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COMMENTARY
Oklahoma House
Members of the Oklahoma House of Representatives mill about at the end of the 2017 regular legislative session. (Elizabeth Sims)

When the Oklahoma House of Representatives reconvenes for the 2018 legislative session, it should buck its past 12 months of bad mojo by re-establishing a series of traditions it eschewed in 2017.

While the three items presented below may not seem like major priorities for a state Legislature, their termination in 2017 stick out symbolically like incredibly sore thumbs.

First, the House passed a holier-than-thou modification of its dress code that prohibited members from wearing jeans on the chamber floor. If the idea of that change was to make the House of Representatives appear more professional and polished while wearing khakis and suits, it backfired enormously. Under the leadership of Oklahoma House Speaker Charles McCall (R-Atoka), the body had one of its most embarrassing and dysfunctional years in recent history, dress code be damned. The banning of “denim pants” simply served to further a narrative that lawmakers are disconnected from the public they represent.

Second, the Oklahoma House of Representatives ended the Legislature’s annual softball or baseball game in 2017. The game used to pit the House against the Senate, and it featured good-natured humor. In 2017, however, the resignation of a member who helped organize the games combined with 2016 criticism from Fox 25’s Phil “No Fun” Cross to spell the end of the yearly bipartisan bonding exercise — at least temporarily. Since lawmakers did not play any sport in 2017 and still failed to accomplish a bipartisan budget deal, the public and the House of Representatives should have all the evidence they need to realize that an afternoon of camaraderie and physical exercise was not the problem. If anyone remains unconvinced, read this Psychology Today article titled: Physical activity boosts brain power and cerebral capacity. Lord knows the Legislature could use some of that.

Third, the Oklahoma House of Representatives concluded its 2017 regular session in May without dubbing the “Mouth of the House,” a previously annual tradition that bestowed lighthearted awards upon representatives who made particularly strange and amusing statements each year. In 2008, Rep. Charlie Joyner (R-Midwest City) received the Mouth of the House award when he debated against providing Quality Jobs Act incentives for the Oklahoma City Thunder. Joyner said lawmakers were being told to “bend over and grab our ankles.” While 2017 featured many memorable lines from many House characters, the body seemed almost embarrassed with its own job performance to the point of thinking this annual tradition would look awkward. Two wrongs make no right.

Setting the tone among a group of people

House leaders should consider the three items above as symbolic evidence of how their legislative body deteriorated last year, but they should also consider how atmosphere affects a place of business. If government could benefit from being run more like a business, then lawmakers should recognize that many of the nation’s most successful companies place great emphasis on team-building, comfort and camaraderie.

While being able to dress like average folks, play a ball game like reasonable people or share a laugh with each other are not panaceas for the problems that plague Oklahoma’s system of government, they do matter when setting the tone among a group of people in a place of business. Ask any professional athlete about how much team chemistry matters in the locker room. Coaches who lose that chemistry quickly lose their jobs.

These three mistakes of 2017 should be avoided in 2018.

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William W. Savage III holds a journalism degree from the University of Oklahoma. He covered two sessions of the Oklahoma Legislature for eCapitol.net before working in health care for six years. He is a nationally certified Mental Health First Aid instructor.