll stick to reading and writing, maybe a bit of lecturing. Something where I can duck.

  2. Jacob, Self awareness is a sign of wisdom. I suspect most people see other people in these roles, but not themselves.

  3. Thank you, and I'll admit that I do have my good days. Not all is lost (yet).
    Who knows? It could be there is hope for the Alaska Legislature!


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