Tchaikovsky Sounds Funny: Book Review: "Under the Gold Dome"

Is this where I put in key words such as sex, lesbians, vampires, Christopher Lloyd and others things to which this blog do not pertain, but by putting them here, I may get hits from all the Christoper Lloyd lesbian vampire fans (and you know who you are)? This is the primarily humorous and occasionally rambling writings of Leon Tchaikovsky, humor writer. Enjoy.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Book Review: "Under the Gold Dome"

Tchaikovsky Sounds Funny

Former Connecticut State Rep. Robert Satter has written a book about the Connecticut state legislature. Robert Satter served in the legislature during a time when the Hartford Times proclaimed “nothing can be praised about the conduct of the General Assembly in the last session except for the fact that the individual members have left town.” This is an interesting book in that is serves as both a guide to explaining to the public how the legislature operates intermixed with research and personal observations. It is unusual to find a descriptive book about the legislative institution from a former participant in the legislative process. This is a detailed and well written book that, for us, allows us to compare and contrast our legislatures.

The Connecticut legislature is part time and legislators are paid $28,000 plus expenses. This part-time nature guides many of the differences found between the Connecticut and Pennsylvania legislatures. Connecticut legislators meet for five months in odd numbered years. Special sessions can extend beyond that period, yet they are rare. A notable special session was held in 1991 that led to the creation of Connecticut 's state personal income tax.

In Connecticut, legislative committees are composed jointly of Senate and House members. This allows members from both chambers to hear the same hearing testimonies. Although a bill still has to pass both chambers before coming a law, having members from both chambers deliberating legislation together tends to reduce differences between the chambers.

Connecticut permits legislators to file legislation on line. 58% of bills introduced in 2001 were filed online.

The book tells the history of the Connecticut legislature as well as describing its operations. Each town in Connecticut until 1964 used to elect two legislators, from Union population 400 to Hartford population 162,175. 96 towns, representing 12% of the state's population, elected a majority of Connecticut 's state representatives. Further, the State Senate then had not undergone redistricting since 1903 in spite of a Constitutional requirement that it redistrict every decade. 31% of the state's population elected a majority of Connecticut 's Senators. This was of benefit to Republicans who controlled the House while the Senate reflected that the population that was more Democratic.

Connecticut slowly adopted its current legislative system. Failing to conform to a U.S. Supreme Court order that it adopt one person one vote, the Supreme Court canceled the 1964 legislative elections which forced a Constitution Convention in 1965. The Convention redistricted a new legislature and reduced its size of 294 representatives, which then made it the second largest state legislature in the nation behind New Hampshire . ( Pennsylvania now has the distinction of having the second largest number of legislators behind New Hampshire 's 400 legislators.)

For many decades, the leading political power in the Connecticut legislature wasn't even an elected legislator. J. Henry Rorabeck , Republican Party Chair, read ever bill in the morning and would approve which bills could pass every day from 1912 through 1933 until the Democrats took control of the Senate. He would sit outside the chambers and indicate, with a thumbs up or thumbs down, how the legislators should vote. Rorabeck continued influencing the House until his suicide in 1937. Democratic Party Chair John Bailey was a major influence on legislative matters from the 1946 until 1975.

The author notes that Bailey primarily was interested in electoral victory and did not personally benefit from legislation but was skilled in attempting to find compromises and keeping party unity. He often insisted that Senate Democrats vote as a unit once a majority was reached within the caucus. In fact, the author mentions that, because of this desire for party unity, sometimes an opponent could be appeased and receive more than someone loyal to Bailey . Yet, Bailey had a good memory and was known to extract political revenge later.

Rorabeck and his business friends, though, personally benefited from their legislative efforts. As a shareholder and officer of Connecticut Light and Power (CL&P), he saw the legislature benefited CL&P. He also defended business interests in fighting child labor laws and women's suffrage.

Political party chairs no longer have such influence. Indeed, when Democratic Party Char Ed Marcus, a former Senate Majority Leader, asked to meet with legislators, the authors noted that an “embarrassingly few” would even meet with him. The political party structure has severely weakened from decades ago. The author observes that political party allegiance in legislative voting is rare, except when insisted upon by legislative leaders on budget issues.

There are numerous procedural differences between the Pennsylvania and Connecticut legislatures. Bills, except budgetary items, in Connecticut are filed with a deadline early in the process versus our open filing date system. The joint legislative committees decide which bills are then drafted into formal proposals. Thus, it is noted the professional legislative drafters can wield some influence, which is a power seen less in Pennsylvania as our bills are drafted in bill form upon introduction. Bills given unfavorable recommendations by committees can move forward to a Chamber vote. Thus, sitting on a bill in committee, as in Pennsylvania , is the normal route to kill a bill. Also, unlike Pennsylvania , a bill can be referred to multiple committees and each committee needs to issue a report on the bill before the full Chamber can vote on it. The legislative leadership has the power to issue an emergency certification to bring a bill to a vote without committee action. Leadership seldom used this in the 1990s through 2002, although it was used several times in 2003.

Connecticut legislators, probably because they are part-time, invest less effort in their careers and thus have a higher turnover rate than in Pennsylvania . Incumbency and party endorsement still carries advantages. From 1990 to 2000, there were 101 primaries to nominate state legislators. The party endorsed candidate won 71 times and the challenger won 30 times.

The legislative process in Connecticut had its moments. The author recalls the day one legislator stood up to oppose a bill requiring vehicles to have only rear license plates instead of plates on both sides. The legislator argued that “this bill is an open invitation for guys to cheat on their wives. All they have to do is back their cars up to the motel. We can't let them get away with it so easily.” The bill passed in spite of this plea.

In sum, serving in the Connecticut legislature can be described as it was by Rep. Dorothy Goodwin upon retiring when she stated “the legislative experience is unique. I can hardly think of an adjective that does not apply: boring, dismaying, humiliating, exciting, exhilarating, ennobling…I would not have missed it for anything.” Interesting, this was similar to how Rep. Peg George stated she felt when she left the Pennsylvania legislature. Perhaps both said it all.


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