Guest Editorial: State legislators get blitzed by special interest factions
February 12, 2014
A vote in the House Education Committee of the Utah Legislature last week starkly illustrated the concept of factions discussed by James Madison. At issue is House Bill 96, a proposal to spend $5 million to fund grants to public and private preschools geared toward at-risk students from low-income households who are substantially below their peers in cognitive abilities.
The idea of the program is to attract investors to fund the pre-K programs and then pay back their investments with a five to ten percent rate of return if, and only if, the enrolled students test at grade level within two to three years. The rationale for the proposal is that taxpayers will save money over the long run if the early intervention eliminates the need for years of expensive remedial classes in later grades for the students.
In the 24 hours from the time the committee agenda was publicly posted on Wednesday to the beginning of the Thursday morning committee hearing on the bill, the 15 members of the House Education Committee (including me) received over 500 e-mails from Utah citizens regarding the bill.
Approximately 100 of the e-mails supported the bill, while the other 400 e-mails opposed it. The 100 e-mails in favor of the bill were organized by the United Way, which is helping to promote the "high-quality preschool" model.
The 400 e-mails against the bill were orchestrated by the Utah Eagle Forum, which has historically opposed any government involvement in preschool.
The members of the Eagle Forum are vigorously fighting the bill because they believe that children should be educated at home by their parents, that early childhood instruction produces negligible benefits, and that the program will grow to become a universal and costly preschool system for all students.
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What fascinated me was the timing of the e-mail campaigns. The United Way was obviously watching carefully to see if the bill would be added to the Thursday Education Committee agenda.
Once the bill was placed on the agenda on Wednesday morning, the e-mails from United Way supporters began arriving within minutes.
But then, later in the afternoon, an even heavier blitz of opposing e-mails largely from Eagle Forum members started to arrive. These negative e-mails continued consistently throughout the night and even into the early morning hours, right up through the convening of the committee meeting.
Madison’s lesson in Federalist 10 is that factions, or what we today call interest groups, often combine in very effective ways to commandeer a system of popular government against the larger public interest.
Madison argues that the most effective safeguard against this danger is to design a system by which elected representatives answer to a large number of citizens, thereby refining and enlarging the "factious tempers" held by a few.
Only a small fraction of the 500 e-mails regarding the preschool bill were from my constituents.
I listened carefully to the testimony at the committee hearing for and against the bill. At the conclusion of the debate, I joined the majority of the committee in voting 13 to 3 to pass the bill favorably, because I was persuaded of the benefits of the proposal and saw few drawbacks.
I believe the committee members successfully modeled Madison’s constitutional principle of representing the public interest in the face of a vigorous, organized "factious combination."
The vote of the committee members is even more remarkable when one considers that Utah’s party nomination process for legislative seats rests in the hands of a very few delegates, whose selection is always vulnerable to control by highly-motivated and well-organized interest groups such as the Utah Eagle Forum.
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