Stop Whining About “Waste of Time” Legislation


“The Pioneer Family” stands in front of the North Dakota State Capitol on July 14, 2016, in Bismarck. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

The beginning of North Dakota’s legislative session is like a holiday for those of us who make a living writing about politics and public policy, because in those weeks there are thousands of bills introduced proposing all manner of policy ideas ranging from the sensible to the zany.

It gives us a lot to write and talk about.

But accompanying this bounty of topics is the typical groaning, usually from the lightly informed, about how lawmakers “waste time” on pointless legislation.

My advice to the whiners?

Shut up. This is what democracy looks like.

What’s ironic is how these malcontents don’t realize that their grumping about “waste of time” legislation during our state’s constrained legislative session is a result of a political process which largely reflects priorities most North Dakotans share:

Most like that we have a Legislature which only meets for a limited amount of time

Most like that we have have part-time lawmakers

Most like that we have an open legislative process which stops committees or powerful legislative leaders from tabling bills

Most like that we have accessible lawmakers who are willing to put in ideas from constituents

That last is important fact to make note of. A lot of the time some of the legislation which makes headlines is the result of a legislator putting in something on behalf of a constituent who feels passionately about the issue. Often this lawmaker doesn’t support the legislation, and ultimately won’t vote for it, but there is a widespread feeling among our legislators that their constituents should at least get a chance to see their ideas floated in the legislative process.

What’s so bad about that?

[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]When I hear someone tell me a given bill is a “waste of time” what I conclude is that they aren’t smart enough, or informed enough, to say something more meaningful.[/mks_pullquote]

Also, what is and is not a “waste of time” is a subjective thing. For instance, I think the legislation introduced by Rep. Marvin Nelson, a Democrat from Rolla, to hike North Dakota’s minimum wage to $9.25 per hour (and create a mandate for automatic future increases) is an egregious waste of time.

Not only is it spectacularly poor policy, but it’s not going to pass. Republicans hold a super-majority in the Legislature, and I’d be surprised if a single one of them votes for Nelson’s bill. Why would they? The bill represents exactly the sort of shallow, short-sighted, left-wing economic thinking most in our state reject.

But I’m not going to whine about what a waste of time I think Nelson’s legislation is. I’ll argue against it, of course, but Nelson is a duly elected member of our legislative assembly and as such has ever right to float this policy idea. He clearly feels it’s the sort of thing his constituents want, and perhaps they do.

My point, though, is that if you’re going to complain about legislation you should argue the merits.

When I hear someone tell me a given bill is a “waste of time” what I conclude is that they don’t know enough about it to say something more meaningful.

On a related note, I do think we could make an argument for allowing the Legislature to meet for more days in a given biennium (they’re currently limited to 80) or more often. What concerns me are the checks and balances in state government. The branches of government are supposed be a check on one another, but is the Legislature enough of a check on the executive and judicial branches when it can only meet for 80 days every two years?

It’s worth debating.