Caucus of the Whole Offer Not Likely to Gain Traction
Coarse Grind -- Opinion
In a move perhaps best described as back-handed generosity the House and Senate minority caucuses held a joint press conference yesterday to announce their offer to share power with the legislative majority caucuses. In Capitol parlance an attempt to outmaneuver another legislator or group is referred to as jujitsu. When the maneuver leaves people scratching their heads it might be called ju-what-the-what?
At their press conference Senate Minority Leader Berta Gardner and House Minority Leader Chris Tuck (both D-Anchorage) stood at the podium with their caucuses standing and sitting behind them. Gardner opened by reading a speech recalling the state’s historic bipartisan constitutional convention that produced a model constitution, and arguably one of the best such documents amongst the 50 states.
“Who was strong enough to compromise?” Gardner asked. “Who had the depth of character to move from a position they knew in their hearts was right, knowing that their colleagues were equally certain of their own positions and equally wanted to create a future for Alaska that was bright and full of opportunity.” Gardner said the unimaginable happened, and the 55 delegates emerged with a pretty darned good constitution.
“When the chips are down and the situation is urgent,” Gardner said, “we’ve always come through, shedding or identities as Republicans or Democrats and remembering that in our core we are Alaskans first; we are Alaskans together.” She went on to recall the years between 2006 and ’12 when the state Senate was led by a bi-partisan coalition and she hailed its ability to save billions of dollars while working in a cooperative manner. Only for the sake of clarity, the coalition was largely able to hold together by agreeing to avoid certain controversial subjects – an agreement that would have sidelined several of Gardner’s current bills including her sexual orientation discrimination bill, her insurance coverage for contraception bill and pharmacist’s prescription for contraception bill. Those are fine bills, of course, but they likely wouldn’t have fallen under the coalition’s gentlemen’s agreement. It’s also fair to point out that the impressive (and now-crucial savings) were accomplished during the years when the state took a money bath thanks to the lucky accident of the ACES tax regime’s progressivity feature. The state was drinking oil revenues from a fire hose, and even Alaska legislators struggled to spend it all as it gushed in. Again, the state is staying afloat today thanks to those savings, so a great accomplishment, indeed.
With those examples Gardner said that within a spirit of reconciliation and unity the minority caucuses were extending a hand and an offer to “go back to the last model that worked.” That’s drawn from a little known chapter from the book “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” Further, Gardner explained that there’s no worse time to captain a ship than when faced with an imminent wreck. The minorities may have missed a golden opportunity to get confirmation of that from Joe Hazelwood who could surely have told the majority caucuses, “Trust me, if someone wants the tiller at this point, give it serious consideration.”
Gardner continued, “We do not want to see our Republican colleagues fail, because we do not want to see Alaska fail. And it’s because of this that we now, in good faith, offer to come together, using the old model of the bipartisan working group to join with the majority in solving these issues which are absolutely critical to Alaska’s prosperous future. We offer to share the responsibility and the burden.”
It was easily the gentlest and most heart felt power grab in the history of the Alaska State Legislature. Somewhere Russ Meekins Jr. is saying, “Why didn’t I think of that?”
It was unclear what the minority caucuses really wanted. When asked if the arrangement would include changes in committee membership, staff pay and other majority/minority differences Tuck said, “That’s all a possibility, but not necessarily needed.” He said what is really needed is an open dialogue and a coming together. Gardner said she was concerned because, under the current majority/minority arrangement she’s not comfortable sharing with majority members what she really wants. Why that would change in one, big happy caucus is unclear. Many majority members have a hard time getting a seat at the adults’ table, too.
In a late night interview Gardner was able to more clearly articulate at least her own rationale for why a supermajority caucus would produce better results. She said, “Right now the way things work, pretty much, is that [the majorities] have to have a majority in the caucus for something to happen, for something to get to the floor. If we’re all in one caucus we can be part of that majority to make something happen. I feel like, with Medicaid expansion, many of us believed that had they allowed it to come to the floor it would have passed. But the calculation within one caucus didn’t necessarily allow for that. The calculation in the body did. And we’re coming up to issues; I hope we get to them, that will require a bigger calculation.”
That makes mathematical, if not political, sense. There are sometimes bills that might get enough votes on the floor if they escape from committee, and it’s true that majority leadership can, and does, exercise the power to hold those bills in committee when they don’t like them – or when they are part of a larger negotiation. It’s not always pretty, and the minorities rarely like it, but that’s one reason why it’s so darned fun to be in the majority. The bipartisan coalition Gardner referenced was not in the habit of bringing the bills of Sen. Charlie Huggins (R-Wasilla) or Sen. Fred Dyson (R-Eagle River) to the floor, either. It’s good to be the king.
Gardner also said it might be easier for the House to reach the three-quarters majority required to draw needed money from the Constitutional Budget Reserve to balance a budget this year. She said that coalitions of strange bedfellows could form to pass individual provisions to achieve some kind of budget or fiscal compromise. While it’s true that, for instance, Sen. Bill Wielechowski (D-Anchorage) and Sen. Bill Stoltze (R-Eagle River), while diametrically opposed on most issues, could come together on blocking the use of Permanent Fund earnings, it still seems unlikely they could gather enough friends to achieve success in that effort. Even if individual groups formed around specific issues in that way, it would create such an unwieldy and clumsy budget document that it would almost certainly suffocate under its own weight on either floor. The whole concept of the minorities’ new model also fails to take into account the fact that both majority caucuses are binding, meaning that members are required to vote as a bloc on procedural matters – namely the budgets. The minority caucuses are nonbinding, and that works for a minority, but as ugly as it may seem, without the binding caucus rule it would be difficult to ever pass any budget. Horizontal management models sound so nice, but they usually end with someone taking his ball and going home.
In any case, at least in the House, majority leadership appears to have a different definition of cooperation and unity. In separate interviews both Speaker Mike Chenault and Majority Leader Charisse Millett (R-Anchorage) said majority doors are open, and both said they thought they were already cooperating and negotiating with minority members, and that they’re happy to do so.
However, Millett said the impression she’d gotten from Tuck was that the Democrats wanted to have a joint caucus meeting, which, she said, seemed like a fine idea. Chenault also said he was happy to meet with anyone and that caucusing together would be charming, particularly if it helped to avoid the struggles to reach agreement that dragged the legislature down last year. Neither Chenault nor Millett seem to have any intention of forming some kind of supermajority though, and Chenault said in any case the majority would continue to hold caucus meetings without minority members present and, he said, “I know who sits in the big chair.”
It’s a novel idea, and likely an earnest attempt to participate more in the process, but the notion of forming supermajority caucuses in the House and Senate is just not in the cards. None of the caucuses in their current form are monoliths, moving with a single mind toward some agreed-upon end. Each leadership team is busy herding cats to one degree or another. But the minority and majority caucuses do, and should, have different philosophical underpinnings. It stinks to be in a political minority. It’s the only ority I’ve ever known and it usually ends in tears. It’s pretty sweet to be in a political majority. It’s hard to imagine what any majority would gain by accepting such a generous power sharing offer. But you’ve got to admire the huevos to give it s shot.