2014-06-16 / Commentary

Making Sausage


Kevin Twine Kevin Twine Last month, two highly-regarded political scientists from Princeton and Northwestern published a paper that concluded, “When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organized interests, they generally lose. … even when fairly large majorities of Americans favor policy change, they generally do not get it.” This conclusion was based on an in-depth statistical study of 1,779 policy cases between 1981- 2002.

This study reinforces the widely held impression of dysfunction in our political process. However, it helps to remember what Germany’s “Iron Chancellor” Otto von Bismarck said nearly 150 years ago: “Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made.”

In the United States, and in Maine, we have constitutional division of powers, which is designed to make passage of laws difficult, with the goal of making sure the majority doesn’t roll roughshod over the minority. We have two houses of the legislature, an executive (president/governor), and an independent judiciary. When all three branches are aligned, things usually get done. But that happens rarely, although when it does happen, the results can be impressive. Witness the New Deal, the Civil Rights Act and Medicare.

But what does the public really want? Public opinion can be fickle. Take the Affordable Care Act. From 2000 until 2008, at least 58 percent of people polled by Gallup said that the government should be responsible for making sure all Americans have health care coverage. Then, as the debate started in earnest in 2009, that percentage dropped to 54 percent. By 2010 it was 47 percent. Now it’s around 42 percent. Thus, as the difficulties of actually providing such health care became apparent, people began to have second thoughts.

And, as the academics found, big business usually wins the political battles, in spite of what the public thinks. During 2009, there was a debate concerning whether the ACA should offer a government administered health insurance option, such as Medicare, to compete private plans. That year, a NY Times/CBS News poll found that 72 percent of Americans favored this option. Even 50 percent of Republicans agreed. Nonetheless, in the face of vigorous opposition from the health insurance industry, the public option was dropped. Both of Maine’s senators, Collins and Snowe, opposed the public option.

Big money interests have an enormous, and increasing, say in what happens. The amount of money involved is staggering. In 2009, the year the ACA was being debated, the insurance industry spent more than $160 million lobbying Congress and federal agencies, health professionals spent nearly $90 million and pharmaceutical companies spent nearly $180 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

That’s not even all of the health care industry, such as hospitals. So, we ended up with a health care law that will pour billions into the insurance industry through mandated coverage, with questionable cost control over pharmaceuticals or hospitals, and no public option.

Perhaps the purest form of expressing the public will on policy is through ballot initiatives. In all, 24 states, including Maine, allow ballot initiatives. Our most recent example is the gay marriage initiative of 2012, which won with 52.6 percent of the vote. In 2009, a ban on gay marriage was passed by around the same margin. The difference was that gay marriage proponents brought out 100,000 more voters in 2012. It’s not easy to accomplish this: it takes a high degree of organization – which costs lots of money. In total, the two sides spent over $11 million in 2012, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

The sausage-making machine is working overtime these days in Maine. A December 2013 poll by the Maine People’s Research Center showed that nearly 70 percent of Mainers supported expansion of Maine Care under the ACA. An overwhelming majority of the legislature voted for the bill, but Governor LePage vetoed it. The legislature failed to override by a few votes. In all, LePage vetoed a record 182 bills during the current session of the legislature.

Winston Churchill once said, “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing — after they’ve tried everything else.” The latter can sometimes take a long time. But keep trying, Mainers, keep trying.


Kevin Twine is a resident of Brunswick.

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