There’s little mystery as to where Rick Perry came up with his new plan to halve Congressional salaries and keep legislators out of DC for half the year. It’s how the Texas governor’s own state operates.
“When they’re not here it is necessarily limited government,” Perry staffer Will Franklin said Tuesday, describing Texas’ legislature on a conference call with bloggers. “It’s limited government by design because they’re not here messing things up. And thats the idea.”
Despite housing the second largest population and economy in the nation, the Lone Star state’s legislature meets only once every other year and its members are paid a small annual stipend of $7,200. While a number of states also feature low-paid, part-time “citizen legislators,” most are smaller and more rural with less complex governments to oversee.
“The Texas situation is not one you’ll find anyplace else,” Peverill Squire, a political science professor at University of Missouri and senior editor at Legislative Studies Quarterly, told TPM.
But deliberately reducing the state legislature’s role in running the government means that someone has to step in and fill the void. In Texas, it’s the various state boards and commissioners who end up with outsized power. And while the governor is traditionally a relatively weak executive, if they hang around long enough to install their favored appointees — like Perry has — they can accrue an impressive amount of influence.
“It’s just really hard for the legislature get things done withen your government is run by a hundred boards and commissions appointed by a governor who has next to no voice in the legislature,” Bob Stein, a professor of political science at Rice University, told TPM.
“They give the governor a lot of power. Even with Republicans with large majorities, the chairman of finance couldn’t move anything without the governor’s blessing.”
In addition, Squire says that legislators who work part-time tend to have lower levels of information about the relevant issues when the legislature is in session. The result is that they’re even more reliant on help from outside groups, a situation that good government advocates won’t necessarily be thrilled to hear.
“Theres a great deal of value and experience that’s somewhat underestimated in how government works,” he said. “When legislators dont have that information at their disposal they have to look elsewhere and it usually resides with either the executive branch or interest groups who work full time on those issues.”
On a Congressional level, this could mean further empowering three actors that Republicans are highly skeptical of: lobbyists, federal bureaucrats, and — when a Democrat is in charge — the President.
Then there’s the issue of scale: the federal government just does a whole lot more than even the largest state. Most notably foreign policy and defense, which both require constant attention. Asked by a conservative blogger how they would address this concern, a Perry aide said the plan would be to bring back legislators for emergencies — just like they do in Texas.
Of course, the case can be made that part of Perry’s plan already has been put into place already (which might explain all the lobbyists). The Washington Post’s Felicia Sonmez notes that the House is only scheduled to be in session for 109 weekdays in 2012, putting them well in line with Perry’s proposal to keep them around DC only half the time.
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.