CONSENSUS GOVERNMENT WORKS

BAKER

Much was made, in the media yesterday, of Governor Baker’s supporting Senator Warren’s bill to protect states’ marijuana legalization and procedures thereunder. Ten other governors joined the letter that Baker participated in, but t.he headline didn’t indicate that the support was not merely Baker’s. The reason is obvious : Baker and Warren both seek re-election this November but belong to different political parties. The media believe that you, the reader, find this agreement across party lines to be news. Perhaps it IS news, given the partisan polarization that the media assures us is the current norm and which message cynical politicians seek to advantage to themselves; but what if the Baker and Warren agreement on this matter is the norm, and polarization isn’t ? What then ?

I would assert that in Massachusetts, at least, the norm is agreement on major issues by leaders who belong to different political parties; and that disagreement is the exception.  There are sufficient examples of such exceptions to trouble many complacency we may feel; the matter of full civil rights for transgender people divides more or less on partisan lines. Yet even on “transgender rights,” the partisan disposition is not absolute. Enough Republicans join with almost all Democrats in support that even “trans rights” adhere to consensus. Most every issue that Massachusetts voters think about enjoys similar consensus. If that were not so, we would not see our legislature enacting most bills unanimously or almost. Which is not to say that opposition does not find its way into legislative discussion. Opposition would certainly arise in the House, were Speaker DeLeo not determined to allow a floor vote only on bills that enjoy overwhelming support. The House includes so,me two dozen “progressives” who profess an agenda on which there i sno consensus at. all, in many cases no majority even. The House also includes about two dozen Republicans who oppose almost every bill that DeLeo judiciously declines and even many that he does allow to a floor vote. Yet when those votes are actually taken, few of either House group vote Nay. The Senate plays disputation differently. Progressives get a floor vote on much of their agenda, and it usually commands a majority, only to succumb to the House’s priorities. Thus consensus is maintained.

So far, t.he voters of Massachusetts seem to like consensus. Those laws t.hat it achieves acquire a kind of absolute legitimacy thereby, which assures them respect broad enough to insulate them from challenge; and the voters thus feel that their say in the matter has been listened to and taken into account. Thus the support that Baker is giving to Senator Warren’s bill to reverse the Attorney General’s decision to have the Department of justice enforce Federal marijuana laws notwithstanding state legalizations.

Some of us would say “country over party,” which works in several contexts; but that’s not the tack here. The agreement between Baker and Warren plays out on a different field, a classic American one : the powers that Amendment Ten of the Constitution reserves to the states. (I understand that by bringing up this topic I am digressing from my main theme, but hear me out.) Exactly which powers the Amendment means, it does not say. It’s not clear, either, what powers the Constitution grants to the Federal, government. Many such powers appear implied by the grants made expressly, and always we are realizing implied powers that we had not anticipated.  At the Ratification convent,ions of 1787-88 there was nothing like consensus about this issue, and the divisions expressed there continue to this day an d are often the rubric by which this state or that one have abused people’s basic civil rights despite express Constitutional protections. For Massachusetts, whose voters ave almost from the beginning looked to Federal power t.o promote and defend  the most idealistic guarantees of civil rights, not to mention the most sweeping Federal regulations of commerce, the matter of state powers has always seemed a dodge — an excuse for particularist state governments to abuse Federally guaranteed rights. Massachusetts voters’ right to legalize marijuana sale and to enjoy the fruits thereof invokes the states’ rights cry; but it also defends commercial law. It is doubly particularist, and those who — like this writer — support expansive Federal power over commerce as well as civil rights guarantees should understand that by supporting Baker and Warren, we are making an exception to our usual policy rule. “Country over party” does not apply here, neither leg of it, the partisan or the national.

So back we come to the practice of consensus. The divisions that have always pressured American politics about state authority versus Federal power can stop much reform, and have often done so. It is no minor achievement that Baker supports Warren’s bill. It is an act of consensus crucial both on its own footing and as an example to electeds going forward to address issues far more liable to division : think immigration, in which arena states have scant authority and the people even less, to effect reforms badly needed if the promise of our nation, as the best hope and dream of immigrants from everywhere, are to be achieved by those who need the law’s help NOW.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

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