Despite What Experts Say, Recurring Interim Charges Lead to Legislation

With the Texas state legislature not in session, policymakers are focused on addressing interim charges. The problem is that there a whole lot of committees, each with a whole lot of charges. Policymakers are busy, and knowing which charges to prioritize isn’t always obvious.

If you didn’t know, interim charges are tasks assigned by senior officials to legislative committees. For example, before the 83rd Session, the House Committee on Agriculture and Livestock was assigned to: “Examine current statutes and rules to determine any necessary enhancements that can assist in the eradication of feral hogs by using practical solutions and effective eradication techniques.”

This is basically how all charges look, but instead of feral hogs, they might be focused on rising tuition rates or natural disaster preparedness. Each charge lays out a specific issue to be examined by that committee, who then holds hearings and issues a report on their findings before the session begins. Sometimes these reports lead to legislation aimed at addressing the problem, sometimes they don’t.

But back to feral hogs. Apparently this is a pretty significant problem in some parts of Texas. In fact, the House Ag. and Livestock Committee had been charged with this issue in a previous interim session. This isn’t the norm. Most charges have never been assigned before, but during any given interim, a small portion of the charges are being assigned for the second or third time. As to why, the conventional wisdom among policymakers is that the issue is just stuck in a rut. It’s important enough to be charged, but maybe the solution is costly, or the issue is politically toxic. This armchair reasoning leads policymakers to spend less time looking into recurring charges. If a charge has little likelihood of actually becoming law, why bother to dig deeper?

However, the data contradicts the “stuck in a rut” notion. A sample of three House committees (Agriculture and Livestock, Homeland Security and Public Safety, and Public Health) was selected. Charges assigned to them from the 81st through the 84th interim sessions were recorded.

The sample shows that the vast majority of charges had never been charged before. However, a little over 11% of them had been charged before. So while recurring charges are less common than completely new charges, they aren’t complete rarities.

The sample also includes data on whether the charges led to legislation in the session immediately following the interim (by searching for keywords and concepts from the charge in the Texas Online Bill Database). For charges without priors, a little less than 72% of interim charges do lead to legislation. However, almost 28% of the charges without priors did not lead to legislation.

Looking further into the data, the conventional wisdom starts to break down. Literally every single charge with priors led to legislation. Admittedly, this is a much smaller sample, but it seems pretty clear “stuck in the rut” reasoning is unfounded. All recurring charges directly led to new laws. The conventional wisdom suggests that recurring charges should lead to legislation at a much lower rate than new charges, but that just doesn’t seem to be happening.

It’s tricky to tell just how common this thinking is in the actual political world, but it is undoubtedly there. This is clearly a cause for alarm. If the policymakers that represent you or your interests decide to shape their legislative strategy based on the “stuck in rut” reasoning, they will miss some of the most important charges.

There are two clear strategic lessons to be learned. First, recurring issues should be a major focus. If it’s a serious enough problem to keep coming up, it will probably need to eventually be addressed through legislation. Second, people interested in charges that don’t end up in legislation shouldn’t give up hope. If they can convince senior officials to assign the charge next year, the legislature might realize the issue isn’t going away and get around to solving the problem.

Sources:

http://www.house.state.tx.us/committees/reports/

https://www.texastribune.org/2015/11/04/straus-issues-more-150-interim-charges/

This article was written as an assignment for GOV 374N at The University of Texas.

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