The pros and cons of policymaking in the Midwest’s largest legislative body, the Minnesota Legislature
High above the main entrance to the Minnesota State Capitol building, the Quadriga, a striking gold-leafed copper sculpture of a four-horse chariot and figures, keeps steady watch over the grounds that surround it.
But it’s what is inside the historic, 107-year-old landmark that really sets the Minnesota Capitol apart from others in the Midwest.
The building is home to the region’s largest legislature — 134 members in the House, 67 in the Senate.
“We feel large,” Minnesota Rep. Alice Hausman, first vice chair of the Midwestern Legislative Conference, says of the 201-member Legislature.
In comparison, the Midwest’s second-largest legislative body, Illinois, has 177 members and its smallest, Nebraska, has only 49. The national average is just under 148 members.
“The larger the body, the easier it is for members to be invisible — never a good thing,” says Hausman, who once sponsored a bill to replace Minnesota’s bicameral legislature with a unicameral system similar to Nebraska’s. “The smaller the body, the easier it is for everybody to be actively engaged in the process.”
And in an era of limited state resources, smaller might always seem better. However, Rutgers University professor Alan Rosenthal sees some important advantages to having larger legislative bodies.
“The thing legislatures do best is represent distinct constituencies,” says Rosenthal, who has spent most of his career studying state legislatures.
Larger bodies with smaller legislative districts, he says, tend to be more representative of the diverse populations they serve.
Patrick McCormack, director of the Minnesota House Research Department, points to having members from “all walks of life” as a plus to having such a large body, but there are also some unique challenges.
For example, there is a regular influx of new legislators who must be oriented to the process, often when the Legislature is already in session.
But as members come and go, Rosenthal says, larger legislatures have an advantage under what he calls a “one-third rule” that can be applied to any organization: “One third [of the members] are really good, one third aren’t so good, and one third are in the middle.”
“To do lawmaking well, you have to have good people, and you have to have good leaders,” he says. “The more people you have, the more likely you are to find good people.”
Former Minnesota Sen. Roger Moe, who served as majority leader of the nation’s largest state senate for more than 20 years, also sees the body’s larger size as an asset.
“As policy issues become more complex, you can’t ever have enough talent,” he says. Moe also contends that the Minnesota Legislature’s size helps ensure that its members are accessible to constituents.
Still, as McCormack points out, larger legislatures come with larger budgets that are more likely to get noticed when resources are scarce.
But are smaller bodies necessarily more efficient?
Rosenthal does not think so, and as evidence, he points to differences in how state houses of representatives and senates operate across the country.
“Houses are usually better organized because they have to be,” he says. “In a larger body, you see more specialization, more deliberation and more effective division of labor than in a smaller body.”
According to Rosenthal, though smaller bodies may be more democratic in some ways, the legislative process benefits from the more hierarchical structure that is typical of larger bodies.