“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” was a 1939 Frank Capra film featuring an idealistic young senator played by Jimmy Stewart who successfully takes on the partisan status quo in our nation’s capital.
The modern version of this story may be epitomized by New Hampshire’s Marjorie Smith from Durham, who first served in the state Legislature in 1996. She is the chair of the Judiciary Committee on which I serve, and I was pleasantly surprised to hear before I started in the Legislature that she would run the committee as a non-partisan body.
Our committee members were told in no uncertain terms that we were elected to serve all of the citizens of our state, not just Democrats, Republicans or independents.
There was to be no mention of political parties, nor rigid party lines in the committee hearing room. Our job is to delve through the bills before us and listen to the testimony of ordinary citizens. These are people who make the trip to Concord each week to make their opinions known on a wide range of legislative matters that require open-minded, non-partisan thinking to arrive at pragmatic commonsense solutions that benefit all citizens.
It was not until the committee had a Democratic caucus that I learned which of our Judiciary Committee members were Democrats and which were Republicans. We were simply 20 individuals elected by the voters to legislate bills that come before us.
Our government in Washington, D.C., could learn a lot from Ms. Smith and from House Speaker Steve Shurtleff, who told our Democratic delegation in our first caucus that he would never ask the members to vote along strict party lines but that we should vote based on what we believe will be in the best interest of the communities we serve.
Today, our Congress is fractured to the extent that passing meaningful legislation has become onerous and at times impossible. Members are pressured to vote along strict party lines with severe consequences for failing to do so. Political polarization and dysfunction have reached new heights in Washington, and critical thinking outside the box is rewarded only when it operates within the strict confines of party platforms carefully crafted based upon political action committee input from large donors.
Sitting on one of two sides of the aisle is a long tradition in American politics. I am not naive in thinking that this long-standing practice is going to change completely in Washington or in Concord. But I see that in our current Judiciary Committee headed by Ms. Smith, Democrats and Republicans are seated next to one another, and that this practice often leads to lunchroom tables that are not segregated along party lines and partisan politics. This results in good-natured discussions that can lead to taking advantage of the best ideas that each party has to offer.
Most bills that come before the Judiciary Committee are not forged along party lines. These have included laws involving tenant and landlord rights, foreclosure, right-to-know laws and the oversight of the sale of community hospitals. These bills require a careful study of the issues at hand and a commonsense approach rather than one based upon political ideology. There have been just a handful of bills that have mirrored party lines, including a bill to enforce the buffer zone at women’s reproductive clinics to protect the privacy rights of individuals seeking treatment.
Working in a bipartisan manner enables committee members to see one another as people and fellow legislators rather than as part of a stereotyped label.
The first subcommittee on which I served was chaired by a third-term conservative Republican. Knowing that I was new to the committee process, she took the time to ensure that I understood all of the nuances of the subcommittee process. Other Republicans in the room have been universally welcoming and happy to answer questions about procedures or other issues that will help us all to work together in a more seamless and collaborative way.
Is this always an easy and harmonious process? No. There are still issues such as reproductive and religious rights that can polarize thoughtful individuals due to the deeply rooted values and beliefs that these issues evoke.
However, veteran legislators like Marjorie Smith are teaching me that when committed people come together to solve complex issues that require broad-minded thinking, they can do so in a way that brings out the best of many perspectives to benefit those whom we are entrusted to serve. In my view, this is the best way to really get things done.
Anita Burroughs is the District 1 N.H. State Representative for Bartlett, Jackson and Hart’s Location. She lives in Glen.