Opinion/policy gap is threat to representative government (7/13/2015)

The indifference of the Idaho Legislature to the overwhelming support of Idahoans for enactment of Add the Words legislation, Medicaid expansion and a minimum wage hike raises profound questions that plumb the depths of the very concept of representative government itself.

The very idea of a representative democracy, or a republic, is premised on the implementation of the will of the people, as measured by elections, of course, but also in reliable public opinion polls. The ballot initiative to overturn the Luna Laws marked a passionate determination of voters to correct the errors of their representatives.

Twenty-five-hundred years ago, Aristotle captured the essence of self-government when he replied to a question of public policy: “Well, what do the people say?”

In our constitutional democracy, the “will of the people” is checked and filtered by both the Bill of Rights and representative government. The Bill of Rights aims to prevent the “tyranny of the majority,” as described by James Madison, which can emerge, for example, in the efforts to censor unpopular speech.

The “filter” of representation can be exercised, for example, when elected representatives serving in the Legislature decide that they, rather than the people, better understand what constitutes the welfare or interests of the State of Idaho.

Of course, they can be wrong on occasion, and out of step with the aims and wishes of the electorate, as they were in the case of the Luna Laws and, apparently, as they are with respect to the issues of Medicaid expansion, minimum wage hikes and Add the Words. A sharp and lingering indifference of the Legislature to the will of the people strongly suggests the influence of elites and various, very influential institutions and organizations. The disconnect in these instances is unhealthy and injurious to the cause of republicanism and the principle of self-governance.

The clear disconnect between the views of the people and the Legislature in those areas can be attributed to a number of factors.

The disconnect on the issue of Add the Words reflects legislative indifference to the civil rights of Idahoans, an indifference influenced by ideological zealotry, religious doctrines and careerism. The disinterest reflects, moreover, the practice of paying lip service to rights, freedom and liberty, rather than an abiding, sincere commitment to equal protection of the laws.

This state of affairs could be and should be dramatically changed as a result of the Supreme Court’s opinion upholding same-sex marriage. Failure to pass Add the Words legislation would be anomalous in the extreme, given the Court’s ruling. Continued support from the business community,combined with the support of such legislation by the LDS Church, in addition to the additional embarrassment that the state would endure for its failure to uphold the constitutional principle of equal protection, should be enough to secure its passage in the next legislative session.

Opposition to Medicaid expansion reflects a combination of interests that are in sharp conflict with fiscal conservatism, promotion of the budgetary interests and needs of counties and, indeed, the state of Idaho, and the moral imperative to insure that all people have access to affordable health care coverage. The factors include ideological zealotry and the problem of careerism, as manifested in the fear of challenge by opponents in a primary campaign.

Studies have demonstrated the financial interest that Idahoans have in Medicaid expansion. Legislative indifference to fiscal conservatism, not to mention the moral imperative, reflects in part the concern among some legislators have facing a primary opponent and perhaps suffering a defeat in the election, rather than doing the “right thing.” The growing burden inflicted on counties by this indifference would suggest that more counties will attempt to increase pressure on legislators for relief.

The legislative indifference to another moral imperative – a minimum wage hike, as means of creating a living wage – which would boost the quality of life for Idaho workers living in poverty, can be attributed to the influence of lobbyists for the business community, who express fear of a loss of jobs for Idahoans.

That fear is contradicted by the experience of our neighbors in the state of Washington who,in 1998, raised their minimum wage and the result has been an increase in jobs. This issue is ripe for increased support from various groups and organizations, including religions, who express concerns about the quality of life for all of “God’s children.”

The overwhelming public support of these matters, in the face of legislative indifference, suggests a major disconnect on the some of the most important issues of our time. That disconnect can likely be bridged by leadership and organization, of the sort seen the creation of a coalition to overturn the Luna Laws.

The natural affinity of members of that coalition for the issues under discussion here, suggests a void, ripe to be filled by leadership. A democracy demands skillful leaders with vision, perhaps more so than any other system of government. It demands good men and women at the helm, who navigate the ship of state.