Tuesday, January 25, 2011

New Mexico Politics: Speaker of the House

On January 18 the New Mexico State Legislature met for its first session of 2011. At that session an important election took place: the election of the Speaker of the House.

Democrat Ben Lujan was the sitting Speaker. He had been speaker for a number of years. He had become increasingly authoritarian, deferring Legislators' concerns and stating repeatedly that whatever they said "was not germane." He had gone so far as to break and/or to ignore House Rules. Finally, the Legislators en masse threw down on the floor their copies of the Rules in protest.

The November 2 election increased Republican numbers in the House to considerable strength, but not to majority. They wanted Ben Lujan voted out as Speaker but knew they did not have enough votes to nominate a man of their own.

Enter conservative Democrat Joseph Cervantes who wanted the Speaker seat for himself and offered the Republicans a deal.

It is this deal and the New Mexican Tea Parties organizers rejection of it that caused a stir on line and in the media to the extent that the Tea Parties were roundly criticized by pundits and even by their own supporters for not taking the deal and getting rid of Ben Lujan. Even I, who am no longer affiliated with any one particular Tea Party, came under strong attack for taking the Tea Parties' side.

In response to an article in which I suggested that the State Legislature should change their rules, one of my readers asked a good question. The following is in answer to that question and a discussion of why the Tea Party was right to reject the deal.

Regarding my suggestion to change Speaker responsibilities so that the leadership of each party appoints his choices to committees, rather than the Speaker having total control of both party appointees: A reader wondered how that could happen.
In New Mexico a House rule is changed by a Legislator introducing a bill on the House floor. The bill is read into the record. The Speaker of the House then assigns the bill to one or two committees---sometimes three committees. The committees review the bill and its action is reported to the floor. At this time, the action of the committees may be questioned. If the committees all state "Do Pass," the bill is placed on the House Calendar in the order it was reported to the floor.
When the bill comes to the floor, House members may accept or reject the actions of the committees by either a majority vote, or 2/3s of the House. (I've not yet found which is required).
So, it is possible that a House rule affecting the duties of the Speaker can be changed. But given the present make-up of the House---Democrats 36, Republicans 33 and 1 Independent---it is probably that Mr. Lujan would exert considerable pressure to assure he does not lose his power as laid out under the present House Rules.
The bill could, for instance, be sent to committees that state "Do Not Pass." Or other tactics would squash chances of the bill being voted on by the House. In other words, the Rule would likely not be changed because
generally Democrats vote in support of Mr. Lujan as a party block.*
This is why many have criticized the Tea Parties for refusing to agree with the Republicans to make a deal regarding the recent election of House Speaker. Critics say that the House Rule will not be changed as long as Mr. Lujan is Speaker, and the only hope of getting the Republican Leadership to appoint their own members to committees would have been a deal with Mr. Cervantes who promised to allow Republicans to appoint their own committee members.
I remain convinced that criticism of the Tea Parties' stand is short-sighted and unjustified. Three essential factors are overlooked in such criticism: (1) the rule would remain in place; (2) the Republicans would be held hostage by means of their supporting Mr. Cervantes---Mr. Cervantes could change his mind at any time; (3) Mr. Lujan could and would overturn any such arrangement simply by annoyance tactics or---more probably---having his party cohorts sandbag Republican efforts inside of committees. Chaos more than usual would result.
But most important was the reason why the Tea Parties refused the deal. Rather than go for the quick fix, they stood united against Mr. Cervantes on principle. That is far healthier and more constructive in the long run for them and for the Republican Party itself, even if many don't seem to understand that.
Arguing from principle can change people's minds. One can show an individual that your principles should be supported. But one cannot change anyone's mind if principles are non-existent and crony-government is the modus operandi. To have accepted the deal would have been, in effect, to have approved crony-government.
There are no favorites in favoritism---save the man holding the leash. And as Ayn Rand wrote, "a leash is merely a piece of rope with a noose on both ends." The Tea Parties were right not to deal.
Besides, there is a fact that many have overlooked. Mr. Lujan's "victory" was a public bashing. A 33-36 win is a margin hardly something to crow about. That Mr. Lujan felt the blow was evident in his frantic rush to strip one man who opposed him of an important committee chair (plus a couple of other committees, I heard) and to empower another with the chair of an committee that can be used to crush New Mexico's extractive industries. It was an obvious way to "punish" the Republicans---who he knows want to be business-friendly---for daring to stand against him.
Mr. Lujan's spiteful and malicious conduct is hardly becoming to his position as Speaker of the House. One must wonder whether those in his own party will soon recognize the need to censure him or at least simply to say "No" to him. Whatever the case, it is certain that those in his own party recognize that he is not a noble figure worth emulation but merely a frightened little old man who knows he's treading on increasingly wobbly terrain. They must surely know that at any time, in any case, he could thrown another fit of ire and turn on them for whatever imagined threat he believes they pose. It would be well if they took steps before that happens.
However the Speaker behaves, it is clear as spring water that it is up to individual Legislators---whatever their party affiliation---to be courageous and resist Mr. Lujan's machinations and/or threats.
That's where we the electorate come in. We must seek out and vote for those who will be courageous and be their own man and refuse to kow-tow to Mr. Lujan. A Legislature should be a deliberative body with each individual thinking on his own to the best of his ability, unencumbered by threats, bribes or cajolery.
Republicans have made some strides. We can make more---but only if we choose to be guided by principles, not short-term deals.
*FYI: When a political party votes as a block, it is called party politics. Psychologically, it's called tribalism---which identifies a particular kind of mental stagnation wherein instead of thinking for oneself, one "goes with the flow." As a well-known conservative stated: "The only thing that goes with the flow is a dead fish."

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