A House (and Senate) Divided
There’s an oft-repeated story from the halls of Congress about a newly elected Democratic House member who asks a party leader where the Republicans are, explaining that he wants to "meet the enemy." The more seasoned legislator corrects him and explains that the Republicans are just the opposition, the Senate is the enemy.
This likely apocryphal exchange speaks to the tensions that arise in any bicameral legislative system. Rarely, however, do these lead to the kind of conflict seen in Maine during the recent session, where majorities of each chamber attempted to vote large parts of the opposite body out of existence.
Two bills sought to shrink the size of the legislature during the 2009 session. One, from Republican Representative Patrick Flood, would have reduced the House by twenty members and the Senate by four. Another, submitted by Democratic Representative Linda Valentino, would have eliminated the Senate completely and created a unicameral legislature.
Flood’s bill passed the House initially, but with just under the two-thirds majority necessary to begin the process of amending the constitution in order to make it law. Then, the Senate got it hands on it. With Flood’s approval, the bill was amended so that it wouldn’t affect the Senate at all and would instead impanel a committee to make a recommendation about cutting down the House. This new bill passed the senate easily but died in the House.
Valentino’s unicameral bill, on the other hand, survived an initial "ought not to pass" recommendation from the State and Local Government Committee and passed the House with eighty-nine votes. When it got to the Senate, however, that chamber protected its own existence and accepted the committee’s initial recommendation without a holding a vote, killing the bill.
Valentino says that Senate opposition was a foregone conclusion and was, in fact, the reason why the committee rejected the bill in the first place.
"[House State and Local Government Chair] Steve Beaudette was in caucus presenting the majority position and said there’s really no good reason not to vote for this bill, other than the fact that we know the Senate is going to kill it," said Valentino.
According to Valentino, the other reason for the bill’s demise was a lack of attention from Maine’s media.
"I tried everything to get the press to cover this," said Valentino. "I even called York Animal Kingdom and tried to get a camel."
The zoo declined, but Valentino aggressively pursued several other avenues, including starting her own blog and appearing on local and community radio stations. She was unable to get any major news outlets to cover the bill during its public hearing and initial debate.
"One television reporter actually laughed at me when I asked him to cover it," said Valentino.
When the bill passed in the House, it finally got some attention, and the news was even picked up by a variety of national political blogs. The new interest came too late to save the bill, however, as the Senate took action later that same day.
Valentino says she has read all the public statements and debate about moving towards a unicameral system in Maine since the first such bill was introduced in 1935 and she believes the idea is gaining support. She plans to reintroduce her bill during the next session, where she says there’s a still a window to accept the measure before the state’s next round of electoral redistricting.
If that doesn’t work, Valentino says she’ll still continue to fight for the idea for the rest of her legislative career.
"When I'm termed out [in the House] I'll run for the Senate, if there is still a Senate," said Valentino.