The Education of a Wet-Behind-the-Ears Lawmaker

IF freshman Missouri state Rep. Martin ``Bubs'' Hohulin stays in politics long enough, he'll figure out how the game is supposed to be played. By paying attention to numerous role models in Congress and state legislatures, the 26-year-old Lamar, Mo., hog farmer will quickly discover that the main objects of getting elected are to keep getting elected and to live comfortably while doing so.

Hohulin will figure out how to manipulate legislative reapportionment skillfully enough to turn a marginal seat into a lifetime sinecure. He'll master the art of wheeling and dealing to secure for his 124th House district costly pork-barrel projects that cannot but endear him to his southwestern Missouri constituents.

The young representative will learn how to build up his reelection fund by soliciting money from political action committees and by intervening with bothersome regulators on behalf of wealthy contributors. He will find that book contracts and speaking fees can bolster his meager $22,863 annual legislative salary. And he'll discover just how effective slick campaign advertising and vacuous 15-second sound bites can be in winning him return tickets to Jefferson City every two years.

If he's sharp enough, Hohulin will figure out how to accomplish all of this by bending pertinent laws and legislative ethics rules as far as possible without actually breaking them. Or he'll have to learn how to cover his tracks so well that he won't get caught, saving him from the public humiliation that beset Jim Wright, Tony Coelho, and the Keating Five.

UNFORTUNATELY, however, the young legislator's career is not off to a very auspicious start. Days after he took office last month to begin his first term, Hohulin faced a misdemeanor charge for allegedly violating a state election law.

Hohulin's legal difficulty stems from his belief that members of the Missouri General Assembly are overpaid while public education in the state is underfunded. He apparently doesn't yet realize which way the money is supposed to flow, so during his campaign last fall he promised to set aside $2,800 of his House salary every year for college scholarships.

Missouri law, however, says that a candidate for the General Assembly cannot pledge any potential legislative income to any public or private interest.

Far more unsettling than this allegation of wrongdoing is that the majority of voters in Barton and Vernon counties were so credulous that they actually believed Hohulin. Only gross gullibility could explain why they responded so favorably to a campaign that also eschewed media glitz and relied, instead, on an exhausting, door-to-door, personal canvass of the district.

Nor did the 5,051 people who voted for Hohulin serve their district's own best interests. They unseated a six-term incumbent, Rep. Jerry Burch, who was expected to be the next House majority leader and, eventually, Speaker. By dumping Burch, they threw away the significant benefits a top House leader could procure for his constituency.

And what did the two counties gain in return? An untested, inexperienced, naive idealist who believes that Missouri's state motto, Salus populi suprema lex esto (the welfare of the people is the supreme law), means that his constituents' needs are more important than a legislator's perks.

This perverse notion may satisfy the easily deluded residents of the 124th District. But it cannot be allowed to spread beyond southwestern Missouri, lest it undermine the efficient, effective political system that now serves all Americans so very well.

Fortunately, Hohulin is young. Before his idealism does any lasting harm, he can still be taught how the political game is supposed to be played. Charging him with a misdemeanor for wanting to give away some of his own money to aid needy college students might just speed up the learning process.

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