Friday, February 27, 2009

We are Halfway to the Future (a mediation on SB 12)

(Note - this was originally posted to my page on the Duke City Fix, but I think here may be more appropriate. Also, I owe you all some good blogginess).

Today in my dorm room in New Orleans I watched the live feed of the senate debate on SB 12 (the domestic partnership one). Being a bit of a political junkie, I found the whole thing inherently fascinating, and was especially appreciative of the New Mexico Independent's live feed, and careful moderation of their own chat box (the entirety of which can be found here). That's the future-y part.

I left the chat for class before the actual vote, but what little of the debate I saw was really, really interesting. Cisco McSorely, the sponsor of the bill, explained the mock-up of it that was sitting on everyone's desk. In light of attention to the bill and strong criticism of it as "secretly gay marriage", the bill had been revised to have complete neutral terms, describing only civil law. Words like "widow/widower", which have social role connotations, and "spouse", which has both social role and religious connotations, had been struck from the bill. It was, in my mind, a masterful use of language itself to forge a new contract - "marriage" is an established entity, with a wealth of meaning behind it in religion, family life, tax code, and civil rights. That's part of why it's so hard to legislate around - people have a very fixed schema of marriage, and while some things may be part of it (divorce is incorporated into that schema, I think), it is an existent entity. So trying to create domestic partnerships was ambitious - the language of it was government and civil, and the religious and wider social connotations of marriage were not only untouched, but were protected as separate. It was, in my mind, a very clever compromise. That's future-ish, but more a product of modern pragmatism.

The debate then began, where it was attacked for being gay marriage. The entirety of built up nuance was thrown to the wayside, and lines pulled from Prop 8 support came to the fore. I noticed a reference made earlier in a Scarantino column happen on the senate floor. Disappointing to myself, but interesting, because I tend to underestimate the influence of commentators on political process. Scarantino's article was argued against in many places, but it was the one in the paper, and the one that got used on the floor. It was an interesting play in a democratic legislature, and it allowed people to protect the practice of religion, rather than protect people from religion. I missed the rest of the debate, so I can't offer wonky commentary on that, but this part at least seems classic, normal, business as usual weighing of freedoms against freedoms.

Then there's the voting. The bill failed, with 17 votes for and 25 votes against. If you want to see the list of who voted how, I recommend here. For me at least, it's a disappointing result, but not an insurmountable setback for the future.

For others, it's huge, and to be fair, people there have far more invested in this than I do. Not that I don't sympathize, and not that I'm not upset, but I'm not surprised to find party unity faltering. In theory, with both state houses controlled by democrats, and with a democratic governor, bills labeled progressive should fly through the government and become law/policy/mandate more or less immediately. At least, that's how it works in countries with way, way fewer veto points. To even get this far, the bill had to make it through votes in two separate committees. To get further, it would have had to make it through at least two more stops. Anywhere in this process, a significant blockage can kill the bill. If we had just one choke point, party unity would be essential - with many, it's easy to trade acquiescence in a few spots for forgiven deviations elsewhere. This holds true no matter the composition of the legislative body - if the parties are close to even, unity is stressed, but hard to enforce when cross-aisle votes are sought after. If one party predominates (as was the case here), the party dynamic changes a little, but the calculus is similar. Party unity is the only thing the minority party can really trade on, so it's essential. Within the dominating party, then, you get a split like the one today, where 10 democrats sided with the minority party, and where 17 sided with the main party ideology. Groups split like this all the time. Democrats are pretty uniform in outlook when they are the opposition; is it any wonder that when they are the majority conservative and liberal divisions surface within the party? Being in the majority allows those things to happen, and it allows bills like SB 12 to even be considered. It's also what allows the bill to be destroyed by the party that sponsored it, and that's a rather bitter irony.

Still, I'm optimistic. I was able to pay close attention to the hearing on a senate bill when I'm 1,100+ miles away. There was direct video feed of the senate floor, and the viewing/blogging public was able to see the arguments brought forth on the bill, and call them out on respective flimsiness. This isn't yet the golden age of internet-aware moves by lawmakers, but the tools to change the status quo are more readily available than ever before. (And that's good, because the status is most definitely not quo.) But I'm confident it will be in the future. Alas, the future isn't tonight, but hey, at least we're halfway there.

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