Notes on the Atrocities
Like a 100-watt radio station, broadcasting to the dozens...

Monday, March 15, 2004  

When Multnomah County decided to issue marriage licenses to gay couples, we in Oregon got a front-row view of an emerging process of lawmaking--local governments ignoring state laws and essentially drafting their own, forcing the issue into the courts. I've been considering the mechanism and its causes, and here are a couple thoughts.

America is more "polarized"--we know this because political rhetoric is caustic and divisive and because the focus of the political process swings wildly between narrow special interests. In Oregon, by way of example, we watched as the state legislature met for five special sessions to try top patch up a $2 billion budget hole. After the longest session in history, legislators finally staggered out with a bi-partisan agreement to raise revenues by $800 million and cut services for the balance. Yet immediately after they struck the deal, the hardcore wing of the GOP announced they were putting a ballot measure forward that would repeal the hike. In February, that measure went through, flushing the work of the legislature down the toilet.

Portland gay couples, confronted with the difficulty of trying to secure their rights via the broken legislative process, decided to look elsewhere. Lawmaking depends on good faith and cooperation. In many statehouses (and certainly Oregon's), there are neither.

Also, in the crisis of lost leadership, there's very little hope of speedy change. A decision like Multnomah County's can circumvent the grandstanding and base-pleasing and put an issue on a fast track to resolution. It may not be a generalized panacea, but in the case of civil rights violations, local governments have shown that they can force a legal ruling on an issue far more quickly if they act on their own.

Again, in the Oregon example, Multnomah County started issuing marriage licenses just two weeks ago, and it appears legal challenges will proceed speedily to the Oregon Supreme Court. Every official legal opinion has agreed that the Oregon Constitution explicitly assures rights like gay marriage, even if state law does not. As a result of their decision to ignore state law, Multnomah County has ensured that the issue of gay marriage will be decided before the May primaries.

(Efforts to change the state Constitution and enshrine language specifically removing rights to gay Oregonians are already underway.)

Watching all this, I wondered about the "polarization" issue. It's a settled notion that we're as polarized now as we were in 1968. Evidence abounds--Fox News makes sure of it. But what's the cause and what's the effect? Americans are polarized because government doesn't work much any more, and instead of blaming the culprits, we lash out at each other.

Individually, politicians profit from our dissention. Decisions like Multnomah County's give us a measure of control back, but the larger problem remains. Further dividing ourselves by lawmaking in this unorthodox manner is hardly a good solution. Until politicians start serving the public good, rather than the needs of the narrow interests of the base who elect them, we won't see good lawmaking, and we'll continue to snipe at each other.

posted by Jeff | 7:47 AM |
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