Why serving in the NH Legislature is a love affair
Illustration by Peter Noonan
In February, the Statehouse will be abuzz with activity. A new version of a divided government will be underway. A new two-year budget will need to be crafted.
One thing lawmakers don’t have to worry about? Valentine’s Day.
After all, if they weren’t already in love with themselves before they decided to put their names on election ballots, the constant reminder of their self-importance from nearly everyone they run into in Concord will certainly sweep them all off their own feet.
To witness the echo chamber of self-importance for lawmakers is to get dizzy with an eye roll. Walking with any state legislator, you’ll hear levels of respect worthy of a president. It’s “sir” or “ma’am,” and even former senators from a decade ago are addressed by their formal title, and state reps will sign emails with “honorable” in front of their names.
That “honorable” title is even applied to some who, in the last year, have been convicted of tax evasion, selling drugs to fellow lawmakers in the Statehouse or charged with sexual assault.
Of course, the average city councilor is often more powerful than a random state representative who represents about 3,200 people, half of whom don’t bother to vote, while those who do vote are usually voting for their party more than the name on the ballot.
The high status of members of the New Hampshire Legislature is at direct odds with the point of our uniquely citizen-led legislature. Our founders purposely did not want career politicians, nor did they want anyone to become so powerful that they could part the sea of people in a hallway.
But at the same time, it is also vitally important for the institution to survive and retain talent and institutional memory. Serving in the Legislature, after all, is something to be encouraged. Once in office they hold the smallest amount of power of any legislator in America. They have the smallest (read: largely nonexistent) staffs of any legislators in America. And at $100 a year they earn the smallest salaries in America. And there is no gold ring come the end of one’s service like there is in Washington. Anecdotally at least, Concord lobbyists earn far less than those in other state capitals. The reason is obvious: As a state, New Hampshire taxes less and spends less than just about anywhere else, so the stakes are low for those hoping to lobby the system.
So maybe it’s a self-defense mechanism that each legislator assumes being in Concord is such a big deal. Maybe it isn’t ironic at all when staff — who make much more than their bosses — treat members like they are part of some elite group. What matters is that somehow 424 people are incentivized to put their name on a ballot, win their elections, and then drive to Concord at least once a week, often more.
I’ve known many legislators over the years and it’s true that, to many of them, being elected to serve in Concord gives them a great sense of personal worth. They may have struggled with many objectives in their lives, but under the Golden Dome they are somebodies. And they appreciate it when someone notices the large name tags that display their titles.
So, if they want to give themselves their own Valentine’s Day cards, then so be it.