As the legislature mercifully comes to its predictably frantic close, we should be asking ourselves, “Why would anyone want this chaos every single year?” Nonetheless, there are plenty of activists, lawmakers, government agencies and special interests who would love to do just that—move to yearly legislative sessions rather than our usual biennial affair.
In 2019, Senator Joyce Woodhouse opined that, “Our state simply cannot adequately address rapidly changing conditions, a complex budget and policy (matters) by meeting every other year.” If she had stopped that sentence five words earlier, it would be one that most free-market advocates could appreciate. Obviously, Sen. Woodhouse wasn’t exactly wrong about the legislature’s inability to solve our economic, social and cultural problems—however, pointing out the ineffectiveness of our political leaders is an odd way of arguing they should have more power.
And make no mistake, more frequent legislative sessions would be greatly empowering to politicians, lobbyists, government special interests and the politically connected. Woodhouse—and those like her—are right in pointing out that biennial legislative sessions slow down the already deliberative and cumbersome process of a representative government. What they don’t seem (willing) to understand, however, is that it is a feature of the system… not a bug.
Nevada’s part-time legislative schedule is designed to protect against the political urge politicians feel to legislate “solutions” to virtually every perceived ill in society with the blunt-force melee of government action. Less frequent legislative sessions act as a bulwark against such runaway political grandstanding, by ensuring (or at least increasing the likelihood) that state lawmakers focus primarily on longer term issues—leaving local governments to tackle the more mundane and nuanced challenges facing constituents.
Of course, it doesn’t always work out the way it should. The end of pretty much every legislative session in Nevada is a whirlwind of activity catered to the pet-projects of the majority party and their politically connected interests in government and business.
However, such indiscriminate absurdity on display in Carson City is, nonetheless, tempered between sessions by one particularly important factor: Time.
Unlike residents in states with full time (professional) legislatures, Nevadans have the luxury of a year off between sessions—a sort of intermission that simply does not exist for residents of states with an always active political class. The time between sessions gives grassroots activists and regular Nevadans the opportunity to effect political change unlike citizens in states where the legislature seems perpetually in session.
Professional lobbyists, special interests and government insiders will always have the ability, resources and dedication to pursue their niche needs from lawmakers and politicians. A part-time citizen legislature means that a part-time citizen-activist network has more leverage than it otherwise would—placing them on a more level playing field with the professional interests that thrive on building up the political class.
The problems we see at the end of our regular sessions aren’t a function of too few legislative days on the calendar or too few legislative sessions each biennium. They are, instead, a consequence of blinding disregard for legislative prioritization by politicians. The feckless way in which politicians waste everyone’s time during the first half of the session with grandstanding, favoritism and pet projects won’t be constrained by expanding the legislative calendar—it will be amplified.
Crucially, the citizen nature of our legislature is, perhaps, the single most important aspect of ensuring a truly representative system of government for Nevadans. For 120 days every two years, our chosen representatives are sent to Carson City to legislate. However, the rest of the time, they ostensibly earn their living (and spend their days) doing what their constituents do: laboring under the very laws they put in place.
With a full-time legislature, on the other hand, comes a full-time political ecosystem, complete with activists, lobbyists and professional politicians ready to grift off such an expansion of legislative power. Of course, Nevada has its fair share of grifters and political professionals as it is—but the part-time nature of our legislative schedule acts as at least one naturally-limiting factor to the expansion of such behavior.
Besides, it means we only have to deal with the chaos accompanying the final days of a legislative session once every couple of years—and as it is, by this time every biennium, that feels like more than often enough.