Comment: On the meaning of leverage and other important lessons of the ‘Ledge’

Gary Hooser

The Hooser Analysis
with Gary Hooser

I began learning the lessons of the Legislature when first elected to the Kauai County Council some 12 years ago. Watching the current power struggle occurring in the House of Representatives reminded me of the basic rules that, whether one likes it or not, drive the process.

Rule #1: Majorities control power. I learned early on that the most important lesson of politics was “learning how to count.” With seven councilmembers on Kauai’s Council, “four” was the number that mattered. Likewise, with 25 Senators and 51 Representatives in our State Legislature, 13 is the critical number in the Senate, and 26 the tipping point in the House.

Rule #2: Swing votes create leverage. While nothing happens without a majority of members, in close votes it is the last member who comes on board to create the majority who is the most important. The swing vote creates leverage.

Rule #3: Leverage magnifies power. The most powerful position to be in as a legislator is to be in a situation where your vote or your support is essential.  In the big square building, rarely is anything given without something being asked for in return. The more one’s support is needed, the more leverage one has in order to ask for something in return. Your vote for Speaker (if you’re a House member) or for the President (if you’re a Senator) might be offered in exchange for a preferred committee chairmanship. Similarly, your vote for a particular legislative initiative may be leveraged for the reciprocal support needed for something especially important to your district, or your subject-matter focus. Such is the nature of leverage. Such is the nature of politics.

Rule #4: Factions maximize leverage. “Factions” are simply groups within groups that form separate majority and minority groupings within the larger political party majority. The minority faction of a majority grouping of the same political party would typically be referred to as a “dissident faction.” As if playing multi-level, multi-dimensional chess with Dr. Spock, counting votes in the State Legislature can become very complicated. Solid factions—that is factions that stick together no matter what—represent a powerful dynamic that disrupt the normal “learning how to count” regime. Whether a faction of five or of 18, so long as the faction “sticks,” the potential for leverage benefiting the entire faction is considerable.

In the big square building, rarely is anything given without something being asked for in return.

The Hawaii State House of Representatives’ current leadership struggle is a prime example of these four rules in action, illustrating how it is possible for a minority faction, if it is solid in its unity, to heavily influence and sometimes actually drive the agenda.

The support of a simple majority, 26 of the 51 members, is needed in order to “organize the House.” While in theory it is possible to achieve that number by including minority party members, this is rarely done, as it then gives the minority party undue leverage, and would undoubtedly anger core constituents in the majority party.

According to recent media reports, Speaker of the House Calvin Say has 25 votes, meaning that he is just one vote short of achieving the majority needed to retain his position as Speaker and to establish a new leadership structure.

The one vote needed is the critical swing vote in a position to theoretically maximize leverage to the benefit of that one individual and his or her constituents, and most likely to the detriment of the rest of the dissident group.

Typically, once the deal is cut, those who are not part of the organizing group are left twisting in the wind with no leverage whatsoever. Those left out, unless exceptionally qualified in specific subject matter areas, are often relegated to the back seats (literally and figuratively) and afforded little opportunity for meaningful participation during the legislative session.

While only one vote may be needed to form the majority or swing an issue, a solid faction, in this case 18 dissident legislators, can negotiate together to represent the one crucial swing vote needed. This way the minority faction of dissidents can utilize maximum leverage in order to insure all 18 are treated fairly and equally by the opposing faction of 25, so that no one gets left out in the cold. However, with the present example the risk is great, as it takes just one member to bolt and the leverage potential of the faction dissolves, leaving those left behind awaiting yet another two year election cycle.

Why all the fuss? Because the majority drives the agenda, the budget, and the policy. At the end of the day, all important decisions are made by the majority. If you are not part of the majority, your role is reduced to that of a watchdog. Watchdogs are important and necessary, but being part of the leadership team helping to set and drive the agenda is more so.

Gary Hooser is the former State Senate Majority Leader and has represented Kauai and Niihau since 2002. Hooser recently ran for the office of Lieutenant Governor in Hawaii’s 2010 Democratic Party primary election.

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