Advice to new legislators

Eight principles for new reps and senators to consider when they take office

New Hampshire is about to hire 424 legislators, as it does every two years. If the results of this year’s election are typical, about one-third of those elected will be new. On several occasions in the past, this writer, who has often represented clients before the Legislature in connection with pending legislation, has set forth a number of principles which should guide legislators as they decide how to vote on the many bills before them. Here are some guiding principles:

1. Make sure the proposal is not already law. It’s amazing how many legislators get elected and propose ideas which, on examination, are already laws on the books.

2. Distinguish between a good idea and a good bill. The details of a proposed bill often are too complex, overly broad or just do not enact the idea about which so many have testified in committee. Legislators should try to get the proposal amended so it does what is advertised, send it to interim study if time runs out or, if neither of those tactics works, vote against the bill, even if they agree with the idea. This is harder to do than one might think.

3. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Almost no one thinks we have too few laws on the books. Nonetheless, new legislators propose several bills each, on average. The burden of proof should be on the proponents to show why something needs to be the subject of legislation. Every perceived wrong does not need a remedy, since regulation often begets bureaucracy, which in turn results in cost.

4. Consider repealing outdated statutes or assuring the ones we have are consistent. Scores of laws on the books either are outdated, seldom used or inconsistent with newly enacted ones.

5. Listen to the experts. Legislative representatives, commonly known as “lobbyists,” not only represent clients to defeat legislation their clients do not like, they often are educated in the subject matter of bills that legislators think will solve problems. They cannot afford to mislead legislators, since one instance of such activity will result in the credibility of the lobbyist sinking to zero, and it takes a long time for it to be rehabilitated. If a lobbyist is the known authority on a subject and makes suggestions to improve proposals to fit the reality of the business, take that information into account. Some of the most intelligent legislators I have known have proposed bills, only to have an expert point out defects. Listen to the expert and fix the proposal.

6. Be sure legislators can do something to fix a problem, better known as “jurisdiction.” Many matters either are preempted, so only Congress can address them or are subject to the laws of other states. One example is when new legislators introduce proposals to regulate credit cards. The proponents are always disappointed to learn that almost no credit cards are issued by entities doing business in New Hampshire, and the state has no jurisdiction over out-of-state issuers.

7. Respect the opinion of the committee. In the House of Representatives, with 400 members, all members cannot look in depth at most bills, which are considered in detail in committee. There should be a presumption that the recommendation of the committee should be respected, unless there is some overriding philosophical or other reason not to do so. Leadership tends to be those experienced solons who know how to act. Watch and listen to them.

8. Read the veto message. In the relatively rare instance that a governor vetoes a bill, legislators should read and consider the veto message, since a governor expends a great deal of political capital each time a veto is issued, and probably has a good reason to do so.

Being elected to the Legislature is a great responsibility with little reward, other than helping the state. Too often, there are efforts by extreme elements to pass ill-advised legislation, so legislators need to be on the lookout for such things and be sure they do not pass. There is nothing better for a legislator than to be remembered as one of the good ones who worked hard, did his or her homework, and voted responsibly.

Brad Cook is a Manchester attorney and co-chair of the Secretary of State’s Voter Confidence Committee. The views expressed in this column are his own. He can be reached at

Categories: Cook on Concord