On Advice for Legislators

Writing to his father, who was about to take his seat in the Senate of Vermont in September 1910, Calvin Coolidge, about to be reelected Mayor of Northampton, offered advice that legislators around the country would do well to follow as legislative sessions convene this fall. Coolidge wrote: “You need not hesitate to give the other members your views on any subject that arises. It is much more important to kill bad bills than to pass good ones, and better to spend your time on your own committee work than to be bothering with any bills of your own except in some measure that your own County or some other persons may want you to introduce for them. See that the bills you recommend from your committee are so worded that they will do just what they intend and not a great deal more that is undesirable. Most bills cant stand that test. It will usually be a good plan to see what the…statute is on the point.”

The “secret” of Coolidge’s success as a legislator is so simple as to be discounted by many a legislator since his time. He explained it this way: “I made progress because I studied subjects sufficiently to know a little more about them than any one else on the floor. I did not often speak but talked much with the Senators personally and came in contact with many of the business men of the state” (The Autobiography, p.103). It is often the reason many legislators do not experience success during their time in office, they overlook the importance of managing the small tasks well. In the end, they attempt to preserve a legacy through compromise of who they are and the reason they were sent because some short-cut to greatness lures them away from applying themselves to their work, learning competence.

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After the Presidency, Coolidge had more to say to legislators, writing in 1931 from Northampton: “State legislatures are now in session. Almost as much as the Congress, they will affect the public welfare. They should face all facts. That will be difficult. It is axiomatic that half the world does not know how the other half lives. But state legislatures are fresh from the people. They know the conditions of their own neighborhoods much better than Congressmen know them.

     “Some people are suffering from lack of work, some from lack of water, many more from lack of wisdom. These facts have been emphasized all out of proportion to their importance. Other facts of abundant supplies of food, raw materials, credit, productive capacity and the ability of a free people to take care of themselves when necessary are being almost entirely ignored. Cities and towns are responsible for relief. Give them all needed authority to raise and expend their own money for that purpose. That and local charity will be sufficient. Recall the principle of President Cleveland that it is the business of the people to support the government, not of the government to support the people. We can supply enough of our own lack of wisdom. We do not need to increase it by unwise legislation.”

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