GOP attacks Mills for echoing LePage on legislative testimony

The pot is calling the kettle black.

An echo of that old saying was heard last week.

Maine House Republican legislative leaders attacked Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, for refusing to make Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman available to a legislative committee. They said they were “stunned.”

Maine has encountered serious difficulties in getting unemployment payments to eligible recipients. These payments are needed because of the major job losses resulting from the Covid-19 crisis. They should help people pay basic bills after their paychecks were suddenly gone as businesses shut down or cut back.

Without hearing from Fortman, the GOP leaders said she “needs to resign to we can get the Department operating effectively….” That statement reveals that the commissioner would have met a hostile reception from Labor Committee Republicans, making Mills’ decision understandable.

The hearing could have done little about the payment problem but could have given Republicans a forum to take on the conduct of Gov. Mills during the crisis.

One problem with their complaint was that they never opposed Mills’s predecessor, a GOP governor when he imposed a tougher ban on testimony. Hence, the old saying about the pot.

In 2013, Democrats sent Republican Gov. Paul LePage a letter charging that by blocking testimony of department commissioners and his staff, he was violating the Maine Constitution.

LePage claimed that his administration was brought before legislative committees for the sole purpose of subjecting his people to partisan attack. He asserted that he wanted to restore the separation of powers.

He was somewhat placated by a call from Democratic leaders for civil treatment of witnesses. Still, in 2016, Democrats considered reprimanding him for his refusal to allow cabinet members to testify.

Both governors evaded the spirit of democratic government that relies on making decisions and carrying out policy in the public view – now called “transparency.”

LePage, who was largely given a pass by his own party, sought to use any way possible to block policies he disliked. “When he decides he doesn’t like something, he can use a lot of obstacles,” said a former Republican state senator.

But Mills has a special card to play. The Legislature gave her broad powers to deal with the coronavirus. Though she has shown care and restraint, she has made decisions unilaterally and without formal public input. She has explained her reasoning, but has not been held accountable by any other elected official.

LePage may have been correct about the issue being the separation of powers, but precisely in the wrong direction. He wanted the executive to be able to operate free of legislative control. Yet the clear intent of the U.S. and state constitutions is that the executive exercises those powers given to them by law.

The growth in executive control has come about to a great degree because Congress or the Legislature gave their powers to the president or governor. So, it is within the authority of legislative bodies to rein in executive power, not merely complain about it.

To be sure, some executives have adopted a theory that their position gives them unlimited power, even over independent regulators. President Trump has said: “I have an Article II [of the Constitution], where I have to the right to do whatever I want as president.”

Trump tries to take advantage of every opening, intentional or not, Congress has given the president. So did LePage. Mills may do so as well, but, in the Covid-19 emergency she was pretty much given the right to do whatever she deemed necessary.

Both Trump and Le Page (who famously said, “I was Donald Trump before Donald Trump became popular.”) have acted without consulting legislators or the public. They have been men on a mission that they believe was conferred on them by the voters. Neither won the popular vote.

Mills make no such claim and is obviously struggling to find a way to solve an unsolvable crisis. Republican legislative leaders have been criticizing her for failing to consult publicly with them and others. To do so would have made her job even more difficult, but they were right.

Perhaps opposition, generated by Republicans seeking to support Trump’s strategy in this election year, would have been unhelpful. But it might have insulated Mills somewhat from GOP attacks if she had let the public know she was seeking their input. Maybe, having been included in the process, they might even have provided some help.

Even more important, protecting the system of government must be the highest goal. Failure of executives to work with legislative bodies may not only produce excessive partisanship, but it damages the system.

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.