Every year, the State Legislature takes a two week break in the middle of the Session. Usually, this is built around Good Friday, Easter and Passover. It is a respite from the drill of committee and caucus meetings, floor debates, and the not so optional after-hours receptions and dinners.
In Springfield, a legislator is never truly alone. House and Senate party leaders, the Governor, colleagues, and the media guide and lecture them. Advocates, lobbyists, and members of special interest groups hunt them down with advice. Open hours to spend with family or friends, to exercise or to read a novel or watch a movie are rare. There are precious few moments to engage in solitary reflection on matters of importance.
Two weeks away on break is good. It means that a legislator can have a conversation with ordinary people—family, friends, neighbors—that doesn't involve a favor. It is a chance for love, life, and fresh air to push aside complaints about state finances and state services.
Spring break also means a return to the home communities. While in Springfield, legislators often eat at the same restaurants and stay at the same hotels. They spend hours each day with each other. Sharing common space can lead to a convergence of thinking.
But for these two weeks of spring break, legislators will be home in communities that look very different than the community of the State Legislature. These communities—of faith, of race and ethnicity, of loyalty to corporate or communal values—have tremendous influence. They structure how legislators think about ethical challenges, process information, and make decisions.
Let all who are hungry, come and eat. Jewish state legislators, all 11 of them, will be joining family and friends in a Passover seder Friday night. There is no direct line between the meaning of Passover and issues of social justice in the way that there is a direct line between the concept of tikkun olum and social justice. Nevertheless, just the act of reading and singing from the Hagaddah with a group of loved ones is a powerful reminder of the importance of acting according to core values.
While I am unfamiliar with Easter traditions, my guess is that participating in church services on Sunday and joining family and friends for a special meal will have a similar impact. Ethical values come from communities of origin. Religious traditions bring that home.
Other communities shape elected officials too. One is the community of campaign donors which stress the importance of being responsible stewards of the public purse. For some, this means spending reductions so the state will be on financial ground. For others, this means more thoughtful investments of state resources.
Returning home to one's ethnic or racial community reminds a legislator of who helped him or her get to Springfield. The result may be in favor of protecting funding which provides service and employment to group members. Or it may mean pressure to vote for issues symbolic of group solidarity.
Last but not least are the constituents that re-elect the legislators. Simply going home to the district is a terrific reminder of the power of voters. It reminds a straying legislator who is watching his or her actions.
Two weeks home. My wish is that it will feed members of the General Assembly—spiritually, emotionally, physically—so that they return to Springfield on April 17 refreshed and prepared to do battle on the really difficult questions on the State's agenda for 2012.