If we have learned anything from Maine politics in the last few years, it is that norms are very important and very fragile things.
General and often unwritten rules of the road that control the ‘how’ rather than the ‘what’ of our politics, norms created the bounds of acceptable conduct for both parties within the Legislature. Stereotypical Mainer traits of mutual respect, politeness, and honesty bled into the cultural norms of the legislative chambers so that contentious battles over policy appeared to remain respectful disagreements conducted with a shared sense of good faith.
Those doubtful of that rosy view of Maine’s political past need look no further than the current state Senate (nearly evenly divided between the parties, but still eminently functional) to see the last vestiges of the comity that once permeated both chambers of the Legislature, and need look no farther than the current House Republican caucus to see how quickly bad faith and open disdain become toxic to the process of governing.
Last week, despite failing to pass fundamental legislation like the annual school funding bill, enough House Republicans refused to vote to extend the regular legislative session to force the Legislature into adjournment, creating the need for a special session to complete unfinished business. The procedural measure to extend the regular session was supported by Democrats in both chambers as well as majority Republican senators, seemingly on the grounds that failing to enact core governmental funding legislation will cause chaos for cities, towns, and school districts trying to build their own budgets, and that forcing the Legislature to return in a special session rather than simply extending the current one will cost the state up to an additional $18,000 a day.
With an existing budget surplus of over $100 million, House Republicans appear to have dug themselves in over a $3.8 million bill to hire additional Health and Human Services staff as part of Maine’s recently-enacted Medicaid expansion, passed at the ballot in 2017.
While the rest of the Legislature is willing to include the bill in a larger compromise budget package, reflecting the reality that no one party will get everything it wants in an evenly-divided government, House Republicans have demanded that the bill be pulled out of the larger package and voted on individually–a tactic that would ensure that it would not survive a LePage veto.
Everyone in the Legislature apart from House Minority Leader Ken Fredette and the caucus that he controls seems to understand that employing scorched-earth tactics that ultimately rely on control of the Blaine House to execute is a supremely myopic strategy of governing, because political control is fleeting and destroying a norm today justifies your opponent employing the same tactic when positions inevitably reverse. The Golden Rule is both a moral and–in politics–a pragmatic way to deal with opponents because the alternative is a recipe for a cycle of escalation that paralyzes the democratic process. That paralysis can seem like a great thing when it cuts your way, but once the norms that guide the process are gone, the process stops working for everyone.
But unless or until House Republicans dig down and find a modicum of respect for their colleagues across the aisle or at least a sense long-term self preservation, those waiting for compromise or divided government operating from a place of good faith will probably be left disappointed.