Burns: We can’t let Sen. Collins trick us anymore

Burns: We can’t let Sen. Collins trick us anymore

Tracking votes within the halls of Congress is an arcane, head-scratching process. The byzantine rules that govern how bills and appointments move from committee to committee, to the floor of a chamber, and to the president’s desk are part of a tangled set of norms that have been evolving in their complexity since the founding of the Republic. No amount of Schoolhouse Rock can untangle that knot of cloture votes, committee deaths, and poison pills. In short, it can be difficult –even for highly motivated citizens– to understand how the issues about which they care are won and lost in congressional chambers.

Tactically skilled politicians, unfortunately, have an ability to leverage this complexity to create situations in which they try to have their cake and eat it, too: casting decisive votes within the less visible setting of a committee or through complex procedural actions, and then casting “show votes” on the chamber floor after the true fight has already been won or lost, but gaining the ability to point to that worthless vote to constituents to show (disingenuous, empty) support for their given cause.

No politician has seemingly utilized this complicated tactical strategy to greater effect than Maine’s own Senator Susan Collins. Constantly hailed as a moderate and a deal-maker, Collins has amassed enough contradictory votes to be able to confidently assert both support and opposition to some of the trickiest political issues to have moved through the Senate, allowing her to simultaneously maintain admiration as an apparent centrist while also maintaining a loyal relationship to an increasingly reactionary and anti-democratic Senate Republican caucus.

This week, however, Sen. Collins is caught up in a very public –and a very obvious– attempt to have things both ways in her diametrically opposing votes for billionaire Betsy DeVos, who despite having one of the most painfully awful confirmation hearing performances in modern history, is now on the path to becoming our next Secretary of Education.

On Tuesday, Collins joined the rest of her Republican colleagues to advance DeVos’ nomination through the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP); casting the critical, essential twelfth vote in a 12-11 decision to advance the nomination to the Senate floor. Here we must be absolutely clear: Collins had a chance –a real, 100% certain to succeed, chance– to stop DeVos’ nomination with her HELP vote. If the vote would have failed in HELP, it would not have moved forward; DeVos would have been done.

But Collins refused to break ranks with the chips on the table despite a monumental outpouring of opposition from her constituents at home, strong enough to reportedly tie up her in-district and DC office phone lines for days. She moved DeVos to the full-Senate vote, but stating less than 24 hours later on the floor of the Senate that she did not have confidence in DeVos’ capacity to lead the DoE, saying “DeVos’ lack of experience with public schools will make it difficult for her to understand, identify and assist with those challenges, particularly for our rural schools in states like Maine.”

Collins then joined Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) in publicly announcing that she would not support DeVos on the final vote, again, despite being the pivotal voice in DeVos making it to the Senate floor in the first place. Unless one more member of the GOP and the entire Democratic caucus vote against DeVos, she will be our next Secretary of Education, creating the very real prospect that institutions of public education will wither on the vine across the nation, ultimately devastating children from low income communities and students with disabilities.

In taking to the floor of the Senate, Collins has gained accolades for standing up in a crisis of her own making, trying to save Mainers from a disastrous Cabinet pick that she bears unique responsibility for allowing to occur.

If another member of the Senate GOP and the entirety of the Senate Democratic caucus improbably block DeVos’ nomination on the Senate floor, praise for Collins might be best replaced with questions as to why she was willing to gamble Maine students’ futures on such a terrible nominee– one she herself acknowledged was unqualified.

If, however, the likely occurs, the rest of the GOP holds fast, and that final vote cannot be found, we must not let Collins’ too-little-too-late vote to obscure the fact that she must own her choice to move DeVos forward. The Senator must understand that we are watching, we see her, and we see her collaboration with an administration that she herself said that she could not support. But it’s up to us to make sure that she cannot once again have her cake and eat it, too.

To accomplish this, voters and members of the media need to begin to examine Collins’ actions with a greater amount of skepticism.

First and foremost, we must demand that Collins delivers votes, not empty promises, to the floor of the Senate. Praise should be withheld for votes that Collins takes that do not attract enough GOP support to create viable paths forward key legislation; if Collins wishes to leave a legacy as a leader, than we should hold her accountable to do the work to produce real results, not simply empty rhetoric and show votes.

Second, progressives people and organizations need to cease grading Collins on a curve– praising her for taking positions that only seem progressive in the context of a truly historically obstructionist, reactionary Republican caucus. Much in the way that we must demand that Sen. Collins cease equivocating on issues of vital importance to Mainers, leading voices of the progressive movement should not help Collins build her brand as a conscientious moderate when the outcomes of her political decisions do not differ in any meaningful way from those of her more outwardly-terrifying peers. We cannot let ourselves be co-opted into doing Collins’ PR for her and providing her with cover to remain stubbornly popular while ultimately achieving deeply unpopular outcomes.

Finally, Mainers need to let Collins know that we are watching, listening, and prepared to hold her accountable. Both in the run-up to DeVos’ confirmation and in her equally egregious support for Sen. Jeff Sessions for Attorney General, thousands of Mainers have jammed phone and fax lines, held public protests and vigils, and have taken to the airwaves to educate their neighbors about the stakes in these actions. These tactics will become more important, not less, as the outrages of the Trump administration continue. Because ultimately, even in these trying political times, politicians remain beholden to their constituents. And if Senator Collins is as concerned about the condition of her constituents as she claims, then she should be happy to hear what we have to say.

Senator Collins’ offices can be reached at:

Augusta: (207) 622-8414

Bangor: (207) 945-0417

Biddeford: (207) 283-1101

Caribou: (207) 493-7873

Lewiston: (207) 784-6969

Portland: (207) 780-3575

D.C.: (202)224-2523

About author

Grady Burns
Grady Burns 40 posts

Grady Burns is an activist on issues involving young Mainers. He serves on the Auburn City Council and is president of the Maine Young Democrats.


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