While it was a relief to see Congress be able to come together and finally pass another economic stimulus package to help the country weather the pandemic, the entire process from start to finish was an absolute embarrassment to both parties, the House and the Senate, and the White House. There was far too much politicization of a necessary and vital economic aid package, leading to a stalled process that was rushed through as members of Congress left town. That’s ridiculous, and to a certain degree everyone involved should be ashamed of themselves. Doing the bare minimum that was needed in the most chaotic way possible is, in no way, shape or form, a model for good governance. In fact, the stimulus package should be used as the model for how not to govern – during a crisis or any other time.

Both sides erred by playing politics with negotiations in the first place. Although they made attempts to negotiate all year long, these were closed-door negotiations between the White House and leadership. That approach might be understandable if it had been productive, but as it dragged on it became clear that both sides were delaying progress for political reasons. Democrats didn’t want to see a big stimulus package passed before Election Day, because then President Trump might get credit for it, so they proposed something so large they knew it wouldn’t pass. Republicans, meanwhile, wanted their members in tough races to avoid big votes in an election year – the same reason Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blocked a vote on $2,000 stimulus checks. Republicans also may have suspected that, rather than supporting their priorities, Trump would have signed almost anything to get a deal done so he could take credit for it.

That led to the madcap, rushed process that Congress used at the end of last year. There were a huge number of problems with this approach, not the least of which was that hardly any members of Congress had the time to read the bill before voting on it. That was one of the planks that many tea party candidates embraced in 2010, and it’s one of the things they’re right about: Legislators should always have the chance to read legislation before they vote on it. It might seem like a controversial concept, but it shouldn’t be, either in Augusta or Washington, D.C. While it’s easy to use the pandemic as an excuse, we’ve also seen this happen with the regular budget process in Augusta: Deals get negotiated behind closed doors by leadership, then presented to lawmakers with little time for debate.

This rushed process was what gave Trump the opportunity to try to throw a wrench into the works by suggesting out of the blue that he might not sign the bill. Had Congress gotten the legislation done earlier in the year, he wouldn’t have had such sway, because Congress would have had time to come back and either override a veto or change the bill. But the executive branch is emboldened when the legislative branch waits until the last moment to do its job. Another major problem with legislation being rushed this way is that it completely curtails the normal legislative process, cutting the public out of the process in a way that is fundamentally undemocratic.

All of these problems with the stimulus are lessons that Maine legislators should take to heart as they return to Augusta and begin their work on the budget. Right now, as the new year begins, they not only have plenty of time to get things right for the upcoming 2022-2023 biennial budget, but they also have six months for any supplemental budget to be passed.

All too often, the Legislature has done with the budget in recent years what Congress did: Waited until the last possible minute. There’s no excuse for that, even in the middle of a pandemic. If anything, during times of crisis a democracy should be more transparent than usual, not less. Rather than using them as an example of how to govern, Augusta should treat Washington as an example of how things shouldn’t work – and our congressional delegation should try to improve the process in Washington as well. Must-pass legislation shouldn’t be delayed until the deadline for political purposes; instead, it should be passed as soon as possible, to make it as good as possible.

That’s what good government looks like, and Maine and the country need a lot more of that these days.

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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