Conflict undermines historic governing consensus

The American political system isn’t what it used to be.

While change in governing is as inevitable as it is in every other part of life, the transformation of political practices and behavior is radical.

The system is subject to constitutions, federal and state, and to laws made to carry out their intent. But the United States has always been governed by people who operated by interpreting the laws in an agreed manner. In short, the political system is based on both laws and common understandings of how the game is to be played.

No constitution or law can deal with every imaginable situation. While amendments can be adopted to deal with change, more often government operates under a gradually evolving and informal consensus.

In recent years, that consensus has been crumbling – and not gradually. In Washington and around the country, elected leaders are using their hold on power, however temporary it may turn out to be, to make basic changes in how government operates.

The filibuster is the most well-known example. Originally, a rule to halt debate in the U.S. Senate was adopted as a way to prevent endless delay. It requires a supermajority, now 60 votes, to end debate.

For decades, the Senate had no problem considering bills without a formal vote to end debate. The filibuster was used only once or twice a year by southern senators intent on blocking civil rights legislation.

Now the threat of filibuster is used for virtually all important bills. In effect, the simple majority required by the Constitution has been replaced by a supermajority. That gives great power to whichever party is in the Senate minority no matter who controls the government.

For “originalists,” people who want to apply the Constitution as the Founders wrote it, this should be unacceptable. Many of those who rely on the new practice continue to insist on their view of the original meaning of the Constitution.

Last week, the head of the Federal Election Commission said that her agency could not make any significant decisions on violations of campaign laws. That’s because Republicans on the evenly divided six-member Commission say that limiting questionable political financial practices would violate free speech rights. Is that what the Founders had in mind?

And the Senate, which worries about President Obama making a risky nuclear deal with Iran, wants to force itself into approving an executive agreement. Until now, all presidents have been able to enter into working agreements falling short of formal treaties without congressional involvement. This Senate action could set a new historic precedent.

Some senators voted against Obama’s pick for Attorney-General, because she would not promise to operate the Justice Department independent of the White House. That’s a new standard. Think of President Kennedy’s brother or President Reagan’s campaign chief of staff, who both served as Attorney General.

In Maine, similar change is taking place, and the driving force is Gov. Paul LePage.

To issue bonds, the Legislature must pass a bill and then send it to the voters. They decide if the proposed use makes sense enough for the state to take on added public debt. The campaign debates on debt can be serious and are almost always contested.

After the voters approve a bond issue, the bonds should be issued and the money put to work. The people are the sovereign, and they have decided and not merely issued an advisory opinion to state government.

But LePage has blocked the issuance of bonds for years until the Legislature gives him something else he wants. Republican state Sen. Roger Katz, a member of the governor’s own party, has said, “No one, including a governor, ought to have the right to be able to veto what the citizens of Maine do at the ballot box.”

But that’s just what LePage is doing. In the process, he is changing historical practice, and his action has not been effectively challenged.

Why does LePage believe he can make such a change? Because he blocked bond issues before he was re-elected, he interprets his election as authorization to change historic practice. With this attitude, he is in line with members of Congress who see their own elections, not as entrusting them with protecting the generally accepted political system, but as a license to topple it.

A House member of the governor’s party defended his action with words that apply to the recent trend toward change. “It’s politics,” he said. Apparently, politics trumps all, including history and the need for consensus.

Gordon L. Weil

About Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman.