If lawmakers were more like firefighters

Friday, August 31, 2012

The enormous fire south of Monett on Wednesday underlined how vulnerable we are to the threat of fire. Fortunately, our firefighters not only respond quickly but like to work together.

You wonder why our politicians can't do the same.

Firemen, after all, know what fire is. Politicians don't agree on what fire is, even when they see it. They disagree on what problems are worth fixing. And if it's in someone else's backyard, too bad.

Good thing our firefighters don't think like that.

If Missouri lawmakers were required to work more like firefighters, maybe they could get more accomplished.

A special session of the Missouri General Assembly in the summer used to be the equivalent of a fire bell. Now, not even that guarantees anything will be accomplished. If they were called out more often, or if the General Assembly was forced to meet at different times of the year, if conditions were less predictable, maybe a stronger commitment to find consensus would develop.

If Missouri lawmakers were required to have more training every year, they would find better ways to agree. If they were required to spend time working in other states, figuring out how other state legislatures do their job, maybe they would be exposed to different ideas that would make them more productive.

Rural lawmakers and those from St. Louis and Kansas City ought to be forced to switch districts for a month and better learn what the other's problems are.

Term limits haven't solved the problem. It may have only put less experienced egos in the way of those who are sincere about putting out fires.

Petitioned initiatives that go around the legislature haven't solved the problem. Well funded special interests push these propositions for reasons of their own. They disguise their proposals to look like something of general interest, but they're just as often icebergs lurking under the water, ready to tear out the bottom of the boat.

Petitioned propositions have never gone through a committee of legislators, who hold hearings to determine what the language in the bill is supposed to mean. If a situation comes up later before a judge, there's no testimony to fall back upon to show what the law was intended to do, or not do.

So going around the General Assembly to create new laws is seldom a good idea. The alternative generally leads to bad laws, or badly written laws that cry out to be redone.

If state legislators worked more like firefighters, they would have a stronger sense of urgency. They would work together better. They would have successes together and would go home tired and dirty after a long day's work in the field. They'd get to go home sooner, because both parties worked harder.

They'd see the faces of the people whose home they saved. They'd know who wasn't willing to work. They might listen to each other more than their distant party bosses and their hidden agendas.

And they might earn the respect of the public again.