Neal Milner: Bullies Can Only Bully Because The Legislature Encourages It - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Hawaii legislators can and do operate according to their own rules and norms.

Calling Hawaii legislators “bullies” has become the go-to explanation for their bad behavior. It’s the flavor of the month, but it’s a flavor that should leave a bad taste in your mouth.

When it comes to understanding the Legislature, this bullying talk is misleading and misfocused because it focuses on individuals’ flaws. The real issue is about The Legislature as an institution. 

Bully talk is a diversion.

So, the bully talk goes: The legislative leaders are bullies. The members voting against approving Gov. Josh Green’s Cabinet appointees are bullies. Senators who get in the limelight because they are loud and nasty are bullies.

Talking nasty about the University of Hawaii president — bullies. 

This bully talk stretches the meaning of bullying so far that it cheapens the important anti-bullying efforts going on in schools and workplaces. 

Legislators are not school kids. Their workplace is very different from other workplaces.

Bullying accusations can be a “cudgel of convenience” that critics use to put a flourish onto their arguments.

“She’s a bully” kicks up the argument a notch. Okay, two notches. 

It’s no surprise that former state Sen. Russ Ruderman uses “bully” to describe the Senate leadership. He and members of his faction fought this leadership, usually unsuccessfully, all the time.

Ruderman and his allies have fought the good fight. That good fight goes on. That doesn’t make his bully accusation any more accurate.

Bully talk diverts attention from the real issues by focusing on the bad behavior of individual legislators rather than on the context and culture that make this behavior possible and even acceptable.

In fact, some of this misdirection comes from legislators themselves, like Senate President Ron Kouchi’s bully-boast about the good old days when men were men and picked on the weak.

In his President of the Senate remarks at the opening of the 2016 legislative session Kouchi said a fellow legislator “impressed me as the kind of guy I would’ve taken lunch money from when we were in high school.”

The first thing to say about his comment is how geezer it is. Acne-macho, bully-bragging about acne-macho high school days. So sad.   

Like any institution the Legislature has a culture, and sets very few standards for good manners or politeness. (Blaze Lovell/Civil Beat/2023)

The main thing, though, is that Kouchi’s remarks are another instance of taking us down the wrong path.  

Just because Kouchi brags about depriving some Waimea High School bassoon-playing band nerd of his shepherd’s pie doesn’t mean that the source of his Senate leader’s power is what it was back in those bully days 50 years ago.

His story is a bully false flag, leaving the impression that the source of his legislative power is his personal ability to push people around. Except it’s not the personal but the political that’s important.

Most of the time Kouchi as well as anyone else on your own legislative bully list behaves that way because they can. The Legislature’s rules and culture allow it. It’s the process, not the person. 

Here are three fundamentals that move us away from bully-talk and more toward process.

Fundamental One: Like any institution, the Legislature has a culture.

Cultures are hard to change. That means that there are strong norms and rules that are very hard to change. In the case of the Legislature, these norms and rules allow for and sometimes encourage the kind of behavior that the bully critics dislike.

Despite all the palavering about payback and the other kinds of inside dopesterism and useless gossip about why legislators have been so hard on the governor’s Cabinet appointments:

  1. These legislators are within the rules, and 
  2. the constitutional provision that grants legislative oversight says nothing about good manners, politeness or decorum. 

Putting it bluntly, there are generally no institutional sanctions against obnoxious, nasty behavior as well as much reluctance among the legislators to try to stop it.

I don’t like the way Sens. Donna Kim, Donovan Dela Cruz and Michele Kidani recently treated UH President David Lassner. In fact, I generally don’t like the way those three operate. But what they do is within the confines of tolerable if not acceptable legislative behavior.

What are you gonna do? Send Dela Cruz and Kim to HR? Send a note home?

The same goes for horse trading, intimidation and the murky area in between. Most of all, it applies to the norms and rules that give committee chairs so much unfettered power. 

So, then, change it. Good luck. Which brings us to a second fundamental. Ruderman alludes to it in his article.

A Hawaii lawmaker reviewing a bill at the Capitol. The Legislature is very resistant to changing norms. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021)

Fundamental Two: The existing legislative culture is very hard to change.

Think of two ways to change this culture. One is internal. Vote out the existing leadership and/or change the committee chair rules.

Neither is easy to do. There is some internal pressure, with some success, to give chairs less control. There has been little stomach to go after the leadership because it’s very hard to succeed and there are costs associated with trying.

Because the Legislature is so full of different factions, it is a truly awesome challenge to put together the jigsaw puzzle necessary for a successful overthrow of the leadership. 

As for external pressure, the public could vote out nasty legislators. Dream on, Nancy Kwon.

It’s hard to imagine a challenger relying on the argument that, say, Sen. Donna Kim, or any other legislator you consider a bully, is too nasty. It’s hard to imagine any incumbent losing, period.

Fundamental Three: The Legislature is very impervious to rule or norm change.

This one is just a summary of the other fundamentals. Hawaii legislators can and do operate according to their own rules and norms. Hawaii’s constitution grants enormous latitude to the Legislature, as in “independent legislature.”   

The rules make it easy and acceptable for leadership to consolidate power and for legislators to behave pretty much how they want when carrying out their duties.

In theory, they are subject to “the will of the people,” but in practice that will is quite weak. Incumbents win almost all the time. There is no effective opposition political party. Not to mention the fact that what is bullying to some is good old kick-ass behavior to others.

I’m not going to get into an argument about the pros and cons of term limits, but even if you had them, the same incentives to consolidate power and the same legalities that protect these incentives would still be there.

Legislators who behave badly do so not because they are bullies but because they are legislators. Legislative norms and rules ignore, allow for, and even encourage it.

That’s why well meaning and on point or not, bully-talk is just hot air.

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About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Latest Comments (0)

As taxpayers we are not going to change the system. The only thing in our control is our vote. Organizing that vote in a block large enough to effect an election is the key, and is what organized labor does so well, hence the reason why unions are so powerful in this state. One equalizing factor that I see is the use of social media and the internet in general to overcome those hurdles and create a grassroots peer group that may vote a particular way, or for a candidate. It's slow change, but knock off one of those cocky incumbents and it will wake up the rest. The only other taxpayer incentive would be a constitutional convention, but even then you would need to have support for change, or the same organized labor votes and state quo political norms would prevail and there would be little significant change.

wailani1961 · 1 month ago

Bully you say? Agreed. Politics seem to continue to be back room wheeling and dealing. In my life experience, Hawaii politicians are no different than those on the mainland. Look at the lists of Nations and where they fall on the "Democratic" scale. Our system of Democracy is still based in money, power and what the money can buy. For example right now the DOE is attempting to steal more of the pie. The Money Pie. No one is stopping the behemoth from their overreach. The legislature seems to turn a blind eye as it focuses on Feral Chickens and cesspools, while our children suffer from low achievement in spite of spending $18,000.00 dollars a year. They are busily embroiled in 6th grade antics as they feed their own narcissistic appetites.

SoulSearcher · 1 month ago

It seems the system of government in Hawaii- with no possibility of public referendum - puts too much power in legislatures hands - that prevents any positive change for the common people. This system dates back to early days when it was created by those already in positions of power and wealth- to keep that power, wealth, and control going forward.

Chris · 1 month ago

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