There are 23 new House sepakers in state legislatures around the country. It’s a tough job, and there’s not exactly a Speakership for Dummies on the shelf at Barnes and Noble. So where do they look for a guiding light for their new jobs? (They certainly don’t look to the big leagues—the U.S. House of Representatives—which has been mired in gridlock and suffering depressingly low approval ratings.)
Well, 15 of them are seeking out advice at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas right now, for a subsidized trip and seminar by a Massachusetts group known as the State Legislative Leaders Foundation.
The event is being hosted by Speaker of the Texas House Joe Straus, and, according to the invitation, will teach the newbies about:
Digging out of a deep, deep recession; implementing a far-reaching new health care law; contending with ever-spiraling costs for just about everything; and, of course, confronting the continuing sharp partisanship that has so often thwarted sound compromise.
Like many other legislative organizations, SLLF gets the majority of its funding from big businesses on their advisory council, and the group describes itself as nonpartisan. The goal of these lessons, according to Stephen Lakis, the foundation’s president, is to give new leaders a leg up on what is a difficult and often underappreciated job.
“When you get to be the speaker, it's usually the last big job you’ll have in politics,” said Lakis, noting however that U.S. Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho, and Republican Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman are alums of the program. “Not only is the job not so glamorous [that] you become a household name in your state, but you spend most of your time pissing off as many people as you are satisfying. That’s if you are doing your job right.”
Exactly how to do that job right may be more of an art than a science, but Lakis says there is a lot his foundation can teach these guys. He has been holding these sessions, after all, for 14 years now. Sessions range from housekeeping advice on how to set up an office, to avoiding ethical pitfalls, to role-playing negotiating tactics.
Today, for example, the newly elected speakers broke off into pairs to negotiate the sale and purchase of a company. In this scenario, the seller knew that his company was on the verge of getting in trouble for polluting and wanted to offload as quickly as possible. The buyer did not know.
“The lesson,” Lakis said, is that “sometimes it’s difficult to know underlying motivations during a negotiation.”
But the No. 1 lesson Lakis makes sure to instill in the participants?
“When people get this job, everyone starts acting really nice to them, and it gets to them,” he said. “It’s important that they don’t start to believe the hype when everyone starts treating you like you’re Jesus Christ. You still have to take out the rubbish and you won’t have this job forever.”