If you’ve been following the drama over Brexit – Britain’s decision to leave the European Union, and their Parliament’s attempt to implement it – it may seem peculiar. The deadline for Brexit to go into effect was supposed to be this past Friday, but the EU agreed to give the United Kingdom an extension with two dates: April 12 if the U.K. House of Commons can’t pass anything, and May 22 if they manage to get something done. The problem is that right now, Parliament seems incapable of agreeing on anything. They won’t pass Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal; they won’t support another referendum; they can’t pass any other plan; and they can’t agree on new elections or a change in leadership.

In short, the Parliament can’t decide on anything and it’s paralyzing the entire country (and even if they do settle on something, the EU would still have to approve it).

All right, that last part may seem more than a little familiar to even casual observers of American politics. The United Kingdom has managed to box itself into a corner, much as the United States did during the most recent federal government shutdown. Although government shutdowns aren’t possible in a parliamentary system, since the largest party usually also forms the government, political paralysis certainly is. In this case, the paralysis is being caused by the passage of a vague, wide-ranging referendum question, because the legislative body is being forced to implement something that the majority of them didn’t support and probably never expected to pass.

We’ve seen this very same drama play out in Maine in recent years as the Legislature has struggled to implement referendums. In Augusta, legislators have had difficulty fleshing out the details of vague referendums – whether that’s writing the rules and regulations required to implement a law, finding the money to pay for the project passed by the voters or dealing with the unpopular political consequences of the referendum. All too often, legislators in Augusta have done just what legislators in Westminster seem to be doing with Brexit: simply completely rewriting the terms of the deal after the fact.

The reality is, in fact, a little more complicated. When British voters decided on whether to leave the European Union, they were simply voting on a what and a when, not the full details of a withdrawal agreement. In Britain, both sides may have seen this as an advantage: the government, who put the question to a vote and wanted it to fail, could use the vagueness to frighten people into opposition. On the flip side, those who wanted to leave the EU could promise the sky to voters. The truth, as with any complicated policy question, is likely to lie somewhere in between, with Britain reaping some benefits and penalties alike.

Referendums in Maine are often frustratingly vague as well. Frequently, proponents will propose spending money on some new project or initiative without specifying how they’ll pay for it. They won’t say what taxes they’ll raise or what other spending they might cut to make room in the budget for their brilliant new scheme, leaving it up to legislators to make those tough – and frequently unpopular – decisions. When they make lofty claims about their bill without those specifics on both sides of the ledger, they’re making empty promises just like any other politician. Then, when legislators fail to fully fund their grandiose plans or scale them back to be more reasonable, they blame them for ignoring the will of the voter.

If you want to see this dynamic in action on a smaller scale, take a moment to tune in when the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee discusses the budget. You’ll hear from special interest groups asking for more funding, but you’ll rarely hear them give any suggestions about where to get that money. Just as with referendum proponents, they’re there to make the case for their cause, leaving it up to legislators to make sense of the bigger picture.

The truth is that if proponents of referendums wanted to make it harder for legislators to tinker with them, they could make them more detailed. They could make it clear where the money will come from and how the idea will be implemented all along. They leave it vague because they believe it’s in their political interests, but it’s not in the interests of everyday Mainers. For us, it’s often better to simply reject these pie-in-the-sky referendums rather than pass them and hope for the best.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: jimfossel

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