What Happens When New Hampshire's Lawmakers Are Too Busy For the Job?
New Hampshire has the largest state legislature in the country - by a lot. The 400 members of the House of Representatives are supposed to be “citizen legislators” - people who are just like the constituents they represent. They earn $100 a year, making them essentially volunteers, albeit volunteers with major responsibility and time commitment...and volunteers who don’t always show up.
Just ask Rep. Jim Belanger, chairman of the House Municipal and County Government Committee.
"I’ve never seen a Mr. Friel, and Simone and Varney were only there in a special session," says Belanger, "They’ve never attended a regular meeting."
Three of Belanger's original reps have gone missing from his 17-member committee this year. So, what happened to them?
"I think Rep. Friel was in Brazil on business and he’s still there and he hasn’t come home," Belanger says, "And Rep. Varney is the building inspector and the fire chief in his town. And because he’s the building inspector, he’s needed in town all the time."
I wasn’t able to track down Rep. Friel, in Brazil or otherwise, though Rep. Varney and I did trade phone calls – he really is very busy. But Belanger noticed that Rep. Deb DeSimone did her best to multitask.
"She baby-sits her granddaughter, she wanted to bring the granddaughter to all the meetings of the committee," Belanger explains, "and have the granddaughter sit in a baby carriage and if she fussed she’d take her out of the room and the speaker said no, we’re not a babysitting service. So she hasn’t come."
DeSimone is a Republican from Atkinson in her fifth term as a state rep. She’s also the majority assistant whip and a former vice committee chair, so she’s no newbie when it comes to representing her constituents. She says being a state rep is a “full-time commitment," but she also says it doesn’t mean sacrificing her family obligations. Caring for her granddaughter was the top priority.
"I’m a mother and a grandmother," says DeSimone, "and the decision is not difficult at all. My family comes first. And everything else falls into place after that."
But when things don’t fall into place, it causes some backups in State House administration. DeSimone says she understands the speaker’s decision about her granddaughter – but it did mean she had to step down from her committee. That's when people like Terry Pfaff, the Chief of Staff in the House Speaker's office, step in.
Pfaff says that you’re pretty much required to be on a committee, "‘cause the place wouldn’t work. I mean, if everybody just wanted to show up and vote – you have to do the work. You have to know the knowledge. And the backbone of this legislature is the committee structure. That’s where the rubber meets the road in the legislative process."
It’s part of Pfaff’s job, along with his staff, to find substitutes when committees are short. But that’s rarely easy. You have to maintain a party balance that matches the ratio in the House. And ideally, substitute reps are up to speed on the bills being discussed and voted on.
"So," says Pfaff, "it’s a juggling act. Even with 400 members, it’s still hard to get all of these committees filled all the time, because people have their own personal lives and they have emergencies that show up."
On the busiest days, that can mean finding up to ten substitutes, which takes up staff time on both sides of the aisle.
For a lot of reps, though, the demands of the position aren’t clear until they’re in the thick of it. Jim Belanger, the committee chair with the attendance problem, says that some people may not realize how big of a commitment the job is.
Belanger is retired, like a lot of his fellow reps. Belanger is in Concord three days a week, and sits on study committees even when the House isn’t in session. He says that, sure, it’s possible to be a legislator with a full-time job... that is, "if their full-time job occupies them at night."
Otherwise, Belanger says, this is a pretty overwhelming volunteer gig.