(1) An outstanding lobbyist. He was an astute lawyer and former senator, knew the legislature backwards and forwards, was greatly respected by all law-makers, and was a recognized expert on the bill´s subject: liquor laws.
(2) A professional and perfectionist, the lobbyist had done a superb job. Nearly all of the Democrats, who were in the majority in the House of Representatives, cosponsored the bill, which meant there were enough signatures to pass it outright. My boss, the Majority Floor Leader, was among them. Ballgame over.
(3) The bill did not create a major change. It merely put into law a practice that had been in effect for 30 years.
(4) The bill was a special interest measure, but of very small consequence overall. The benefactor was a strong family man, a community leader and a fervent Catholic who practiced what others preach. He was also a fire-breathing Democrat who at the drop of a hat who would serve as finance chairman of any Democrat´s campaign. If he liked you he would throw a dinner and raise 20-30 K; presto, for a House campaign your money problems were solved.
Yet, the bill crashed and burned?
The lobbyist and his client committed the biggest mistake possible: the bill´s primary sponsor was, to put it diplomatically, a jerk.
The following case study is intended to show the complex relationships among lobbyists, their clients and legislative leaders. Contrary to everything you have seen, read or heard, no street among them is entirely one-way.
Before proceeding, I had better explain something…
When is a day not 24 hours?
Answer: when it is a “legislative day.” Many if not most state legislatures work by legislative days, which may or may not correspond to calendar days. To be sure, for the first and the last day of a legislative session, calendar days and legislative days coincide. In the meantime, a legislative day is determined not by the sun or stars, but by the leadership moving to “roll the clock.” When that happens, a new legislative day begins. Rolling the clock is routine and can happen any minute.
You ask, what´s the deal? Why not just have calendar days and be done with it?
I suspect the origin of legislative days has to do with the troublesome relationship between law-makers and the law; after all, if they have the power to make laws, they must somehow be outside them – that is to say, above them. To prove it, first, many law-makers feel a compulsion to break the law, which is happening right now someplace. Second, to show they control laws, they place themselves in charge of time itself; they have the power to say when days end and begin. Third and finally, the phenomenon of the legislative day allows for certain “flexibility.” What that means in practical terms remains to be seen…
* * *
My boss, the House Majority Floor leader, was fit to be tied, which means his remarks were unfit for publication here.
“Snowflake has done it again! Tied up my bill in House Judiciary Committee! This is absolutely the last straw!”
In legislatures a flake is the lowest of the low, something akin to child molesters in prison. You can be a flaming liberal or a diehard conservative; nobody cares. You cannot, however, be a flake. Flakes are used and abused, to be thrown out with the rest of the trash.
Snowflake was surely one of the biggest flakes in history. A freshman legislator in his second year, he would wait in committees for tie votes and then abstain. The law-makers were then “invited” to his office to iron things out. Sometimes when they returned, one person had changed his vote to allow for passage/failure – whereupon Snowflake would vote the opposite way, thus creating another tie. Again, the law-makers were invited to his office... At other times he would vote with the majority, which made the majority happy and the minority disgruntled. An hour or two later, he would move to reconsider the vote, making the majority furious and the minority confused. He never laughed or smiled; never said hello.
End product: a congenital cold fish.
Everybody hated Snowflake, including the telephone operators and doormen. One morning I overheard two infamous Monkey Girls (see post 3-28-2012, “Lobbyists (1): Tips, Tricks, Traps”) discussing Snowflake. One of them sighed, “It´s like being kissed by a snail.”
As for the “Snow”: the allusion was to his facial complexion which was a whiter white. I don´t know how he did it but he was a perfect candidate for a Tide commercial or a part in “Night of The Living Dead.”
Snowflake hated me from day-one. I was the only other Ph.D. in the place; he could not pull rank. His was in mathematics. The leadership speculated that Snowflake was engaging in some sort of advanced, complex mathematical strategy, e.g., he was collecting IOUs from legislators for a future run for governor. In grad school I took a political coalition seminar centered on William Riker´s Theory of Political Coalitions. The book’s advanced calculus was beyond me; however I knew enough to know that no Master Strategy whatsoever was occurring in Snowflake´s case.
Why, then, was he such an obsessive obstructionist? Inquiring minds wanted to know. The leaders talked to him; as always, he said little or nothing.
Eventually, the conundrum was solved not in the legislature but a block away, at the local political watering hole. I happened to see Snowflake enter the premises and slightly duck so as to avoid banging his head on the top of the doorway. The event would have been unremarkable had the doorway not been some nine feet off the ground. There it was, hidden in plain view -- Snowflake´s mysterious inner essence: The Ego is Refreshed by Frequently Parading in Public.
The Majority Floor Leader stood with arms akimbo, gave me a scary look. “See if you can´t come up with a way to get rid of that creep. This is his last session!”
I had a new assignment.
* * *
The following day something incredible happened:
Snowflake sponsored a bill of the floor of the House.
Flakes usually sponsor no legislation. To do so would show they want something. A flake by definition wants nothing -- at least nothing identifiable. His reasoning: to want something definable would define him, hence weaken him. And so, if you want something, he believes, that is your weakness. He wants others to guess, surmise, wonder, and above all, to talk.
In short, a flake is pure process, no reality. He is active inactivity incarnate.
This bill was Snowflake`s pet bill. That conclusion was obvious because the bill consisted of a convoluted mathematical formula. What it actually did: create a legal monopoly to sell beer at the State Fair for one man, Mr. Beer, the state distributor for a well-known brew. Nobody else would qualify -- the bill´s hieroglyphics and verbal gymnastics made sure of it. Mr. Beer had held the State Fair monopoly for 30 years, so nothing new would happen; the bill simply would put legal icing on the cake.
With little or no discussion, Snowflake´s bill had sailed through the House Government and Public Affairs Committee. All the Republicans voted against it; they hated Mr. Beer almost as much as Democrats loved him. But the GOPs were in the minority so their objections were instantly overruled.
I looked at the calendar for that day’s floor action. Snowflake´s bill was coming up for a vote in an hour. Given the Democrats´ unflinching support, the bill would pass by a comfortable margin; there would be a round of applause and backslapping -- the customary rite of passage when a freshman legislator gets his first bill through the House. The rest would be history: the bill would sail through the senate and go to the governor for his signature.
Holding the calendar in my hand, I noticed something. I turned to the Floor Leader: “Confirm something. We are 3 legislative days behind calendar days.”
“What of it?” he asked/answered.
“I see a Movida.”
We hashed out a plan…
First stop: the Democrat Whip next door. The Whip is well named; he rounds up his party members for floor votes.
“Make sure 10 members wander off the floor when Snowflake presents his bill.” The Whip made us repeat the order; it was diametrically opposed to everything he had seen or done.
Second stop: the Minority Floor Leader's office. That´s right -- the Republicans.
Their Leader looked up, astonished. “What´s up?”
I pointed to Snowflake´s bill. “Can you make sure all your members are present this morning?”
“Wait a second,” he responded, buzzing the Minority Whip next door. “Bob isn´t going to believe this.”
Bob The GOP Whip instantly appeared.
“We are hoping you will all be there and vote against Snowflake´s bill,” I explained.
The Minority Floor leader sensed a trap. “What if we vote against it?” he asked: “You guys have the votes to beat us.”
“Don´t worry,” I responded. “That won´t happen. It´s wired up.”
The two Republican leaders looked me up and down in disbelief. The Floor Leader laughed: “Snowflake and Mr. Beer go down together. It´s rare to get two for the price of one.”
A few minutes later, at 10:00, the floor session started. The roll call showed all House members were present.
Snowflake´s bill was first on the agenda. Freshmen legislators often present 2 bills in succession; the strategy is to let the first bill get debated, trashed, knocked out. Thereafter the legislators pause, feel guilty about so mercilessly beating up their poor little colleague´s bill, hence they pass -- often unanimously -- his second bill. The second bill is of course the “real” bill. In this manner all sorts of trash is passed which normally wouldn´t get to first base. Snowflake had no phony “lead” bill to sacrifice, which meant he and his lobbyist were absolutely, positively, definitely sure of passage of Mr. Beer´s bill.
Snowflake, as usual, didn`t have much to say. Bored, boring, he mumbled and rambled from a text the lobbyist has prepared. The Republicans then took the floor and fervently denounced the bill as a monopolistic measure detrimental to other beer companies in particular* and to capitalism in general. In the meantime, Democrats quietly slipped out the back floor.
To be a legislative leader, you must know how to count. I watched the electronic vote tally board light up for the vote. The Whip had not done his job brilliantly. Because of the absent Democrats, the “Nays” barely outnumbered the “Ayes.”
The Floor Leader and I watched anxiously one light in particular: Snowflake`s. It was on “Aye” until the last two seconds, when it switched to “Nay.” His bill failed by 3 votes.
Why on earth -- you are no doubt wondering -- would Snowflake vote against his own bill?
After a saccharin memorial honoring somebody´s hometown basketball team loaded with prospering B squaders, the Floor Leader moved to roll the clock twice. Presto: two legislative days flew by in a few seconds.
We shook hands. The trap was set.
In that afternoon´s floor session, all house members were present. I watched Snowflake obsessively count off the Democrats, then grab his microphone and demand to be recognized.
“Mr. Speaker,” he intoned, “having voted with the majority, I now move that the vote by which House Bill (number) failed to pass this House now be reconsidered.”
“Gentleman from (Snowflake´s county), you are out of order,” the Speaker said.
“Mr. Speaker, what…what do you mean, `Out of order`? I voted with the majority! That gives me the right to move to reconsider the vote by – “
“Motions to reconsider must be made the same or the following day, Gentleman from (Snowflake´s county),” the Speaker explained.
Snowflake was stupefied. “This is the same day, Mr. Speaker! The vote in question took place this morning! Four hours ago! I was right here! In fact, I was the one who --”
The Speaker´s patience evaporated. “´Day´ in this case is legislative day, not calendar day.”
I watched in bemused horror as Snowflake stood there with ass in hand. Finally, his facial complexion changed -- to caboose red. I say horror because if he had a machinegun he would have mowed down everybody in the place, visitors and press included.
* * *
A few beads were left to string.
I went to see Mr. Beer.
I knew him well from past campaigns. I would go to his office and gave him the latest, top secret poll results to which, as Finance chief, he was fully entitled. At the appropriate moment, I would look at the floor.
“We´re running low on beer at the headquarters. I was wondering if -- ”
At this point Mr. Beer would invariably cut me off. A prepared speech appeared. “Tom, I´m a wholesaler. I can´t sell beer to private individuals. It´s illegal. The reason is I could easily undercut every retailer out there, put them out of business. However, I can give you all the free beer you want.”
“How about 5 cases?”
“Fine, Tom. I´ll have my men put them in your car.” Off I went.
I always dreaded going to his office, not because of Mr. Beer who was always a pleasure to talk with, but because of the neighborhood where his beer distributorship was located. Until you got inside the front gate, you were taking your life in your hands.
For this particular meeting, I had called ahead. I knew we were in for a serious session when I noticed all the window blinds were shut.
I apologized profusely for the untimely death of his bill. I told him his lobbyist had done an excellent job and had nothing to do with the defeat. However, the simple fact of the matter was that because Snowflake was the primary sponsor, the bill was in trouble. I described in great detail how Snowflake was a chronic, neurotic nuisance.
Mr. Beer nodded knowingly, sighed. “Tom, you are confirming what everybody else has been saying. The guy can´t hack it. I let him sponsor the bill because he married one of my in-laws. That´s the only connection.”
I told Mr. Beer that the Majority Floor Leader had talked with the governor. The State Fair was run by a commission of 5 people appointed by the governor for staggered 6-year terms. The commission was already stacked with Mr. Beer´s men. The governor promised to renew their appointments. Thus, Mr. Beer´s de facto monopoly was safe for many years to come. In the end, the only thing Mr. Beer lost was legal, formal approval.
“I can live with that,” he said. I mentioned the possibility of introducing the same bill in the senate. He shook his head: “No need for that now.”
Which meant there was no longer any need for Snowflake. A week later Mr. Beer turned up the heat; Snowflake melted, declined to run for re-election. I later heard he divorced Mr. Beer´s in-law, left town, disappeared.
I can´t help but wonder what happened to Snowflake. I don´t think he ever appeared in a Tide commercial or horror movie. Sometimes I picture him in a fish canning factory in Alaska, working alongside a book editor who turned down Harry Potter.
Sitting in Mr. Beer´s dim office decorated with a few dusty sports team trophies and off-center Chamber of Commerce plaques, it was hard to believe he was one of the wealthiest men in the state. By the same token, it was easy to believe he had other priorities than impressing people or selling beer.
Mr. Beer showed me to the door, saying he would call the lobbyist and tell him everything was all right. He even acknowledged that the fault was his own, that the lobbyist had questioned Mr. Beer´s choice of primary sponsors, but Mr. Beer had insisted. I reiterated that the lobbyist was the best man for the job, that he was a walking encyclopedia of liquor laws from Alabama to Zimbabwe, and that legislators could always count on him for fast, reliable information.
Mr. Beer shook his head. “Damn. I knew all along…Flake...You should see the guy at family reunions. At least, that´s what they used to be.”
I wasn´t sure Mr. Beer was truly satisfied with the outcome until he opened the door.
“Tom, do you need any beer?”
It is there, somewhere, in an official House of Representatives Journal.
We have all heard the rule that nobody is perfect. We also have heard that there is an exception to every rule.
When Snowflake voted against his own bill, he flaked out on everybody -- including himself.
*No beer distributor ever stepped up to the microphone and complained about Mr. Beer´s State Fair monopoly. I suspect a secret quid pro quo was in place: Mr. Beer got the State Fair in exchange for…
NOTE: as always, in order to perplex and confound the enemy, some details in the above account have been changed.