Ho ho ho? No, no, no. If you thought the relationship between the legislative and executive branches of Maine government could not get worse, you were wrong.
On Dec. 10, House Speaker Mark Eves sent Governor Paul LePage a letter. It was a standard political communication as those things go, sent to “officially share with you information about the comprehensive proposal to address Maine’s drug crisis” that the speaker and Senate President Mike Thibodeau (a member of the governor’s party) had announced previously.
Noting that a “previous meeting with your staff did not yield clear proposals” regarding drug abuse treatment and education, the speaker concluded his letter with a plea to “cast politics aside and strive to work together.”
A week later, the speaker got his answer from the governor – with both barrels. In a letter laden with loathing, hostility and hubris, the governor exploded any notion that he was prepared to work with the legislature to develop an effective drug abuse strategy for the state.
He called legislative leadership’s proposal “nothing more than a few bullet points with no source of funding identified to implement your ideas.” He berated legislators for failing to fund all the drug agents he requested over a year ago. “It is not compassionate to wait until bodies hit the floor, then test which way the political wind is blowing before you decide to do what’s right,” said the governor.
He called legislative efforts “often symbolic,” amounting to no more than “catchy sound bites and a smattering of bullet points.” The coup de grace? “Your priorities are lopsided and designed to be politically expedient, but they are certainly not compassionate to Maine families losing loved ones on a daily basis.”
There is more, but you get the picture.
LePage is not impressed. True, the legislative plan leaves a lot of questions about the how and the who, but this was only a summary of the major components of the plan. The governor’s response casts a chill over the work yet to be done to flesh out the details.
Legislators will press on regardless. Sometimes it is difficult to distinguish between the governor’s contempt for leadership versus his opposition to their proposals. Should he get out the veto pen on this one, some Republicans in the House will be needed for an override. Leaders of that caucus already have expressed doubts about the otherwise bipartisan proposal.
Ideological differences are one thing, but the open contempt in which LePage holds most legislators is another. We have seen what happens at the federal level when complete intransigence prevails. Nothing. Unwillingness to compromise, ever, on anything, means a complete lack of progress just when we are facing bigger challenges than ever.
For the sake of argument, let’s just say that this governor’s personal style is not an aberration, but a harbinger of things to come. How can our state government function for the next three years with this degree of acrimony emanating from the governor’s office?
It is probably a waste of breath to plead for more civility. It is a waste of time to mourn the days when the atmosphere was less poisonous. Government always has been a contact sport, but the players were careful to screen their personal feelings for one another behind a façade of courtesy.
Now we, the people, seem to relish the fact that the gloves are off and the artificial flourishes of “my good friend” or “my esteemed colleague” are being replaced by open epithets thrown between legislators or across branches of government.
What can be done? Within our state legislature, the path forward is being modeled by the presiding officers of the two chambers. Thibodeau and Eves have resolved to work together despite their differences, which are deep and numerous.
It is a path fraught with difficulty. It requires compromise on issues that each party holds dear. It requires a decision to value progress over politics. It requires the ability to bring their caucus with them. And it requires the ability to withstand the inevitable slings and arrows from members of their own parties who consider compromise to be nothing short of surrender.
The House Republican caucus has chosen not to go along. But as the outliers, they are unable to do more than function as a stone wall. They are unable to advance proposals of their own. Nor have they earned the affection of a grateful governor for their pains. They have been subjected to the occasional dose of gubernatorial oratorical abuse, too.
In Washington, most members of Congress appear to prefer the “microphone moment” to anything that resembles a real accomplishment. Recalcitrance has come to be taken for a virtue, and we would rather see someone sticking it to “the man,” whoever that may be, than getting anything done.
The legislative process can be tedious, frustrating, exasperating and slow. Yet, so far, our democracy has given us a framework that, overall, is superior to any other yet devised. The founding fathers would have been hard pressed to realize the degree to which current legislators are willing to use the foundation they provided as a weapon rather than a tool.