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GRAVES: Sausage and legislation


As an undergraduate political science major -- a pursuit which always met with the same response from my father, i.e. "Ever considered a field at which you might be able to make a living, Joseph?" -- at South Dakota State University in the early 1980s, I had the great fortune of enrolling repeatedly in the courses offered by Professor Bob Burns. Professor Burns was an entertaining lecturer but, more importantly, he was also one who provided a comprehensive review of any field on which he was expositing. His coverage was relentless, leaving no stone unturned, exploring all relevant political principles and offering a myriad of real-life examples in the pursuit of such.

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But, as with all great professors, one also took away some major understanding from any course Dr. Burns offered, some distillation of all of the facts and examples so thoroughly expounded upon. From one such course, titled "The Public Policy Making Process" or something similar in an apparent victory of accuracy over marketing, came the realization that the political process resulting in law and other public policy was rarely, if ever, logical. We may tell children that in the process by which a bill becomes a law that a legislator proposes a bill and, if enough other legislators believe it to be in the public interest, it will be enacted, but so many other factors intrude as to belie this one of many underlying assumptions of the republican form of government. Or as Bismarck offered, "There are two things you don't want to see being made -- sausage and legislation."

For the first will turn your stomach and the second break your heart.

(And, in fact, one political scientist recently published a paper suggesting that the former has actually improved and become more sanitized while the latter has, if anything, deteriorated.)

I was reminded of this recently in listening to testimony on educational bills before the state legislature. Interestingly, I find that there are certain areas of agreement for Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals, one of them being a belief in "local control." The argument is simple and persuasive. People closest to issues and governmental services are those best able to make decisions on those issues and services. People less proximate -- in Pierre or Washington -- have a poorer understanding and so have little business dictating to those actually "in the trenches."

But I'm not sure anyone really believes in local control with any genuine fervor of general applicability. Rather, and consistent with the teaching of Burns, at least as I remember it three decades hence, people believe things out of self-interest, out of non-rational commitment, out of unexamined "common sense" and out of the need to swap favors with other legislators and constituents in order to lubricate the system. (This is by no means an exhaustive list.) As a result, legislators and others argue local control when it serves their purposes and ignore it when it does not.

Unfortunately, I am similarly afflicted with a lack of logical adherence to the value of local control. I am for it when it comes to personnel and scheduling and calendar decisions. I am for it when it comes to school budgets. I am for it when it comes to board policy. Yet I am against it when it comes to opening up the usages of the pension and capital outlay levy, believing doing so will result in the collapsing of those levies into the general fund levy and the quick deterioration of school district facilities, grounds and equipment (to which the experience of other states will testify). Yet, in doing so, I am admitting that local officials cannot be trusted to consistently do the right thing and will be cajoled or worn down or bullied out of sound public policy decisions in order to keep the peace. Again, based upon the experience of other states, I am convinced this is precisely what will happen and so oppose local control in this area.

Which, I know, is irrational, logically inconsistent with my principles and an abandonment of the idea that the local decision-maker can be trusted to regularly make the right decision. Which I suppose has something to do with the fact that public policy is about regulating the behavior and interests of human beings, unfortunately a deeply non-rational species about whom principles (such as the superiority of local control) can be applied but rarely or never with 100 percent success. Deciding when the principle is appropriate and when it is not is the unfortunate job of the legislator. And since they are chosen from a non-rational electorate, it seems unlikely they will be able to make such determinations with anything like complete accuracy. And so we are left in the hands of a non-rational policy-making process populated by non-rational decision-makers.

Which sounds depressing but for the enlightened musings of one other political observer, Winston Churchill: "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." As with so many things, our democracy relies upon our faith in it.

Besides, I happen to like sausage.

-Joe Graves is superintendent of Mitchell public schools.

Joe Graves
Joe Graves is the superintendent of the Mitchell School District. He writes a weekly column for The Daily Republic during the school year.