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Capitol Notebook: Reflections on how the Legislature operates
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Kirby Hendee always believed that what happens in the Legislature is more important to average citizens than what happens in Congress. The exceptions are taxes and Social Security, he said.

Hendee, who served in the State Senate from 1957 to 1961 and ran unsuccessfully against Democrat Henry Reuss for Congress in 1960, died earlier this month at age 92.

A man of high integrity, honesty and wit, Hendee became a prominent lobbyist in Madison years after that defeat. In 1957 he was the youngest Republican in the State Senate and political insiders whispered he would be a good governor.

Also serving in the State Senate was Gaylord Nelson. Although in different political parties they became friends, enjoying each other’s yarns and stories.

“I represented the cause of truth, justice and honor – and Gaylord was a Democrat,” quipped Hendee.

In later years he gave speeches on how the Legislature operated, coining the phrase “Hendee’s Laws” about lobbying and making laws.

“In the Legislature logic is your weakest argument,” said Hendee. Getting re-elected is the prime motivation for legislators.

“Like all of us, they want to keep their jobs.  It’s sometimes called the ‘Capistrano syndrome.’ Like the swallows they like to come back.”
That means voting the way the folks back home feel. And that, Hendee said “is frequently emotional and only accidentally logical.’’

There is both offensive and defensive lobbying in the State Capitol. Defensive maneuvers including pushing for a study of the impact of a bill.

“Beware of the trap of a study. The purpose of a study is rarely to find anything out,” he said. Delay often is the real goal.

He was displeased that the media would sometimes portray lobbyists as representing “the special interests” with the inference that there is something evil about anyone who has a ‘’special interest.’’

“The fact is that our society is put together as a bundle of special interests, each vying with the other,” said Hendee. “The result generally comes out with some pretty workable legislation.”

Lobbyists are like any good sales people. “You have to genuinely like the people you are dealing with. Sometimes it is difficult to like legislators,” he would add.

Hendee noted there is a widespread disdain for politicians in general. The current national political campaigns might underscore that view. But Hendee disagreed with feeling that legislators are “venal, pompous, ambitious and dumb.’’

“There are, of course, some stupid legislators, but there are stupid businessmen, too. They deserve to be represented, and that’s who represents them.”

Many people come to the Capitol “with stars in their eyes and good intentions” believing they know “what is right,” he said.

“My friends, nothing ever passes because it is right,” Hendee said. “It passes because someone wanted it to pass badly enough to do the work required to make it pass.

“When good bills die, it is usually a result of indifference, but when bad bills pass it is almost always because some skilled lobbyist knew what buttons to push and he pushed them.”

Hendee would say it is illegal to wine and dine legislators. It’s a law rarely enforced, but he offered a warning that once started it’s difficult to stop.

“When you get up to dance with a gorilla, you don’t sit down until the gorilla gets tired.”

Hendee’s words are worth remembering.

Pommer, known as the “dean” of State Capitol correspondents, has covered government action in Madison for 36 years, including the actions of nine governors. The content in this column does not reflect the views or opinions of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association or its member newspapers.