Posted: July 1, 2013
THE GREAT PRETEND
By Celia Cohen
The time is probably approaching, if it is not already here, to stop all the happy talk from the state's politicians about how wonderful it would be to take Delaware ways to Washington.
Has anybody looked at the General Assembly lately?
It looks more like D.C. ways are coming to Dover.
Granted, nobody has shouted "you lie" at the governor like the president. Still, the atmosphere was discordant enough that Gary Simpson, the Senate's typically mild-mannered Republican minority leader, was quoted as dismissing a statement from Jack Markell, the Democratic governor, about legislative progress on economic growth as "just BS in my opinion."
It is true the grunt work of government -- the passage of the money bills to authorize the state's operating and construction budgets as well as grants-in-aid for fire companies, senior centers and charities -- keeps grinding on in the tradition of bipartisan bonhomie, but nobody should be fooled. It is due to simple political self-preservation.
Nothing riles up the voters to a throw-the-bums-out fury like a legislature and a governor mucking up the state's finances.
Otherwise, in the 2013 session that ended in the wee hours of Monday morning, Legislative Hall hardened more and more into the attitude, once regarded as so un-Delawarean, that compromise is appeasement.
"There used to be mutual respect, and the most votes won. The tolerance, the demeanor and the activity are not what they once were, and that's sad," said Mike Ramone, a Republican representative from Pike Creek Valley.
Ramone knows what he is talking about. He voted for gay marriage, transgender rights and enhanced background checks for gun purchases, votes that made him only one of two House Republicans to break with party orthodoxy and vote with the Democrats on parts of the most liberal legislative agenda in Dover since the 1960s. His caucus hammered him for it.
Both sides trace the mushrooming partisanship to the rise of the Democrats and collapse of the Republicans into a one-party system with the governor, the lieutenant governor, and the leadership of the Senate and the House of Representatives completely Democratic.
Before the 2008 election, the control of the government was divided for 24 years with a Senate Democratic majority, a House Republican majority, and the governorship flipping from Republican for eight years to Democrat for 16 years.
Bipartisanship prevailed with both parties deeply invested and committed to it.
Now the center cannot hold. Whether the Democrats have become too lordly or the Republicans too frustrated in their powerlessness, whether the Democrats are compelled to go it alone because they are accountable or the Republicans have cynically shed any interest in helping the Democrats look good, the estrangement is growing.
The Senate simmered in it as the session wound down. It has always gone without saying there will be bills at the end rushed to a vote without the normal protocols, but on this night the Republicans refused to go along with suspending the rules.
They objected every time. It did not matter what the bills were -- Senate bills, House bills, Democratic bills, Republican bills, even bills they ultimately intended to support -- they forced the Senate to take an extra vote to suspend the rules to let the bills be considered.
Against a 13-8 Democratic majority, the Republicans lost 13-8 every time, and the bills came to the floor. It could be regarded as a meaningless temper tantrum, but the Republicans preferred to cloak it as a principled stand on the public's behalf.
"The public deserves a right to see bills before they come to the floor for the final debate. We're just trying to make the point," said Simpson, the minority leader.
As the partisanship snowballs, it is fed by the polarizing constituencies in both parties -- from the Tea Party to the "Occupy" movements, from the Second Amendment gun rights to the gay rights advocates -- driving the Democrats further left and the Republicans further right.
All of it happens all of the time through cable news, talk radio, blogs and tweets with the little state of Delaware melting into the greater noise. The borders are gone, and the state looks the same as everywhere else.
The final night of the legislature typically ends ceremoniously in the governor's office in a sleep-deprived letdown of relief, reflection, exhaustion and self-congratulation. On this occasion, not a single Republican stopped by, although as recently as last year Simpson put in an appearance, as did Greg Lavelle, then the House minority leader who is now the Senate minority whip.
"I guess they all want to go home," Markell said.
So much for the happy talk about the way Delaware works. The pretending was over.