For those of you who don’t live in Minnesota, USofA, I apologize. Our legislative session just ended with not a shout nor a wimper, but something of a wheeze. It was a lesson in political power and how to use it, or not use it, that I believe says a lot about the problem Democrats have generally. For that reason, I’ll offer my analysis of the event and let anyone who cares to throw darts at me. C’mon, I’m ready for a fight after this disaster!
The story starts with our Constitution, which says that the Legislature must conclude its business on the first Monday after the Third Saturday in May. Apparently, they aren’t supposed to be holed up in the Capitol when they should be out grilling things over Memorial Day. This clock sets the rhythm of the session, limiting the power of the House and Senate to hang around forever and be a thorn in the Governor’s side.
When you have a determined Republican Governor, Tim Pawlenty, and a State Senate with a veto proof DFL (Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party) majority along with a House that is 3 votes shy of a veto proof DFL majority, you can see how every edge counts.
Our Governor is used to running out the clock and vetoing things after it’s too late to even try an override. This year, the $4.6B deficit projection gave him a new weapon, the promise of “unalloting” money that is authorized but puts the budget out of balance. As a Republican, Pawlenty is willing to use any trick he can to stop tax increases.
So what did our solidly DFL legislature do? They were up against a stone wall of refusing to negotiate and every bit of power the governor has. Their action was surprising to anyone except those of us who have experience with this: they did nothing they don’t always do. They passed bills and sent them to the Governor and let him do what he wants with them. Thousands of people will be uninsured as a result, aide to cities will be slashed, and so on. But the DFL did almost nothing about it.
They claim they could do nothing, too. All those elected DFLers were powerless.
I would like to tell you my opinion of what they could do, and if you take issue with it, please let me know. I’ve been around the Capitol on and off since 1990, including the epic K12 Bill of 1991 that Bob Vaasek crammed down the House’s throat. I’ve seen every power move you can make, and I can tell you what it always comes down to: the clock. Pawlenty ran out the clock because he could, and so much was backlogged at the last minute that it was an easy thing to do. The first thing the Legislature has to do is learn how to run the clock.
That means getting their plan together as early as February in broad strokes, and having the bills all put together in April. I realize that veterans will tell me that this is impossible, but they are wrong. There is a way because there has to be a way, and if you can’t find one there’s no point in being a legislator at all – give it up and let someone else take over – the way you’re already surrendered to the Governor.
Once they have the clock, they have to call the Governor’s bluff. This is in accordance with Saul Alinsky’s Third Law of Tactics, which is that you always operate outside your opponent’s experience. If they pass spending bills, these can be vetoed and unallotted, but if they pass nothing until he comes to the table you put the blame on him. They should schedule meetings and sit there, patiently waiting for the Gov to do his job. If their plan is ready, they’re the ones who are leading.
The last step is crucial if they are going to call themselves DFLers. They must engage the public and organize. It’s clear that the state supports DFL ideals generally, given the composition of the Legislature. Take out television ads with all the leadership explaining why your plan is good. Get the Hell out of the Capitol and sell it – don’t just sit in committee meetings wondering why no one cares what you’re doing. If the leadership wants to be Governor one day, and many of them do, they should start acting like a Gov.
In short, the stone wall that the legislature met with a lot of force was too strong to be knocked down. That’s the way it is sometimes. When that happens, you must flank your enemy and hit them where they are weak. You cannot play into their hands and you cannot squat down exactly where they expect you to. If you must play the inside game, why not work a lot harder for those precious 3 votes in the House – if you offer people just about anything for their vote, the Gov will at least get wind and have to perform a major rear guard action.
So what is my analysis of how the DFL got nothing from this session? They are too set on inside games, incapable of innovating, and at times unworthy of calling themselves DFLers. They need to remember that they were there to protect vital services for the people of this state, and the people had a great stake in the process; if that doesn’t fire them up to find a way to make it happen, then there is a real problem.
For those of you who think that politics shouldn’t be about games like this, all I can say is that the alternative is, apparently, to give in. I think we need to stand up and keep fighting regardless of who or how we fight because we’re fighting for real people. It may seem like a game at times, but it isn’t. What would Paul Wellstone do? What would Floyd Olson do? What will you do?