We are in the thick of campaign season-and this time around we are all focused on the governor’s race.
But the Legislature is where our laws will be fashioned, in the hard and messy ways of give and take and compromise. It ain’t pretty, but it works.
Whatever pieces of legislation the new governor proposes, based on his beliefs or campaign promises-not always the same-they probably won’t make it through both bodies unchanged.
Any piece of legislation requires the work and the attention of hundreds of pairs of eyes, many of them belonging to people behind the scenes.
Perhaps most important in this process and most behind the scenes is the nonpartisan Office of the Revisor of Statutes, which upholds the basic framework of our system of statutes and session laws.
At the end of each session, after the mad dash of laws passed in haste, there’s something called a “Revisor’s Bill” that sets right all of the technical errors, based on the expertise of every “revisor” in that office.
But when the Legislature goes into session next year, one of those experts won’t be there: Janis Rider, 44, an Assistant Revisor who worked on Pensions and Economic Development, died very unexpectedly last month while enjoying a vacation in Hawaii. (The immediate cause of death was drowning, but an official cause of death had not been announced as of this writing.)
As a new researcher for the GOP last session struggling to understand Minnesota’s public pension system, I had a chance to work closely with Janis for a few weeks. Because I was working for the minority party, it fell to me to work on amendments for the Omnibus Pension Bill, which Janis was handling.
One morning, I arrived early and was given a draft of a mechanism that would be offered as an amendment in the finance committee in a few hours. I raced up to the 6th floor and took the tiny, almost secret staircase outside the legislative research library to the quarters of the Office of the Revisor.
I needed the amendment drafted within the hour, and I knew this would be no small task for Janis. The pension bill was already more than 100 pages long and the amendment was going to have to be dropped in, in a spot where it made sense and meshed with all of the numbers, tables and figures in that section of the bill.
Janis was calm, told me not to worry-that she’d get it done and bring it down to me in committee.
And she did.
But instead of retreating back to the calm of the Revisor’s office, Janis plopped down beside me and together we watched the hearing. We soon saw that something was afoot.
The legislators who had been working on the amendment were missing from the hearing-they were out in the hall.
When they came back in, it turned out that they’d agreed on a different formula, and so all of the work Janis and I did was for naught. They introduced a new amendment, it was discussed and voted on and ended up forming part of the pension bill.
I felt a little badly-I’d dragged Janis down from her lofty perch upstairs in order to work on this last minute, complicated amendment and it didn’t even get used.
I told her as much, but she laughed and said this happened all the time and I’d better get used to it. She said she was happy to come down and observe the bill in committee-something she didn’t often get a chance to do.
A few weeks later, the pension bill was up on the floor of the House. There was some uncertainty about the bill being brought up at all.
Gov. Tim Pawlenty had been openly threatening to veto it (not enough “real reform,” he said). But suddenly there it was on the chief clerk’s desk-it was go time for the Omnibus Pension Bill of 2010.
I had been given several amendments, but this was a new version of the bill, what’s known as a “delete-all amendment.” It was an inch thick. I had no way of knowing what had been retained from the previous “engrossment” of the bill that I’d seen and what had been excised.
I ran over to the Revisor’s desk and there was Janis. I was relieved. Again, she told me not to worry, that she’d find the passages and correct the line numbers.
“What are they on?” she asked, and I told her that Rep. Mary Murphy, DFL-Hermantown, the bill’s author, was just introducing it.
Janis smiled and said, “No problem, there will be plenty of time.” And she was right. By that time, Rep. Murphy had launched into to a lengthy section-by-section description of the omnibus bill.
Janis did her work, I collected and distributed the amendments to the appropriate channels and the debate was on. Some amendments got through, many failed and the bill passed easily and headed to conference committee.
Afterwards, I asked Janis about how all this appeared to her at the Revisor’s desk. I suggested to her that while we partisans scurried around frantically, the Revisor’s were like the timeless high priests and priestesses of the law: They’ve seen amendments come and seen them go.
Janis laughed and said she’d never really thought of it like that. She said she was just part of the process, putting things in the proper form so the laws can be written.
That wasn’t the last time I saw Janis-when I heard that she’d died I instantly remembered catching an elevator with her just a few weeks ago and how we talked about how serene the capitol was after session was over.
Tall, lanky and bespectacled, Janis (who I’ve subsequently learned was a champion javelin thrower at Macalester) had a lightness about her, and always a smile and a laugh.
In her mid-19th century English novel, “Middlemarch”, George Eliot remarked on the understated importance of someone like Janis:
“The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life.”
One of the great virtues of democracy is that despite the attention leaders get, the real work of politics and government is done by many people (our representatives) who are assisted by people whose names we don’t even know.
If we hear their names, it’s usually because something has gone wrong. The work done right almost never gets the same attention-it’s just what remains, woven into the fabric of our laws until we change it again.
And this is what Janis Rider did: She wrote our laws.
Margaret Martin has a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Michigan and an M.A. from the London School of Economics. She is co-host of the Saturday morning radio program “The David Strom Show” on AM-1280. She blogs at ourhouseblog.com and looktruenorth.com.