JEFFERSON CITY - Students covering Missouri's legislature? Foreigners covering state legislature? We did it! For four months we, three Spanish journalism students from the University of Navarra, have been reporting in Missouri's state capitol. And lots of things have surprised us.
The main difference we've noticed is the lack of so-called "discipline of the party" so common in Europe, by which legislators do not make their own decisions on how to vote on issues. Instead, they follow the dictates of the party.
Part of the reason is that legislators are not elected directly by the citizens in Spain. Instead, people vote on the parties. The parties then decide who is going to represent their electors.
The way we see it, the American way has a more personal "touch". But, because it is easier to change the mind of a single legislator, it is also less stable.
This does not mean in Spain there are only two possible views on every topic. The are more political parties. And that provides a wider variety of political options.
Small parties, as a whole, constitute an important percentage of the floor, so their voting actually makes a difference in the legislature. Instead of negotiating the laws on an individual basis, the two main parties "flirt" with the smaller ones to establish alliances.
The freedom of individual legislators in the U.S. individually to decide their positions on issues explains, in our opinion, the important role lobbyists play in politics, providing information to legislators and pushing their own interests.
"It's beneficial because as legislators we're faced with wide variety of issues and we can't be experts on everything," says Rep. Steve McLuckie, D-Kansas City.
The Spanish system has some "interest groups," but they are not registered as lobbyists. This makes more difficult to the public to keep track of who is influencing the government.
Rep. Luann Ridgeway, R-Smithville, said that since lobbyists are paid, they "do not represent the average working person." In contrast, in Spain trade unions defend workers' interests in the political arena.
According to Ridgeway, legislators should ask citizens what their concerns are and the duty of the citizens is to inform the legislators about their needs.
"Communication is a responsibility that runs both ways," Ridgeway said.
Not everybody agrees with this point of view. Rep. Tim Harlan, D-Columbia, said there are non-profit organizations that lobby for organizations whose members could not afford their own, personal, lobbyists.
On the other hand, the linkage between morals and politics has surprised us even more.
"Morality has always influenced politicians as to what is right," said Rep. Glen Hall, R-Grain Valley.
Some of the subjects covered by laws would be considered matters of strict private life in Spain, like homosexuality and certain sexual practices which are illegal in Missouri.
"There are a lot of members that think it's their job to change private lives," Harlan says.
To us, a law that cannot be enforced is useless. So it seems even more strange that these kind of laws are kept alive.
Finally, we scratched our heads when we saw that, in a nation that is built on the separation of church and state, legislators pray at the beginning of each session.
But we were mistaken: "our constitution doesn't say that (separation between state and religion)," Ridgeway noted. "(It says) a state may not establish a religion."
She said the legislative religious ceremonies have more to do with tradition than truly religious beliefs.
"I have myself thought about that," McLuckie said. But, he added, "the two ministers that we have for the House take real pains to keep their prayers very general and to not promote one type of religion over the other. But in fact, we're promoting religion over not-religion."