One of the first lessons in elementary school is to put your name on your paper. In later years, not only is identifying your work crucial, but students are instructed on plagiarism and proper citation, so their teachers know what work is the student’s own. Without these items—a name on the paper and proof that the work is a student’s independent effort—teachers find assigning grades nearly impossible.
And so it is with legislators. But Kansas legislators essentially refuse to put their name on their papers or show their own work.
The Kansas City Star published a recent investigation and analysis of “secrecy” in Kansas government. It detailed numerous troubling aspects of the workings of our state agencies and how Kansas’ government is among the most secretive in the nation. One of the most dramatic points made, one that is no surprise to regulars at the Capitol, is this: More than 90% of the laws passed by the Kansas Legislature over the past decade have come from anonymous authors. For instance, 98 of the 104 bills that were passed during the last legislative session were introduced “by committee,” shielding the actual author or authors from identification. Kansas is one of only a small number of states where this practice is even allowed, and it is overwhelmingly abused.
Regular citizens of Kansas essentially have almost no ability to know who is crafting, sponsoring, or pushing for most of the bills that have been passed on concealed carrying of firearms, school funding, and almost any other conceivable issue. The Star explained why this practice is troubling from the point of view of participatory democracy. But secrecy of this nature is also easy to connect to the rising tide of intolerance that underlies much of Trump’s vision of America.
If you have a strong stomach and even stronger faith in human decency, spend a few hours venturing into the depths of Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, the comments on YouTube videos, or even the comment sections for many local newspapers. There you’ll find countless individuals expressing some of the more hateful and discouraging opinions imaginable. Many, if not all, are hiding behind a veil of anonymity. I’m not breaking any new ground with this observation, or the suggestion that on social media platforms, anonymity is used as a shield to protect individuals from taking responsibility for their most vile behaviors.
Anonymous bill sponsorships in Topeka are not identical to anonymous hateful rhetoric on the internet. But the two are interwoven pieces of the same illusory behavior that a responsible civic body should never embrace. Anonymity—whether online or in the state legislature—is a license to act without fear of consequence and without the need to weigh the costs of one’s decisions and actions. If I can say something hateful online, under a pseudonym or anonymously, I can always deny it was me who did so in contexts where there may be costs to those who express such things, but claim credit for my remarks only among those who might praise me.
Similarly, with an anonymous bill, legislators can avoid paying the “costs” of sponsoring a bill that may be unpopular by denying involvement with those who oppose the “orphaned” bill. Those “costs” are essentially votes for their opponent(s) in their next re-election campaign. At the same time, legislators can claim credit and reap the benefits—sometimes in campaign donations, but also in votes for their own reelection—from those who like the initiative.
In other words, anonymous bills undercut elections, which are essentially the only accountability mechanism Kansas voters have over their elected officials. Recalls in Kansas are severely circumscribed by law to very specific cases of felonies, misconduct in office, and failure to perform legally required duties. In practical terms, voters only get to hold our elected representatives accountable at the ballot box either every two or four years. Anonymous bill sponsorships are “get out of jail free” cards to aid their own careers, that our legislators are granting to themselves. And, unfortunately, the biggest defenders of the practice—including chamber leaders—readily admit that they do it to avoid the work and costs of putting one’s name on a bill.
But every voter in Kansas should respond, “so what?” Legislative service is hard. It should be. It’s too important not to be.
There’s a larger connection here as well, that should not be overlooked. Our nation is in the throws of an uprooting of civic norms. Our elected leaders, especially the President, his allies, and his defenders, choose time and again to empower those who previously used anonymity to exhibit some of the darkest impulses in humanity, be it racism, sexual violence, xenophobia, and more besides. And the President and his allies now have a novel approach to using anonymity. When confronted with evidence that they express these views, simply claim “fake news.” Yet, the intent is just the same as the online forums or the anonymous bill sponsorships in Topeka—to avoid accountability, to claim credit with those who agree and avoid paying any costs among those who might not.
Kansas need not continue down this path of using anonymity to shield legislators from explaining their work to their constituents. There is a growing bipartisan group of state legislators who have embraced a statement of transparency and are working to change the norms in Topeka. While I hope the 2018 session will be the year where the practice of anonymous bill sponsorship begins to fade, I sadly expect the opposite is true. And so, I hope voters in 2018 will support candidates who actively pledge to put their name on their work. How else are we to determine their grades?