Normally, most elected officials like to take a little time off from their real job – governing – during an election year, and focus on what matters the most to most of them: getting re-elected. So, whether it’s at the state or federal level, they try to clear the decks of major bills towards the beginning of the year, leaving them free to glad-hand all summer and fall. In Augusta, it means scheduling the shorter session for the even-numbered years, while in Washington, it means long recesses. It’s quite the ingenious plan, since it lets most elected officials pretend to do their job for about half the time (or less) that ordinary people work for a living. To be fair to state legislators, at least most of them have actual jobs to attend to when they’re not whiling away in Augusta.

This year, though, the real world has come crashing down on their carefully calibrated schedule. Congress, like the president, has been busy dealing with the worldwide pandemic and the economic devastation it’s wrought, in addition to doing the regular work governing the country. They’ve canceled their scheduled breaks in order to more quickly respond. That’s good, because it means they’re still around to deal with the latest issue to come to the forefront: police reform. Surprisingly, it seems as if there may be a real chance for progress to be made in this area on a bipartisan basis – both federally and in Maine. Though it may seem that the two parties are miles apart, in fact there’s more consensus than usual for such a hot-button issue.

For one, most elected Democrats don’t seem all that eager to embrace the favorite slogan of demonstrators to “defund the police.” Most of them know that’s a bridge too far. They’re willing to consider a wide raft of reforms, but they’re not going to go as far as the demonstrators hope. Republicans seem to have interest in police reform as well, even if they won’t go as far as Democrats: Sen. Rand Paul wants to ban no-knock warrants, and Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina is crafting a broad reform bill. It will be a huge lift, but there may be a real chance for Congress to enact bipartisan police reforms.

Federally, the biggest obstacle to enacting any sort of reform measures may be the biggest wild card in Washington, Donald Trump. This would seem to be a perfect opportunity for him to score some major political points, since recent polls have shown that an increasingly wide swath of the American public supports reform. It would reassure independents that he can actually work with Democrats to get things done. Republican leaders in Congress seem to have come to this realization already, as they’re working on their own proposals. The fact that they’re even willing to consider reforms marks a relative sea change for Republicans, who have mostly supported law enforcement unflinchingly in the past.

That’s the initial tack that Trump took to the issue by threatening to send in troops to suppress violent riots happening in major cities. He also continually used the “defund the police” slogan to criticize Democrats, and constantly engaged in rhetoric that was tailor-made to gin up his base rather than to bring together a divided country. All of that seemed to indicate that Trump would take the traditional law-and-order approach that conservatives had for decades, though he began to slightly shift course with the executive order he signed last week.

Here in Maine, the two parties might be even more able to come together to consider how our policing system works, how it doesn’t, and what can be done to improve it. There’s no doubt that we can make changes to improve how law enforcement works here, both for the police and the public as a whole. Unfortunately, right now it’s not possible to even begin that debate for one simple reason:

The Legislature, unlike Congress, is out of town and leadership won’t call them back.

As long as the Legislature remains adjourned, there’s nothing that can be done to implement any kind of police reforms statewide in Maine. Instead, all legislators can do is go to rallies, give speeches and issue statements, but that’s not enough. Their real job is to make laws, not speeches, and it’s high time that they got back to work. Otherwise, they may well miss an excellent opportunity to make Maine safer for all its citizens.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins.
He can be contacted at: 
[email protected]

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