Forum: Senate leader goes behind the legislative curtain
BENNINGTON — Vermont Senate President pro tempore Tim Ashe rounded out Bennington College's fall forum series on democracy by drilling down on what his somewhat exotically titled position is all about.
"One of the great challenges of my role, is that no one knows what it actually is," Ashe said of the Latin term. "President pro tem basically means 'for the time being.'"
The lieutenant governor in Vermont is by title the president of the Senate, he said, "and in practice, the way the system works, the lieutenant governor's is more of a symbolic role. The president pro tem is effectively like a speaker of the House but in the Senate."
The Chittenden County Progressive/Democrat, who was elected to the Senate in 2008 and chosen in 2017 by his peers to lead that 30-member body, did not once mention "herding cats," but at times his leadership post sounded a bit similar.
It is a given that every senator comes to the Statehouse at the start of the session in January with a personal set of legislative priorities, Ashe told an audience of students and area residents Thursday at the college's Center for the Advancement of Public Action.
And that includes himself, he said, meaning he has to somehow ensure he is representing the voters of his Senate district while balancing the worthiness of sometimes passionate requests or demands from other senators.
"There are 30 senators in Vermont representing all the corners of the state," he said with a smile. "Which one of those thinks that he or she is the most important one? The answer is every one of them."
"To oversimplify, my job is to negotiate and manage through all those 30 people and the interests that we have and the priorities we have and make sure that when we get to the finish line the most shared, collective work is done that is possible."
Before all else at the start of the session, Ashe said, comes the daunting task of assigning senators to the legislative committees where the bills are crafted. Committees have a limited number of openings and typically a large number of requests come in for certain panels that are likely to handle the most important or high-profile bills.
So as the session approaches, Ashe said he has "29 anxious people" saying that over the next two years, '"'I want to be deployed working on the issues I am really passionate about.' The problem is, what if 25 of them want to be on the committee that writes the budget? And that committee only has seven people."
"One of the other things I have to do is sometimes play what I would call the heavy," he said. "So the heavy is the person in the room with two people with same idea but coming at it from slightly different perspectives."
He urges people to work as closely together as they can on similar bills, "but the Senate looks to me to say, 'OK, it is time to take action,' and someone has to be the arbiter of which way we are going to take." He added, "Another way of oversimplifying my role, is that I'm the `it's time to move on guy.' I come in when people have clashed, debated, have been on the floor for hours talking on a very important issue ... When I get up and say I think we have all had our say, I think it's time to just cast our votes; that means it is time to cast our votes. Because they need a referee that everyone trusts to designate to play that role."
At the end of the session, he added, "if we have done work on the priorities we set, I consider that successful."
Not like Congress
Unlike in the current political climate in Washington, Ashe said Vermont lawmakers have avoided the atmosphere that now pervades in Congress.
"It is all about tribal identification," he said, in which lawmakers reflexively oppose or support proposals based solely on which side is speaking.
"In the Vermont Senate, if anyone were to walk into our committee rooms, you probably wouldn't be able to tell which party people were," he said. "We just have a general rule that our goal is not to trounce people who disagree with us."
The Senate also historically has included members of the minority party in committee leadership positions. The minority party might represent 30 to 40 percent of the people in Vermont, Ashe said, "and you want to honor that."
When he meets with lawmakers from other states, Ashe said the common reaction when he explains how Democrats sometimes allow a committee chairmanship to go to a Republican is, "Are you kidding?"
The response typically is that "we gave them offices that are across the highway and behind a salt shed," he said.
But in Vermont, he said, there is the sense that one day "the pendulum [of power] will swing back the other way," and the leaders today will want to maintain a viable seat at the table.
And speaking of parties, Ashe said it is not uncommon for all 30 members of the Senate to turn out to celebrate the birthday of one of their colleagues, not something likely in legislatures where civility has largely vanished.
Vermont is different
Vermont also differs from other, especially larger states, he said, in that the influence of big money contributions in politics has thus far been kept to a minimum.
"Just across the border here in New York, the way their government works in Albany is a very different universe," he said.
"You do not get a bill to the floor of the Assembly in New York unless a lot of wheels have been greased, I don't know what the right expression is," he said. "Money has flowed everything is a transaction As a general rule, [lobbyist] money drives a lot of what goes on in New York. In Vermont that is not the case. There is an influence of money, but it is fairly minor compared to some states."
Individual citizens can actually transform what happens in Montpelier by contacting their legislator, he said, often within a year or two.
Interest-group driven ballot questions — such as those targeting reproductive freedoms for women — are a major concern in other states, he said.
"Here in Vermont we do not take that approach," he said. "Everything has to originate through the Legislature lawmakers have to reckon with the voters."
Not only is the wording of petitions put forth by advocacy groups invariably rife with obfuscation, Ashe said, but one side or both typically are backed by a relentless campaigns of nasty, misleading advertising that can confuse the issue further.
On working with Republican Gov. Phil Scott and handling the invariable political disputes, Ashe said that since Scott served in the Senate and as lieutenant governor, "many of us are personal friends with the governor."
He added, "I actually, to be honest, don't know answer to the question of whether it is a partisan issue or a management issue."
One of the complaints many in the Legislature had was that, for the first time years, members of the administrative staff didn't work closely with committees in the Senate and House while bills were being drafted, Ashe said.
"That's the way most of us had experienced it in the past, but this time that's didn't happen," he said.
Some of the disagreements were philosophical, such as over a major increase in the minimum wage, "which the governor just opposes."
A topic on everyone's mind for the coming session, Ashe said, concerns the effect of a theoretical "veto-proof majority" of Democrats and Progressives will have.
He said he has been besieged by advocates who seem insistent that bills that couldn't clear both the House and Senate and a real or threatened gubernatorial veto last year must pass this time, "or you are a failure."
He added that there has been "a lot of interesting pressure" on House and Senate leaders to perform.
In truth, Ashe said, "each bill will stand on its own," with different lawmakers supporting different bills while opposing others.
Ashe also praised another legislative leader in the news lately, in-coming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
"I find her really impressive, especially the way she can pull together this wild [Democratic/ progressive] coalition in the House."
Referring to Pelosi's recent agreement to relinquish the speaker's post to another Democrat after four years, Ashe said he also has kept the idea of leadership succession in mind in the Vermont Senate.
"I really believe that it is important that institutions are strong and that the hand-off from generation to generation is a smooth one and people are ready to pick up the torch," Ashe said.
He tries to purposefully pair up on committees younger senators with those who've been around and have great deal of experience. That includes Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, who has been working on criminal justice reform issues for more than 20 years and whom he has often seen lay out the institutional knowledge on an issue for a young lawmaker, Ashe said.
Ashe, 42, of Burlington, graduated from the University of Vermont and Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. He has worked as a developer of affordable housing and served on the staff of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders and as a member of the Burlington City Council before being elected to the Senate.
Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont, including the Bennington Banner, Brattleboro Reformer and Manchester Journal. Twitter: @BB_therrien
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