Federal government falters; Maine recovers

There’s bad news and good news about the political understandings that make our system of government work.

The biggest piece of bad news has been the shutdown of much of the federal government because of a battle over President Trump’s proposal to build the Wall.

While there’s more than enough finger pointing about responsibility for the shutdown, there’s too little recognition in Washington that a shutdown prevents the government from providing services on which people depend.  Officials are elected and taxes collected, but the government is held hostage to a policy war.

A government shutdown affects the economy and puts people out of work.

The 2019 shutdown tops the national record for closing the federal government.  Used by either the president or Congress, shutdowns were never part of the plan for the unique American political system.  By bringing it into play, federal leaders can disrupt an understanding that has existed since the beginning.

The problem is compounded by another departure from tradition.  Congress is supposed to pass the laws it considers necessary.  The president has the power to veto legislation, his rejection subject to being overridden by two-thirds of each of the two houses.

That process requires interaction between the will of Congress and the will of the president – two equal branches of government.  If the president vetoes a bill, it’s dead unless the two sides negotiate and try again.  If the president’s veto fails, the bill is enacted.

This time, the Senate has ignored that constitutional intent.  Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, wielding the power to decide just what bills the Senate considers, prevented a bill passed by the House, controlled by Democrats, coming before the senators.

He said the only bill he would permit is one Trump would sign.  In effect, Donald Trump was elected to replace the U.S. Senate by McConnell’s single vote.  Aside from giving the Majority Leader too much power, his action violated the intent of the separation of powers.  He finally backed down.

Maine’s GOP Sen. Susan Collins disagreed with McConnell, but by joining with other Republican senators to select him as Senate leader, she gave him his great power.

McConnell’s error is even worse than it appears, because Trump would not stick consistently to a single proposal on border security.  He may favor deal-making, but what’s the deal?

The president insists that a wall between the U.S. and Mexico is the key to solving illegal immigration.  He promised it as a candidate, and he tries to keep his promises, no matter how the situation changes.  That seems to be the reason that a record-breaking shutdown became acceptable to him.

The Democrats argue the Wall is a false solution, but there are other, more effective measures they would support.  Their willingness to negotiate on border security after the shutdown could not work unless Trump agreed.  Their proposal to end the shutdown and then talk is what McConnell long kept from the Senate.

The net result of the Wall shutdown is the failure, if not the outright loss, of key understandings about how the government should work.

The good news is that the normal functioning of government, after a breakdown in the way the system operated, is being restored in Maine.

Like many states, Maine requires the people to vote on major additions to the public debt.  As a result, the voters must approve bond issues.  They may also approve matters such as the expansion of the number of people covered by Medicaid.  The U.S. Supreme Court has confirmed that the people are the ultimate legislative body, able to displace state legislative action.

In Maine, the governor has the power to veto bills passed by the Legislature but not bills passed by the people, who are the sovereign and supposedly the governor’s boss.  But former Gov. Paul LePage thought he had the power to block decisions made by popular vote just because he alone opposed them.

That made him a sore loser.  But he also violated the historic understanding that the governor’s role in processing the results of popular votes is merely administrative, without any veto power.  He may have violated the state constitution as well.

Gov. Janet Mills brought back constitutional tradition by allowing Medicaid expansion and bond issues, adopted by strong popular majorities.  The understandings that make Maine government work were restored.

Mills’ moves were the essence of true conservatism.  She maintained state government as its founders intended.  She reversed short-term political posturing that was damaging constitutional government.

We need more of that kind of government in Washington.

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.