I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to have spent this spring as a government affairs intern for CAIR throughout the legislative session. The experience was not only rewarding for my professional aspirations but also deeply personal. I wanted to be an advocate for CAIR because I believe in its message and purpose of building bridges, protecting the vulnerable, and promoting interfaith dialogue. The lesson of Beauvoir’s Ethics of Ambiguity is that we must will the freedom of all people- not just ourselves; she says that to will freedom is the same as disclosing being. It is our projects, actions, and choices that give our existence a concrete and real character; to deny or oppress the other’s freedom is essentially the same as negating their personhood. Despite all our technological and social advances, humans continually struggle to accept that freedom is best secured through willing the freedom of all persons, even those who might look or believe differently than ourselves.
My time with CAIR allowed me to study the policy process from the origin of bills to their final form being signed by the Governor. One of my research interests focuses on legislative behavior, and the Oklahoma legislature is quite the case study. We often think of the individual legislators as being the actors who shape the character and personality of their respective classes, but the organization of the institutions themselves exercise just as much a role in the policy process. One example is how the rules of each chamber influence the culture and mores of their respective body. The House is a body of precedents and structure; standing traditions are often cited and upheld; there are time limits for debate, and debate will go in a sequential order of for and against until the bill presenter closes debate. The structure and boundaries in the House create an environment for more authority to be vested in the party leaders and encourages party unity on divisive issues. In contrast the Senate allows for more individualism from its members. Debates are not structured as they are in the House; members can stand and speak at any time, or they can even speak multiple times during debate. Senators also seem much more likely to “break rank” within their party because they represent a larger geographic area and more diverse interests. These differences often lead to clashes between chambers and can make the policy process rather unpredictable.
This session also familiarized me with the circuitous mire of how policy is crafted and passed. There is rarely a consensus on policies between members of the same party; now imagine working with someone who has an entirely different background, life experience, and ideas on how we ought to organize our government and its services. The legislative process is one of negotiations, conversations, and concessions where the public may not always have input; furthermore, it is often treated as a state for melodrama and plot twists. There were bills that were either not originally filed before the beginning of session or died after deadline, but they were introduced as amendments to replace unrelated bills and with a suspension of rules were sent to the Governor for signing. While the suspension of rules allows for flexibility in responding to a state crisis, the privilege is more often used for political campaign projects than true emergencies. Rules are easily suspended through a simple majority, and their existence subsists on the goodwill of party leaders. The public should be sensitive when these tactics are implemented to hold legislators and party leaders responsible, as they are a means to circumvent discourse and public opinion. Sometimes a major crisis may necessitate expediting a certain bill; however, the bills for which Oklahoma made national news did not meet this criteria.
As for my future plans, I intend to take this experience into my graduate program at the University of Chicago’s Harris School for Public Policy. I will be specializing in political economy, politics, and the policy making process. I hope to participate in the Project on Political Reform, producing research on reforming legislative rules and organizing roundtables between civic leaders and scholars to discuss how we can restructure the majoritarian committee system to be more accessible to the public and our input. I will also be starting a summer externship with CAIR’s Chicago chapter, and I look forward to applying my insights to the legislature in Illinois and their outreach efforts. The end goal is that my efforts will culminate in securing a research position with a think-tank or overseeing the legislative advocacy of a nonprofit/advocacy group. Maybe perhaps help establish a new CAIR chapter in another state?
Joshua Davis was a CAIR-OK Government Affairs Intern for the Spring of 2021. He is graduate from Oklahoma City University and will be pursuing his master of public policy at the University of Chicago’s Harris school.