Tuesday, May 29, 2007

When tyrants whine 

In the local morning paper a writer complained in an op-ed that somehow the DFL was thwarted from its rightful duty to raise taxes.
A climactic political battle was waged at the state Capitol a week ago. An electorally expanded DFL army and a GOP Delta Force squared off in the House chamber as the minutes ticked by toward a deadline.

...During this frenzy, the transportation veto appeared on the speaker's desk courtesy of the governor's office. With the override vote called, a handful of turncoat legislators who had supported the 5-cent gas tax hike originally scurried back to their GOP fox holes and the veto was sustained.
What Dr. Ohmann fails to remember is that the veto is needed to protect us from the tyranny of the majority. Katherine Kersten reminds us today,

Turn back to the scene just after the Revolutionary War. The American people were not about to give significant power to state governors. They had just thrown off one king - with his often-hated colonial governors - and the last thing they wanted was another. Instead, they placed their trust in "the people." In the new nation, the law would be whatever 51 percent of the people's elected representatives decided it was.

But "the people" can be despots too, as Americans quickly discovered. State legislatures across the country began confiscating property, enacting wild paper money schemes and adopting various schemes to suspend the ordinary means for recovering debts. When the people exercise unchecked power, a new kind of tyranny is born. John Adams labeled it "democratic despotism." A popular assembly "under the bias of anger, malice or a thirst for revenge, will commit more excess than an arbitrary monarch," a frustrated legislator wrote in 1783.

In response, when Massachusetts adopted a new constitution in 1780, it added a veto for the governor, with a provision that the legislature could override the veto with a two-thirds majority. Massachusetts' constitution became a model for other states, as well as the federal constitution in 1787.

It became clear during the early days of the Republic, and thus during the Constitutional Debates Alexander Hamilton argued for the President to have a veto as well. In Federalist #73 he wrote,
The propensity of the legislative department to intrude upon the rights, and to absorb the powers, of the other departments, has been already suggested and repeated; the insufficiency of a mere parchment delineation of the boundaries of each, has also been remarked upon; and the necessity of furnishing each with constitutional arms for its own defense, has been inferred and proved. From these clear and indubitable principles results the propriety of a negative, either absolute or qualified, in the Executive, upon the acts of the legislative branches. Without the one or the other, the former would be absolutely unable to defend himself against the depredations of the latter. He might gradually be stripped of his authorities by successive resolutions, or annihilated by a single vote. And in the one mode or the other, the legislative and executive powers might speedily come to be blended in the same hands. If even no propensity had ever discovered itself in the legislative body to invade the rights of the Executive, the rules of just reasoning and theoretic propriety would of themselves teach us, that the one ought not to be left to the mercy of the other, but ought to possess a constitutional and effectual power of self defense.
Governors in many states have even more power than the President, insofar as they can use the line-item veto. Governor Pawlenty so far has reduced spending by $26,788,000 in five spending bills passed; one can expect a few more millions lopped off the two education bills that he hasn't yet received.

The original tax bill was instructive of the power of the veto, wherein a broad majority of Minnesotans supported the notion of taking money from the successful and giving it to themselves in lower property taxes. This despite the fact that property taxes per capita have fallen since 2000, according to Census data prepared by the Tax Foundation. It's not like there aren't options for property tax relief -- witness Florida, which is trying to pass "the biggest tax break being considered anywhere since California passed Proposition 13." (Link for WSJ subscribers.) To hear the DFL complain, our taxes must be rising at fantastic rates, but in fact at the state level the we're not even in the top 10. Governor Pawlenty in this case provided a bulwark against the tyranny of the majority, which leads Ohmann to whine,

Bottom line: No new revenue for roads, bridges and transit, plus no chance at accessing about $150 million in federal matching funds for highways.

During the preceding 41/2 months, new House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher and other DFLers had led a campaign for all-day kindergarten and medical coverage of all Minnesota children. These high expectations were culled when rendezvousing with the governor was finally accomplished.

This despite the fact that the Legislature was presented a proposal by Pawlenty to use bonds to expand spending by $398 million a year for transportation, but chose to send a lights-on bill for $150 million less because their gas tax failed. Governor Pawlenty had made medical coverage for all children a priority, but the DFL failed to provide sufficient money for that. Such moves, Kersten says, reflect the value of the veto:

The will of the majority can change rapidly, as we've seen here in Minnesota. The veto ensures that dramatic shifts in policy occur only if a broad cross-section of society approves them. In addition, the mere threat of a veto can encourage compromise and push legislators toward the political center.

The battle of the last days of the Legislature were the battle between young and old DFLers, with the new candidates aware of the need to find that center and the old mistaking the electoral results for a call for a dramatic shift.

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