The primary duty of the legislative branch is lawmaking. In performing this lawmaking function, representatives make decisions about which bills to support, which bills to oppose, and how vocal they should be about these choices. Legislators have a set of opinions about political issues called an ideology that helps guide these public policy decisions.
Types of legislative decisions facing lawmakers include:
- Drafting and introducing a piece of legislation
- Speaking on behalf of a bill in committee
- Voting in committee to report out a bill
- Debating for or against a bill during floor session
- Discussing bills with other colleagues
- Voting for or against a bill on final reading
- Speaking with legislative leaders about a bill
- Discussing a bill with the governor
- Making a bill a "priority" bill
Legislators must often choose between contrasting opinions when making a legislative decision. Their constituents may hold very different opinions, which they each expect their representatives to consider. (Remember - there are 35,000 constituents in a district!) Additionally, should a citizen become unsatisfied with the way a legislator represents him - perhaps by voting for a bill that he is opposed to- he may support a different candidate in the next election. Consequently, legislative decisions, which must be made frequently during sessions, may be very difficult.
There are a number of additional factors that make "representing" difficult. First, citizens may lack the wealth of information available to legislators, particularly on very technical bills. Thus, legislators must balance citizen opinion with the level of information about an issue that is available to the average citizen. If legislators believe that their constituents are poorly informed, they are likely to vote based on their own ideology.
Second, on some issues constituencies may be divided into a vocal minority and a silent majority. In other words, the very loud opinions of one group of constituents may be representative of only a small portion of the legislator's larger constituency. The vast majority of a legislato's constituents may have a very different - but much less publicized- opinion on an issue. Legislators, then, must often gage whether opinion on an issue is representative of the beliefs of the population as a whole.
Finally, there may be demographic groups in a society whose needs are not well represented by legislators of other demographic groups. For example, many legislatures in the country have very few female representatives, even though the percentage of women in the state's population may be larger than the percentage of men. This fact concerns many individuals who worry that male representatives would be less able to understand the policy concerns of female citizens than would female representatives. Similarly, many minority groups - including African Americans and Native Americans- are under-represented in legislatures. This leads to the concern that a legislature that is not as diverse as the population at large will be unresponsive to the needs of these minority groups.
Given these difficulties, how exactly does a member of the legislature go about deciding whether to vote for or against a bill?
Interviewees: Sen. Ernie Chambers and Sen. Cap Dierks
"How Legislators Make Decisions" explores the process through which representatives reach legislative decisions, particularly when constituency groups are at odds.
Critical Thinking Exercise
Pretend that you are a member of the Nebraska Unicameral. An important vote is coming up on a bill of which your constituents do not approve. However, you think that the policy will help the state of Nebraska.
- Should you vote with your constituents or should you vote your own conscience?
- What effects could voting with your constituents have?
- What effects could voting based on your own opinions have?
Constituents are not the only group outside government who seek to influence public policy. There are three additional groups that seek to influence legislative decision-making: citizens, government officials, and organized interests.
Citizens: Citizens of another state (or the country generally) may attempt to influence a legislator's support for or opposition to a particular bill. For example, consider the following hypothetical situation: A bill is being considered in the Wyoming legislature that would allow a chemical plant near the Platte River to dump a small percentage of its waste materials into the water. Many citizens of Wyoming are alarmed by the legislation, which may kill the animals living in and near the river. However, even though the bill may initially seem to be important only to the citizens of Wyoming, Nebraskans who use or enjoy the Platte River may also be affected. Consequently, a state legislator in Wyoming may be asked to consider not only the needs of his constituents in Wyoming, but also other citizens of the country, as well.
Government Officials: Members of the government may also want to influence how a legislator votes on a bill. An official from the executive branch, such as the governor, may believe that a bill is good for citizens of Nebraska. Consequently, he or she may ask a legislator to support it. In contrast, one of the legislator's 48 colleagues - also government officials - may argue that the proposed legislation would be very harmful for the state, and may request that the legislator oppose it.
Organized Interest Groups: Some citizens and constituents form organizations to rally support for or opposition to a bill. These organizations, also called interest groups, work to achieve a particular public policy goal. An interest group's goal may be raising wages, lowering taxes, or cleaning the environment. Interest groups encourage members to engage in activities that support their positions, including sending letters to legislators.
Critical Thinking Exercise
Pretend that you are a member of the Nebraska Unicameral Legislature from your own district. You must get the input of your citizens before making a decision about an upcoming vote.
- Where in your district will you travel to get in touch with your constituents?
- Do you visit schools? County fairs? Community events?