I'm not sure whether I'd argue that being a state senator is the easiest job at the state Capitol these days, or the hardest.
On the easy side, there's often not a lot for senators to do to address the state's most pressing challenges, its dire fiscal situation and its dysfunctional tax structure, because these bills must originate in the House. During the current special session and repeatedly over the two years since Gov. John Bel Edwards took office, the sharply divided House has struggled to give senators much to work with.
That's the same thing, of course, that makes membership in the upper chamber difficult. It must be awfully grueling to be called to Baton Rouge repeatedly, only to sit and wait rather than act.
And for a number of reasons, the Senate is better positioned to act. Its members tend to be both more seasoned and more moderate in demeanor. A number of them learned the ropes in the old days before partisanship became a driving force, particularly in the House. In 2007, term limits forced many of them out of House seats they'd long held and will push them out of the Senate in 2019.
The rank and file's relationship with their leadership is also different in the Senate, and more functional. Unlike House Speaker Taylor Barras, Senate President John Alario started off with the full support of his members as well as a productive relationship with Gov. John Bel Edwards, even though the Senate's majority, like the House's, is Republican. Edwards is a Democrat, and Alario — like Barras — has been both.
Barras, meanwhile, emerged as a last-minute compromise choice between a more ideological Republican, state Rep. Cameron Henry, and the Democrat favored by Edwards, state Rep. Walt Leger III. He had never been in a leadership position before, while Alario has led major committees, served as House Speaker and even forged a working relationship in his previous term as senate president with a very different governor, Republican Bobby Jindal.
True, Barras has more people to corral, 105 versus 39, but he's also never firmly established that when he speaks, his members will back him up. On a number of occasions, Henry and some other Republicans have sent defiant public signals even as Barras has negotiated with Edwards.
True, there are some Senate Republicans who chafe at the idea that they might be considered a rubber stamp for the governor. But there are fewer who are likely to simply dig in their heels rather than seek a solution.
The special session that convened February 19 is a case in point. The main agenda is to come up with enough revenue to avert the fiscal cliff coming June 30, when about $1 billion in temporary taxes are set to expire. Yet as of Friday, all the key bills were still stuck in the House, with the Senate cut out of the action.
Driving the calendar is the fact that lawmakers can't raise taxes during regular legislative sessions in even-numbered years, so would have to wait until June if they fail now. In the meantime, they'd be unlikely to pass a spending plan for the fiscal year starting July 1 that reflects the deep cuts they'd need to make to balance the budget, students would have to decide where to go to college without knowing if their TOPS scholarships will come through, and hospitals and people who rely on state support for home health care can't plan.
Imagine facing that possibility, holding a relevant elective office and not being able to act.
Actually, some of those House members might not have to imagine for long. A number of representatives first elected in 2007, the first big term limits turnover year, can't run again in 2019, and some of them are gearing up to replace the elders being forced out of the Senate.
Wait till they see what life is like on the other side.