What is UT Student Government?

Disclaimer: The Texas Orator received $200 in funding from UT Student Government.

On January 17th, Zeus himself descended from the heights of Olympus and into our inboxes. In a “progress report” summing up the first semester, UT Student Government President Colton Becker touts new hydration stations, more study spaces for finals week, and free menstrual hygiene products in the Union and SAC bathrooms. At first blush, Becker and his “peers” in SG seem to have accomplished Herculean tasks. However, as even Becker’s letter shows, SG does not play the same role in all of these successes. Instead, they “advocate” on our behalf, facilitating deals with other organizations. In function, SG is a lobbying firm for students.

Though such ambiguities are anathema to the American political mind, SG does not fit comfortably as either a primarily executive or primarily legislative body. Reviewing Becker’s email, many of the feats seem as though they were proposed and facilitated by SG and then implemented by the University, private vendors, or outside organizations. So SG is the legislative branch and their outside partners are the executive? That wasn’t too hard, right? Well, not quite.

Much like the U.S. Congress, SG is meant to propose ideas that will benefit students and bring together the right forces in the administration or on campus to implement those ideas. However, in the balance of powers crucial to maintaining the legislative branch’s status, Becker and his olympiads lack some crucial weapons.

Unlike the U.S. Congress, if SG proposes an idea and an adult in the room, i.e. a member of the University’s administration, doesn’t like it, they have basically no recourse. There is no two-thirds vote to overturn a veto. They can’t appeal to any judicial body if the administration cuts them off at the knees. SG’s constitutional power to go against the administration’s final word is nil.

But wait, the strong-jawed Becker must wield that even greater power of the legislative branch, the power that sees administrations pliantly eating from the hand of Congress, the power of. . . the purse! Right?

Nope. The U.S. Congress derives much of its power from the fact that it approves funding and, to an extent, allocations for the executive branch. Whereas with SG, this dynamic is reversed: the administration approves a budget for SG which it can then allocate internally.

According to its constitution, “Student Government (is required to) apply for annual funding from the Student Services Budget Committee,” a committee consisting of SG representatives and administrations officials that then submits a budget for consideration to the Dean of Students. SG’s role (or lack thereof) in representing student’s budgetary interests via the SSBC is its own morass that I explore in another article, but suffice it to say that SG does not even come close to embodying the funding power that is crucial to our understanding of the U.S. legislative branch’s power.

Without meaningful control of the University’s discretionary spending on student services, SG must instead rely on the administration, its officials and its coffers, or outside organizations to implement even the most mundane of its new ideas. A brief stroll through Becker’s email is particularly demonstrative of this point.

The achievements mentioned in the email can be separated into two categories: reforms to SG and gains to students.

SG has nearly unlimited constitutional power to create new agencies, councils, and appointments (Sec. 4.24, (h) & (i)) within itself and to reform its own internal code. In fact, of the ten bills passed this semester, five were to create or codify a new committee or agency, four were to amend the election code, and one was to approve internal funding allocations. All other legislation was either a Joint Resolution or Resolution in support of or in opposition to some action by the administration.

The Dean’s Student Advisory Councils and Election Code reform that Becker highlights in his address fall under these powers. Internal reforms of this kind are the bulk of what SG does directly.

The gains to students that Becker highlights are, then, better thought of as facilitated by Student Government. Most of them (consent training, study spaces, first response organizations, hydration stations, and reflection spaces) are paid for and implemented by the university, even if the ideas originated in SG.

This is not to detract from the relative merits of these plans. Students must decide for themselves (hopefully with a consideration of the costs of SG that I discuss in a later article) the value that they place on these new services. However, it is important to make clear that SG does not pay for or operate these services. The ultimate cost of their implementation and upkeep falls on the students via their tuition and taxes that comprise the university’s budget. SG’s role was that of a broker.

The university’s role as final arbiter and financier of these services demonstrates how SG does not jive with our concept of a legislative body. One particular item mentioned in the report, however, shows that the executive branch is a baggy fit for SG as well.

Depicted second on the Arc de Triomphe that Becker sent out is a description of SG’s efforts to provide free menstrual hygiene products in the SAC and Union bathrooms. The announcement fetes “the combined efforts of the Texas Orange Jackets and the Women’s Resource Agency of SG” for coordinating the effort and the Texas Unions for “sponsor(ing).” Here, as elsewhere, even when the effort involves an executive agency of SG, the Women’s Resource Agency (WRA), the role of SG in this proposal is tough to define.

The WRA is one of the at least 20 (this number is ever-expanding) executive agencies that operate under the purview of SG. These agencies operate with funding allocated by SG in its own budget and from independent fundraising efforts. In theory, these agencies have executive power. They can implement plans directly by drawing on their funding. However, in practice, as shown by the role that the WRA played in this proposal, these agencies often act as brokers, facilitating plans and leaving the execution to other parties.

SG’s limited role as an executive power dovetails with its limited power as a legislative body to control funding. A breakdown of SG’s full budget exceeds the scope of this article (though it is the whole scope of another one), but many of the limits on SG’s ability to operate as an effective executive body stem from the amount of funding it gets when compared to the operating costs that it maintains.

For example, according to its own estimate provided in the resolution supporting the provision of free menstrual hygiene products, A.R. 8, “the cost of providing menstrual products for one student for a year is between $5-$7.” At the current budget amount for the WRA this year, $250, they could provide for, at most, the menstrual hygiene needs of 50 students for a year. That is not insignificant and the goal is certainly laudable, but the limitations on how SG acquires funding and how it allocates that funding internally prevents it from fully functioning as a true executive body capable of implementing and managing its proposals.

So if UT Student Government is not a true legislative body because it lacks the powers of veto and the purse and if it is not a true executive body because it lacks the funding required to effectively implement and manage proposals, how best should we conceptualize SG’s role as a political body on campus? (Discussion of SG’s judicial function is not necessary because its Supreme Court only has jurisdiction over matters internal to SG and as such it provides only an ancillary function.)

SG, at its model best, serves students by navigating the byzantine bureaucracy of UT’s administration, bringing together the parties, funding, and support for proposals that serve our interests. In their idyllic forms, members are diligent functionaries working to convince frugal administrators that in some specific area they should prioritize the needs of our special interest group, i.e. students. Experts in the art of persuasion, SG members speak with the weighty voice of the student body to wheedle university officials into throwing some crumbs our way. In essence, Student Government is our lobbying firm!

The analogy is no doubt jarring. We voted for them. They deliberate. They speak with our voice. Certainly, SG functions as more than a group of students that we simply elect to plead our case to a university that should be prioritizing our needs anyway, right? To an extent, yes. As discussed, SG does have its own budget and it does internally allocate funds to its agencies, which operate with some executive power, and to student organizations. However, the core of its operations lay with advocacy and brokerage, the very same core operations of a good D.C. lobbying firm. SG is there to get the right people with the right budgets together in a room and make a case on our behalf.

And this is a good thing — it is what SG is best equipped to do. Lobbying for the interests of students is an important function and it seems right that there be an organization with members dedicated to building the necessary relationships and institutional knowledge to do so effectively.

However, if D.C.’s lobbying firms are known for their near-arcane ability to coax subsidies, tax breaks, and new policies out of a lethargic bureaucracy, they are perhaps equally well-known for the pretty penny that they charge for working their magic. It is only after a consideration of what we pay our student interests lobbying firm that students can come to an informed opinion about the return on our investment. And with a deep dive into SG’s budget, students will be given just that opportunity in the next article of this series.

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