Sunday, September 16, 2012

Functions of the Guam Legislature

Recently there have been occasional trickles of criticism for the Guam Legislature. I recall Dr. Ron McNinch suggesting that the legislature may have passed too many laws; former Senator Robert Klitzkie complained that basically the legislature tried to be too involved in the day-to-day functions of government; Lee Webber gives credit to five senators for the current hiatus in the military build-up; Mr. Shringi has taken the position that Guam needs to revert to a part-time legislature. I feel a little basic political science for the legislative theory may prove somewhat helpful to elucidate the core missions of the legislature.

The most obvious role of the Guam Legislature (or any legislative body) is to write and pass laws. This entails drafting bills (usually utilizing staff to one degree or another), introducing them, referral to committees with subject-matter jurisdiction and the connected public hearings and committee reports (including possible amendments by the committees), then deliberation, amendments and passage on the floor, and then sending them to the governor for his signature or veto. This is just a thumbnail sketch, essentially.

Then there is the often discussed role of creating a budget. Every year, the Governor submits a budget proposal to the legislature. It has a revenue projection for the various sources of funding and proposed spending levels for each agency and program. Let's just say revenues forecasting is not a perfect science. Sometimes it's on, sometimes it's off. But the forecast is not necessarily sacrosanct because the administration may have left something out, like how the Governor's 2012 budget left out the MLR rebate that has now been received by the government from Calvo's SelectCare for premium overpayments. Also, the legislature can add in revenue-enhancements, like fee or tax increases (without a public hearing, in many cases). This is a complicated process, but in the end the legislature grants the governor authority to spend within certain limits for agencies and programs, although the spending is actually accomplished by the administration. Much of this isn't completely relevant to this  discussion, but just for public education.

There is also a role for legislators as advocates for constituents with problems, to help them deal effectively with the bureaucracy. Some may think this improper, but there are some members of the community who simply face problems and do not know the laws and regulations sufficiently well in order to get results and clearly someone needs to help them from time to time. Then there's the role of the legislature in keeping the administration accountable for its decisions and sometimes helping to find problems with regulations, laws or even government operations.  Some may think that the legislature is overstepping its authority when it acts "parliamentary" and has inquiries into various problems, but I am not aware of many cases where it actually made things worse to have some degree of transparency in the operations of government.

Now let me get down to my criticism of the criticisms of the current legislature. I may even decide at some point to criticize my and others' criticisms of the criticisms, but I say that mostly in jest. If there's one argument I really didn't get from Dr. McNinch it is his implication that the legislature had passed too many bills.  From my point of view, this seems a problematic statement. Unless we believe that laws inherently bad, the argument shouldn't be about the quantity of bills, but their quality. Also, presumably if the legislature is wrong to have passed all the bills it has, is the governor as wrong for signing most of them into law?

There is criticism about certain Guam legislators stances on the military buildup, but I think it is somewhat misplaced. For one thing, the U.S. Senators have been most concerned with (a) relocation of the Futenma forces, (b) the costs of the buildup and (c) inadequate planning of the buildup. The fact is, that if you listened to Governor Eddie Calvo during the 2010 campaign, there was a lot of rhetoric about making the military buildup a "Guam buildup": that the improvement and expansion of military facilities should be accompanied by Federally-funded improvements and expansions of local government facilities.  This is not so dissimilar from some of the views within the "Fab 5". In fact, in Governor Calvo's Weekly Radio Address of January 24, 2011, entitled "Land for the People", Governor Calvo said, "I am so grateful for Senator Judi Guthertz's leadership over the military buildup in the legislature. She has been a constant voice of reason, standing up for Guam and communicating effectively with the military. I know she also shares our vision to use returned lands to help you and your children." In his first State of the Island on March 14, 2011, Governor Calvo, after discussing progress on the military buildup, said, "Senator Guthertz, please stand and be recognized by the people of Guam for your leadership through this historic time, and undying commitment to the preservation of our history." In fact, in Governor Calvo's second State of the Island address on February 1, Governor Calvo said, "Senator Guthertz, Congresswoman Bordallo, and members of the Chamber of Commerce, I want to thank you for advocating for the [buildup]." I don't really understand why Lee Webber keeps talking about the Fab 5, when the Governor stands/stood behind Senator Guthertz. And if Guthertz, who has been a constant and responsible advocate for the buildup, can be so misrepresented, maybe the whole narrative of the Fab 5 is just wrong. In fact, the first reference I remember to the Fab 5 was by John Jackson, who was acting like the "pause" in the buildup was the end of the world, even though less than a year before he was saying it was a good thing because it would give the community on Guam more of a chance to prepare for it.

As for the idea of a part-time legislature, I think that has a few issues. First, thinking about how much time/money/energy must be invested in a run for the legislature, it seems to me that if our Senators are not "employed" by the legislature (and get a reasonable salary), it's a considerable sacrifice for a middle income individual to make and may make the legislature the exclusive province of the wealthy. Second, without a good salary there may be more of a temptation to cut deals for Senators to benefit themselves. This is the reason the Singaporean government gives for not only paying legislators a full-time middle class salary, but like executives (that goes a bit too far, in my opinion). In fact, Guam's Senators are not overpaid relative to U.S. states with full-time legislators.

As with anybody, I have my complaints about the Guam Legislature. I would like to see more aggressive policy which strengthens the social safety net, invests in the future, supports a higher standard of living for local workers in business and government and which leads to a more stable and prosperous economy in the present and future. That being said, I am not sure that we need a big turnover to make that possible, just a more determined and visionary approach to policy.

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