State capital dome with lock and caution tape. Photo illustration by BRUCE BJERVA Star Tribune/iStockphoto


Deadlock at the State Capitol: The balance of power

  • Article by: D.J. TICE
  • Star Tribune
  • May 28, 2011 - 10:14 PM

Legislative bodies have a shaky won-lost record -- at least in recent times -- in the sort of budget standoff now gripping Minnesota's State Capitol.

Back in 1995, a federal budget stalemate, largely over proposed Medicare cuts, led to a two-stage shutdown of the federal government. It ended, by most assessments, in a political victory for Democratic President Bill Clinton, who was handily reelected the following year.

Of course, Republicans held their congressional majorities as well, extracted policy trophies like welfare reform from Clinton and got their revenge by turning his second term into something of an ordeal (impeachment and all that). But they achieved few of the immediate budget cuts they had risked the confrontation to win.

From 2003-2009, DFLers in the Minnesota Legislature squared off over spending and taxes repeatedly with GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty. The DFL prevailed in 2005, when Pawlenty ended a state shutdown by backing a tobacco tax (behind the comical "health impact fee" smokescreen). But you'd have to say Pawlenty came out on top the rest of the time.

After all, by DFLers' own constant testimony, Pawlenty wrecked the state despite their heroic efforts to stop him. And they're making that charge these days mainly in connection with Pawlenty's increasingly serious run for president, while DFLers back home languish in the minority in both legislative chambers.

So it seems that chief executives, whatever their party or ideology, have the upper hand over legislative bodies in tussles like these. Republican lawmakers have taken on a formidable challenge in their overtime battle with Gov. Mark Dayton, particularly considering the unforgiving goal they have set for themselves.

GOP leaders have been so adamant that state government must get along on existing revenues that they've left themselves no obvious route for graceful retreat. Almost any accommodation could look like a surrender, if not a betrayal of principle. They have burned their boats and can only go forward.

And yet, that said, never underestimate politicians' capacity to adapt to political reality -- just as soon as (to paraphrase Churchill), they've tried everything else.

There are two reasons legislative bodies are at a disadvantage in these things. The first is that, in many key ways, the governorship is a stronger institution than the Legislature.

And the second is that, strictly and constitutionally speaking, the Legislature is actually the stronger institution, and bears a corresponding greater responsibility.

Dayton has an edge in the battle for public hearts and minds because, like any chief executive, he is an individual, a single voice, who can precisely control his message and make news with every utterance. A Legislature is an overgrown committee, a babel of voices, always less defined and forceful in the public's mind.

Dayton, like Pawlenty before him, has made good use of his bully pulpit. He has replaced his predecessor's "no new taxes" pledge with a three-word battle cry of his own -- "tax the rich" -- and has never allowed that formula to get complicated.

What a strategic change this is for the DFL position, compared with recent years of cat-herding in the Legislature, when at any given moment a half-dozen different tax hike plans were routinely being proposed and debated -- and lovingly itemized by critics.

(It should be noted that Republicans this spring have shown superior message discipline, as they usually do.)

Dayton has also talked incessantly about his willingness to compromise, his heartbreaking longing to compromise -- thus skillfully winning credit as the flexible one in the situation without the disagreeable necessity of actually doing much compromising.

Consider: Dayton is now claiming the meek middle ground for a proposal that would leave Minnesota essentially tied with Hawaii and Oregon for the highest top income tax rate in the country.

This is a descent from the vertigo-inducing rates Dayton first proposed (the textbook negotiating ploy), but it's not exactly a wrenching sacrifice of his beloved tax-the-rich vision.

But if Dayton has so far shrewdly capitalized on the advantages of his office, there is also another, better reason for an extra onus to fall on legislators when they reach an impasse with an executive.

Under our Constitution, the Legislature and governor are not, in the end, equal partners in lawmaking. The Legislature has the final word, if its members agree to speak it.

With a two-thirds majority vote in each legislative chamber, the Legislature can override a governor's vetoes. It can tax and spend as much or as little as it sees fit, ignoring the governor's objections. A governor (or a president) has no such trump card.

The framers of the American system believed executive veto power was critical "to guard the community against the effects of faction, precipitancy, or of any impulse unfriendly to the public good, which may happen to influence a majority [of the legislature]," as Alexander Hamilton put it in the Federalist Papers.

But they also believed that executive power had to be limited, and that the ultimate safety lay in giving the ultimate power to a legislative supermajority.

"It will not often happen," Hamilton wrote, "that improper views will govern so large a proportion as two thirds of both branches of the legislature at the same time."

But with that final power comes, arguably, a final responsibility. If a governor's position is truly indefensible and "unfriendly to the public good," the Legislature can overrule it.

If its members can't agree to do that, the logic of our system suggests that the executive's demands are not utterly unreasonable.

A Legislature's duty is to fund the government -- by acting alone if it can, or by making a deal if it must.

D.J. Tice is the Star Tribune's commentary editor.

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