A statehouse journalism student recently asked me what criteria could be used to evaluate the effectiveness of legislators.
I responded it's almost impossible to identify a standard that could be applied equally to all legislators.
The most obvious yardstick, the number of bills passed, is completely misleading. There are piles of bills that do almost nothing of significance – such as naming a day in honor of a Missourian or cleanup bills that repeal expired laws or fix grammatical errors.
Even if you limit consideration to major bills, the numbers yardstick is inadequate.
With a Republican-controlled legislature, Democrats get few major bills passed. Even among Republicans, committee chairs get a lot more of their bills passed.
Another flaw in using bill count involves the varying breadth of bills. Some bills deal with just one subject. Others, like omnibus bills, incorporate a wide variety of issues contained in separate bills.
Beyond that, really crafty legislators get their ideas made into law by sticking their amendments onto bills they did not sponsor. It's a smart tactic for a legislator pushing a controversial issue to wait until the closing days when the hectic pace makes it easier to sneak in things and the approaching passage deadline causes sponsors to be more willing to accept amendments in order to get to a vote.
But there's a fundamental flaw in measuring effectiveness by bills passed that a few conservative lawmakers taught me when I first began.
Democrats controlled the legislature then and were pushing bills to expand welfare and impose tougher consumer protections on business.
For them, success was the number of bills they could kill – not pass.
Now, of course, it's some Democrats who measure their success based on stopping the Republican majority passing bills for business tax breaks, limits on lawsuits against business, gun rights and abortion restrictions.
Even if there were a quantifiable standard of effectiveness, there's no single answer. Legislators have different objectives as to what they seek to accomplish.
Some put priority on the immediate needs of their constituents.
I'm not sure there is a measurable record of constituent services such as getting the governmental bureaucracy to respond to a constituent or to speed up the state permit process for a business project of importance to the community.
Some more senior members and legislative leaders focus more on statewide problems. Others pursue ideological objectives.
Some use their professional expertise to pursue professional changes to benefit the general public. Some of the strongest voices for protecting health care consumer rights have been lawmakers from medical professions.
But some legislators do pursue self-interest objectives such as election to higher office or getting a higher paying state or private job after leaving the legislature.
And what about legislators who rack up large quantities of bills because they accept large amounts of lobbyist expenditures by special interests that sought and possibly wrote those bills?
Ultimately, I came to the realization that you are in a far better position than statehouse reporters to judge the effectiveness of your local legislators – but only if you take the responsibility to keep informed about what your lawmakers are doing.
Read and listen to the news about your lawmakers.
Look at the bills sponsored. Look at the campaign and lobbyist funds your legislators got. Do they represent your values and views?
How often does your local legislator have community forums? Does he or she really listen to constituents' concerns and honestly answer their questions.
– Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and a faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism.