I was a legislator in the Virginia General Assembly for 16 years following a 28-year career in the U.S. Army. The latter was not entirely helpful to the former. Sure, there were many leadership lessons I learned from the military that helped me as a legislator. But legislating is a “different breed of cat” from leading combat troops. You don’t have to arrive at consensus when you tell soldiers to “take that hill now.” Nor can you expect your colleagues to fall in line because you will it so. It’s a bit more nuanced than that.
In the House of Delegates, I learned many lessons, most of which were based on my many mistakes. Frankly, while painful, mistakes often are the best teachers, even if making them is embarrassing. But I digress. The art in making mistakes is learning from them. I learned a lot. Here are some of the lessons.
1. My Way or the Highway Leads to Nowhere: No one has all of the answers to a particular challenge or problem. You see the answer from your perspective. It may be as clear as crystal to you. But the perspectives of others are necessary to fully see the best answer. If you find yourself unwilling to consider the perspectives of others, legislating is the wrong business for you. You’re in for a very unfulfilling life as a law-maker if you insist on your way without regard to the input of others, particularly those who have been around the block a few more times than you have.
2. Your Good Idea May Not be the Best Idea: Good ideas often sell themselves. But not every good idea is worth buying. You may think your idea is the best innovation since the invention of the wheel, but it likely isn’t, nor is it novel. First, a good legislative idea ought to address a specific legislative problem. To test that, a legislator must ask more questions than pontificate about the merits of an idea. Will it work? I had more than a few “good ideas” that I did not fully test. The result? The bills failed. And they should have. A good idea is only as good as the time, thought, and feedback one gets from testing it among others, particularly those who will ultimately vote for or against it.
3. The Rule of 51: In the House of Delegates, you have to achieve a majority of votes to pass legislation. That means with 100 votes present on the floor of the House, you will need 51 votes. You have to persuade others to support your concept. Browbeating them won’t work. In fact, it frequently has the opposite effect. Over time, seasoned legislators develop a sense of what will pass and what won’t. Watching new legislators (and Governors) ignore the rule of 51 is an entertaining pastime.
4. Relationships Matter: Unlikable personalities have a way of summoning opposition. Whereas likable people tend to get a fair hearing from their colleagues. I recall one delightfully nice fellow from the minority party whom the majority of us found to be a good man. He had a terrible bill on the floor that he thought was brilliant. His own party hated it and berated and insulted him badly on the floor. The result? The majority came to his rescue and passed the bill to make a point that a nice man should not be treated disrespectfully, even if he offered a bad bill.
5. Don’t Fall in Love with Your Bills: See 2. above. Alas, many bills fail and the heartbreak will be more than you can bear.
6. The Law of Unintended Consequences: This is the one law you should strive to never pass. I recall more than a few laws that the General Assembly passed that came back to bite us badly. These can be avoided by asking “what if’ more than insisting on “what must be.”
7. Don’t Assume a False Mandate: Just because you have a majority, don’t think you have a mandate. Zeal, self-righteousness, and power do not combine to equal a mandate. I once had a colleague who would remind us “don’t forget the people who sent you here.” Those people are more than those who agree with you ideologically. They include those who sometimes disagree with you, but in an election cast the deciding votes. Be prudent. Get input from all sides. And then legislate for the good of all. The one mandate the majority has is to be wise, just, accountable, and constitutionally observant.
8. Try Repealing Bad Laws: There are more than a few bad laws on the books. Try repealing them. It will keep every legislator busy throughout the day.
So, there you have it. Some tips from a former legislator with a few well-deserved scars.
L. Scott Lingamfelter is a retired U.S. Army Colonel, a former member of the Virginia House of Delegates (2002-2018) and author of “Desert Redleg: Artillery Warfare in the First Gulf War.” You can read his weekly writings and more at www.copybookwarrior.com.