When did it become government by the party, not the people?

Posted: Sunday, January 18, 2004

It used to be an honorable thing for people to stand up for what they believed to be right. They were respected. They were role models. They were leaders. They were the people elected to office because they were courageous in their convictions.

Judging by what happened in the Alaska Legislature this past week, it looks like times have changed.

On the opening day of the legislative session, a Republican legislator from Anchorage did what he believed to be the right thing sided with Democrats in a move to restore funding for the Longevity Bonus Program. For doing so, Rep. Bob Lynn was taken to the woodshed by the Republican caucus in the House of Representatives.

Rep. Lynn was stripped of his chairmanship of the House Military and Veterans Affairs Committee as well as his vice chairmanship of the House Labor and Commerce Committee.

Lynn knew in advance there would be consequences to his actions. Lawmakers even considered removing him from the caucus.

In a press release announcing there would be chairmanship changes, House Speaker Pete Kott said: "The conditions speak for themselves. Each member of the caucus agrees to the rules of the caucus prior to session. Sanctions are imposed when the agreed upon rules are violated. We are putting this issue behind us, with a renewed commitment to work together with Representative Lynn."

The Associated Press reported there is a "gentleman's agreement" among the members of the Republican caucus to side with the leadership on procedural and budget votes.

Republicans must be pretty insecure with their 28-12 majority in the House that they believe they must force loyalty among members by threatening them. What kind of government does this produce?

No wonder people are disgusted with the political process. No wonder there's such a lousy turnout at the polls. Most Alaskans detest this kind of political gamesmanship.

The "gentleman's agreement" among legislators indicates the priority of most Republican legislators is to do right by the Republican Party, not do right by the Alaskans who put them in office. Of course, those same legislators will argue if they don't toe the party line, it is their constituents who will lose. Their bills will go nowhere. Their ideas will be ignored. The folks back home will get nothing.

It's a risk lawmakers should take. They might be surprised about how well received they would be back home.

Wouldn't Alaska be better off if ideas in the Legislature stood or failed on their own merit, not because of who or what party floated them? Wouldn't it be reassuring to know that legislators could vote their conscience without fear of reprisal from fellow lawmakers? Wouldn't it renew faith in the system if Alaskans could see some evidence that those they elected to office put the people's interests ahead of those of a political party?

All of Alaska is worse for the kind of politics displayed last week. It makes lawmakers fearful of sharing their views and standing up for what they believe to be right. It takes power from the people and gives it to a political party.

Which begs the question: If political party leadership is dictating the actions of legislators, why does the state need 60 lawmakers? It would be a lot simpler and cheaper and far more straightforward to do away with the charade then to keep pretending lawmakers are representing the will of the people. It's the will of the party they care most about. Maybe the sooner Alaskans recognize that, the less disappointed they will be in the outcome.

There's a better way, however. Instead of legislative votes up and down party lines, imagine those votes based on individual ideas of what's best for Alaska, not a political party's ideas of what's best for Alaska. Imagine more working together in the halls of the Legislature, instead of disciplining lawmakers for voting their conscience. Imagine more loyalty to the public interest, than the party line.

Alaskans need to let legislators know they didn't elect a party to office, they elected individuals. And they expect those individuals to stand up and speak out for them no matter what the cost.

Rep. Lynn did that last week. More lawmakers should follow his example.

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