The Republican Party’s core constituency of older white men is shrinking in Maine and the nation. The Grand Old Party now has two possible paths forward: One is to pursue policies that will appeal to younger, more diverse voters, while the other is to resign itself to being supported by a minority of the country’s voters, and to bend our laws and governing institutions so that it may rule as a permanent minority party.

The first approach has some promise for Republicans. In the last election they made inroads among Latino men and women, as well as Black voters. Since the election, however, party leadership appears to have given up on the idea of expanding the base, and are totally focused on the second approach, to govern as a minority through culture wars.  They are doing this in states like Georgia by changing election laws to make it more difficult for people of color to vote. They are doing it in the U.S. Senate and Maine by insisting on supermajorities to pass legislative bills.

Bill Nemitz’s recent column describes how Republicans in the Maine Legislature are pursuing this strategy (“A Maine state budget passed on time. You got a problem with that?,” April 8). After the state budget passed by majority vote, Republicans howled that the vote was an exercise in raw political partisanship. But the reality is otherwise.

The writers of Maine’s constitution expected that the state budget would pass every year by a simple majority vote. It is only because recent Maine legislatures have not been able to pass a budget by April 1 that emergency provisions have kicked in, requiring a two-thirds vote to pass a budget that will take effect on July 1, the beginning of the new Maine fiscal year.

The same thing is happening on the national level with the Senate filibuster. A filibuster is just a way to require a super-majority of 60 senators to enact a bill or confirm a presidential appointment. Senate Republicans complain that President Biden’s economic stimulus act, which passed by a 50-49 vote (with no Republican support), should have been submitted in a format that allows a filibuster; that way, they could have blocked it.  This is how they hope to block future Biden initiatives on infrastructure, voter protection, immigration reform, gun safety, minimum wage and health care.

As happened in Augusta, Republicans complain that by bypassing the filibuster, Democrats are acting in an unprecedented and partisan manner. Again, the truth is otherwise.

The filibuster is not in the U.S. Constitution, nor was it anticipated by the Founders. Their assumption was that all votes in Congress would be decided by the majority unless otherwise specified in the Constitution (for such issues as impeachment or overturning a veto).  The filibuster was invented in the 1840s,most prominently argued by John Calhoun of South Carolina, to protect slave-owning interests. In 1917, the Senate tried to limit the filibuster, and in 1919-20 there were just two; a hundred years later, there were fully 298! This is not what the Founders intended.

We are heirs to a representative democracy, one in which each of us surrenders the authority to elected representatives to make laws that will order and advance our lives; or, in the words of our Constitution, “in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the Common Defence, promote the General Welfare, and Secure the Blessings of Liberty to Ourselves and our Posterity.”

James Madison, the leading theorist and drafter of the Constitution, argued that any rule giving super-majority powers to a minority faction “would overturn the first principle of free government, and necessarily overturn the government itself.”

Today we need to restore the will of the Founders, to make democracy work: “Government of the People, by the People, and for the People.” In Augusta we need to end the two-thirds vote on state budgets by moving the start of Maine’s fiscal year from July 1 to Oct. 1, like the federal fiscal year, by a simple majority vote. In Washington we must end the use of filibusters to block ordinary legislation.

Richard Barringer is Emeritus Professor in USM’s Muskie School of Public Service. Frank O’Hara is a public policy consultant living in Hallowell.

 

 


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