Checks and balances.
In school, we are taught constitutions create them to prevent any one branch of government – legislative, executive, judicial – from having too much power and to ensure each has its own distinct role.
That’s the theory. In practice, government looks a lot different.
Take Maine, for example. The Legislature is supposed to make the laws and the governor is supposed to carry them out.
It has long been recognized that few laws can be put into effect without executive agencies filling in the details of their application. Almost inevitably, the executive branch becomes involved in legislation.
Governors are also the prime source of legislative proposals. Major new policy initiatives are often launched by the executive branch, giving it an important role in the lawmaking.
But Gov. Paul LePage has been trying to carry the involvement of the executive into the legislative process to new lengths. He has a detailed legislative agenda, and he expects the Legislature to adopt it. It won’t, and the state faces an almost unprecedented legislative war.
LePage’s strategy is to veto just about every bill adopted by the Legislature, even by a veto-proof majority, to send a message to legislators that he will try to block anything from happening unless he gets his way. In short, the governor does not want to share in the legislative process, in ways customary for executives, but to dominate it.
Because the state constitution almost dictates the need for a two-thirds vote in favor of the state budget, many members are accustomed to seeking compromises and working together for common solutions.
Being a state legislator is not supposed to be a full-time job, and some of them hold office out of a sense of public service rather than to advance an ideology or political party. Many bills are passed unanimously or overwhelmingly. Most vetoes are overridden. The Legislature has not reached the kind of partisan divide as has Congress.
At the federal level, President Obama has seemed ready to let Congress come up with its own proposals, and he then would decide to approve or disapprove them. The White House is far from the time when a president would work every day to stroke members of Congress.
In the rigid legislative process, dominated by partisan gridlock and the wild overuse of the filibuster in the Senate, fewer important bills even make it to the president.
The partisan split, which includes the strong likelihood the Democrats will sustain Obama’s vetoes, has actually served to produce a lower veto rate than for any president since Lincoln. But this situation can be a recipe for not enacting new laws or fixing obvious faults in old ones.
Faced with the lack of legislative action, Obama has used his power to issue executive orders, most notably one on immigration. While this tactic riles Republicans, Obama has issued such orders at a lower annual rate than has any president since 1885.
In recent months, some laws have been enacted. While the trade bill’s passage resulted from an unusual meeting of the minds between the president and Republicans, some bills have been the result of the GOP’s worry about being considered the cause of government inaction. To avoid that image, senior Republicans have been willing occasionally to compromise.
Obama, an ex-senator, respects the role of Congress, even if it gives him heartburn. LePage intentionally disrespects the Maine Legislature, because it will not fall in line behind his proposals. He accepts no modification of them, no compromise.
The divide in Washington is mostly along partisan lines – between a Democratic president and a Republican Congress. While the party dominating on a specific issue can seem to be in charge, neither side is completely in control.
In Maine, the divide is along institutional lines – governor versus legislature. LePage is trying to bend the Legislature to his will, not by stroking it, but by crushing it.
Constitutions are surrounded by unwritten understandings. In recent years, the U.S. Senate filibuster, causing any bill to require 60 votes, has changed an understanding. Some argue Obama’s use of executive orders does as well.
In Maine, the governor’s veto of every piece of legislation, even those proposed by his own party, eliminates an understanding that the Legislature’s role in lawmaking should be respected, with vetoes part of the legislative process and not an instrument to undermine the Legislature.
At stake is not the fate of any proposal or law. The American system of government itself is under attack when basic understandings and long-standing custom are abandoned.