Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Steve Flowers: Inside the Statehouse: State lawmakers wield more power than you might think

  In the literary classic, “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” the author draws parallels to a nation that was on top of the world and because of perverse, grandiose and pompous behavior that dynasty destroyed itself. It was from reading this documentary that the Russian premier Khrushchev believed that we, the United States, would destroy ourselves, thus causing him to brashly declare, “We will bury you.”

  One of the travails of Rome, as illustrated in the book, was the power and arrogance of the Roman Senate. Roman Senators were given immense power and prestige and allowed to live lavishly at the public’s expense. They, with the concurrence of Caesar, were allowed to control the Roman purse strings and thus dispensed the public funds generously among themselves. They lived a royal life with lavish luxuries and opulence generally reserved for royalty. It led to a life of comfort and debauchery that Solomon warned about in Proverbs, “pride goeth before a fall.”

  Many people believe that members of congress today are following this pattern. Maybe not to the same extreme as the Romans, but in some ways similar. U.S. Representatives vote on their own salary increases, which are now up to $175,000 annually with a health plan that would be the envy of any corporate leader. Many congressmen will argue that $175,000 per year is not exorbitant considering they must maintain a residence in their home state and in Washington. This argument does not seem to hold water with the average American who earns less than 20 percent of that salary.

  Members of congress do not have much of a challenge in getting reelected. No matter how good of a job they do for their constituents, the advantage of incumbency gives 97% of all members another term if they choose. However, unlike Roman senators, their power has diminished significantly because of the partisan divide in Washington. Today members of Congress simply vote their party line, making them more like members of the British Parliament. They are no longer individuals but pawns of their party. They are members in the process and fall in line with party dogma and dictates, losing much of their individualism and, in the process, their power.

  Even though one Alabama congressman or congresswoman represents approximately 635,000 Alabamians, and an Alabama state senator represents around 130,000 Alabamians, I would argue that a least a dozen state senators have more of an impact on public policy than any of our seven congressmen. There are 435 members of congress and 35 members of the Alabama Senate. If a state senator is well placed and in a position of power, they are unquestionably more influential and powerful than a congressperson.

  The only exception in our delegation would be Congressman Robert Aderholt. Of our seven members, Aderholt is the only one with any seniority or clout. He is on track to be as powerful one day as his predecessor Democrat Tom Bevill. Aderholt got to congress at a very young age, and he is on the right committees and on the right track.

  A couple of years ago, Congressman Jo Bonner left the Mobile/Baldwin First District of congress. A medley of candidates emerged. Alabama state Senator Trip Pittman of Baldwin County could have possibly won that seat. But guess what? Senator Pittman chairs the Senate Finance and Taxation Committee. He would have become much less powerful as a freshman member of congress than controlling the state budget.

  In 2010, Alabama state Senators Dick Brewbaker of Pike Road, Harri Ann Smith of Slocomb, or Jimmy Holley of Elba could have captured the GOP nomination for congress in the 2nd District and ultimately gone to congress. However, all three, especially Holley, have much more influence as one of 35 state senators than as a back bench members of congress.

  In many cases a state senator is more powerful than a congressman.

  About the author: Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist.  His weekly column appears in over 60 Alabama newspapers.  He served 16 years in the state legislature.  Steve may be reached at He can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.

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