by Karl Kurtz
I have recently completed writing a chapter on state legislatures for the 2010 edition--the 75th anniversary--of the Council of State Governments' Book of the States. This work occasioned a thorough study of the first 1935 edition of that venerable reference work. It's a slim volume (181 pp.) compared to the modern 600+ page tomes, but it contains some fascinating information and enabled me to write about "75 Years of Institutional Change in State Legislatures," forthcoming later this year.
That first volume was published jointly by the American Legislators Association, which was founded in 1925, and the Council of State Governments, formed in 1933. The driving force behind the two organizations was Colorado State Senator Henry W. Toll, who served as executive director of both. Eventually the activities of the American Legislators Association were merged into those of CSG, and the ALA ceased to exist.
The scope of my article did not allow me to capture some of the more interesting or humorous tidbits contained in the 1935 edition. Here are a few of those nuggets.
The initial volume of the Book of the States has a marvelous dedication:
To the tens of thousands of American citizens who, as state legislators, have given more honest and competent service to their government than their constituents will ever know.
One of four (!) forewords to the volume ("a symposium of forewords") contains this prescient comment:
This volume is nothing but a lick and a promise. It is the meager and unorganized beginning of a periodical publication which may eventually become a very useful reference work.
One chapter provides "a portrait" of the American Legislators Association including photos of the ivy-covered building and some of the offices at Drexel Avenue and 58th Street in Chicago, where the two organizations were housed. It contains detailed bios of 15 staff members, most of them with law degrees or PhD.s, and includes photos of each of the nine men--but none of the six women--on the staff. One of them was James W. Martin, who was already a distinguished scholar in the field of government finance and after whom the Martin School of Public Policy and Administration at the University of Kentucky is named.
Chapter IX, "Preparedness," is dedicated to the idea of pre-session conferences for legislatures, an initiative that the ALA was working hard to promote. It quotes extensively from a Saturday Evening Post article on the subject, including these statements:
There are about 7,500 state legislators, and the data recently gathered by the American Legislators Association...show that these men and women are largely amateurs or novices at their all-important work. Three out of four are elected for a term of office including only one regular session. A typical body with one hundred and thirty-five members will contain fifty who have never before sat in such an assembly, twenty-five who have previously been members for only one session, and not more than a dozen who have attended more than five sessions.
That profile of "a typical body" sounds a bit like the term-limited legislatures of today, except that they mostly lack the "dozen who have attended more than five sessions." The article goes on, unknowingly, to make the case against term limits:
This means that state legislatures are not permanent deliberative bodies. About 98 per cent are men and 2 per cent are women, very few being under thirty, but in legislative experience, continuity of policy, collective knowledge and professional standards, large numbers of them are really juveniles. Considering that many of the sessions are for only sixty days, it really requires four or five sessions before a member learns the ropes and becomes acquainted with the intricacies of state government, not to mention its responsibilities to the county and local governments.
The chapter describes in great detail a six-state regional pre-session conference for new legislators that had been held in Asheville, N.C. in 1932 and half a dozen others that the ALA had organized for individual states.
For all of the value of the tables of information in this small volume, there's also some tortured prose. Some of it is anachronistic but some is just plain bad. I'm still trying to figure out this sentence:
Just as green apples and pie crust are more liability than asset when they cannot be digested, information which is not readily assimilable is worse than useless to the busy legislator.
The idea of this sentence--that information for legislators needs to be packaged effectively--is sound and one we try to follow at NCSL today, but the metaphor is hard to swallow, let alone to digest.
It is well worth the time of legislative junkies who are interested in the history of the institution and of interstate organizations to go to your library and look up this first edition of the Book of the States.