The Missing Piece in Marion’s Analysis

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For the most part, I agree with John Marion’s op-ed in the Providence Journal, today, so head on over there and read the whole thing if you haven’t already done so.  So as to advance the conversation, I’ll limit myself to an area of his and my disagreement.  He writes:

Power, as we know, is a zero sum concept. For the speaker to have more power, it means someone else must have less. The speaker’s power comes at the expense of the rank-and-file legislators who represent the 98 percent of Rhode Islanders who do not live in Mattiello’s district. This power is allocated to the speaker in three important ways: through our Constitution, our laws, and the rules of the House of Representatives.

Marion misses a very important fourth factor: politics — both Rhode Island’s the overwhelming partisanship and the General Assembly’s rarity of turnover.  The locked-in politics of the General Assembly have allowed its corrupt rules to harden into just The Way Things Work, Here.

This reality can be seen most starkly in the rules of the House.  You can search back through our archives here and on Anchor Rising for the analysis that Carroll Andrew Morse and I have performed to see that, in many cases, it isn’t so much the rules as they are written and approved by the members that are the problem, but the rules as they’re followed, which is not the same thing.  The first vulnerability for any legislator attempting to upset the status quo is that the rules require mystical interpretation by… the keepers of the status quo.

Where we come to my long-running disagreement with Marion is that part of the problem, in Rhode Island, is the degree to which the law regulates grassroots political activity.  Most notably, that manifests in campaign finance reform — with people having a justifiable sense that there’s a whole bunch of form filling and legal hurdle jumping that they’ll have to take on if they opt to challenge an incumbent politician.

If we want to unseat the power bases, in the Ocean State, and ensure that there’s balance and an ebb and flow, we have to make politics less regulated and less predictable.  Unfortunately, one area in which good-government groups tend to fall on the same side as the corrupt insiders is in fear of unregulated politics.



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