Common sense guide to unwritten rules for new
By Jerry Kopel
Jan. 9, 2009
New legislators learn a lot about how Colorado's laws are made by
attending lectures by Legislative Council staff. And for each fresh
group of legislators over the past 16 years since I retired, I have
supplemented the Legislative Council's efforts by offering some
"unwritten rules" to help new lawmakers through the process.
When new legislators raise their hands to take the oath of office, some
might wonder if they will be able to cope with the magnitude of their
Don't worry. In about three weeks, you'll wonder how the "veterans"
managed to stay in office as long as they have.
This is personality time. Legislators are forced to work together
closely during floor work and even more closely during committee work.
Any of you who served in the military will find it's similar to basic
training and your first barracks experience. You can't hide your
personality in such close quarters.
The first bills you introduce and your first appearances in front of the
body will establish your identity in the minds of other legislators. If
that first impression is negative, you might have a hard time overcoming
it during the rest of your legislative career. In other words, you can
be "pegged˛ as good or bad.
Rule No. 1:
Don't go to the front to speak and merely state, "I'm going to vote for
this bill." Don't go up to speak unless you have studied the bill being
debated, can explain its merits and defects and can offer some
potentially useful suggestions.
Rule No. 2:
If your early bills aren't too controversial ‹ and especially during
difficult economic times ‹ you're most likely to succeed with bills
labeled "NFI˛ (no fiscal impact). That doesn't make your bill less
important. It just means your bill doesn't have to go through the
Appropriations Committee, where it's more likely to be killed.
I introduced my favorite successful NFI bill jointly with then-Sen. Hank
Brown in 1976. It permitted consumers to purchase equivalent drugs under
the generic name unless their physicians ordered otherwise. It had major
opposition from the drug lobby, but no fiscal impact on state or local
Rule No. 3:
Do your homework. There is nothing more frustrating for legislators who
have taken the time to study a measure than to have their remarks
greeted by blank looks on the faces of legislators who haven't the
vaguest idea of what is being discussed. You don't even have to lug the
bills home. They will be on your laptop.
Rule No. 4:
Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Check with a bill's
sponsor before offering an amendment to it. He or she already may have
addressed the issue that concerns you. You are likely to get the same
courtesy in return. This informal process is different from
interrogation, which happens when you oppose a bill.
Rule No. 5:
Try to make yourself an expert on one or two subjects where you feel
comfortable. You might want to study the history of "your" subjects in
the House and Senate journals or in documents you can obtain from
All my legislative material is indexed and available for public
examination in the Western History Section Archives of the Denver Public
Library. I also have induced about a dozen other retired Republican and
Democratic legislators to add their papers to that archive.
You'll know you've made your mark as an expert when other legislators
sit or stand on request for a count on second reading or vote "yes" or
"no" electronically following your comments. This marks you as a leader
and not a follower. Lobbyists will notice and will start to come to you
for advice or assistance on bills that touch on your area of expertise.
Rule No. 6:
If you don't want to read about it in the newspapers tomorrow morning,
don't do it. That advice was given to me and other legislators by Chuck
Green, who was then covering the Legislature for the Denver Post.
The small-town atmosphere at the Legislature fosters gossip. If you
haven't yet heard the latest, you will soon. And if you are the subject
of the gossip, someone is sure to tell your spouse.
There have been sexual liaisons in the past, and there will be some in
the future. The media may or may not circulate the stories.
Gossip at the Legislature is a source of information and jokes.
Weaknesses are exaggerated to create insult humor. For example, one
lobbyist always openly referred to a certain legislator as "having the
intelligence of a blade of grass."
Rule No. 7:
Don't sit in someone else's seat at a House or Senate committee meeting.
During the first few meetings of a committee, you will find legislators
trying out different seats. Soon, however, many lay claim to seats where
they feel most comfortable. If you diagram a seating arrangement in the
middle of February, often you'll find it is still accurate in May.
Rule No. 8:
Learn about your senior compatriots (meaning senior in service). Read
their biographies in past Colorado Press Association Legislative
Unfortunately, the Colorado Press Association stopped producing these
biography booklets after the one for 2005, but you probably can find
past issues in the Legislative Council library. Learn about members who
aren't included by having your assistant find biographical material
Rule No 9:
Don't be afraid to cross the aisle to shake hands and make small talk
with members of the opposing party. After all, you DID walk door-to-door
to successfully get here. Legislative friendships are like other
Someone has to take the first step. If you are going to lunch, do it
often with someone from the other party.
Having friends in the other party can help your bills, especially when
there's a close call on a nonpartisan issue. This is something every
astute lobbyist knows when he or she decides whom to ask to carry a
Rule No. 10:
When you make a commitment, keep it. Legislators and lobbyists count
votes for and against bills in advance, and they hate it when a
legislator backs out of a promise. If you change your mind on a bill,
let the sponsor and the lobbyist know several days before the vote.
Otherwise, be prepared for vote switches in revenge on your key bills.
Rule No. 11:
Stay focused. Unless you are a marionette to a flock of lobbyists who
will do everything except move to pass the bill on second reading,
remember ‹ it's your bill.
Amendments will be offered. If they don't negate your objectives, let
them pass ‹ unless other legislators who favor your bill express
opposition, and would withdraw their support if the amendment goes
If an offered amendment runs counter to your purposes, you should, of
course, try to defeat it. But if you don't succeed, keep the bill
There's always the possibility of changes being made in a conference
committee. (The Legislative Council staff will explain.) And you always
have the option of silently killing your bill.
Finally, the following rule is for all legislators.
Rule No. 12:
I am not going to advise you on Article 29 of the Colorado Constitution,
entitled Ethics in Government. There will be lawsuits challenging Ethics
Commission decisions or rules. All I can suggest at this time is, "when
in doubt, don't do it." If you make a mistake, your opponent in 2010
probably will put it in large type on his or her campaign literature.
To the new members:
Serving in the Legislature is your chance to make a difference for the
residents of Colorado. Do it well, and you will never forget nor regret
Jerry Kopel served 22 years in the Colorado House