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In politics, always check your change

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By Jay Miller

NAPILI BAY, MAUI — Rep. Benjamin Rodefer, D-Albuquerque, wants to see a joint House-Senate caucus called to work out a budget for next year. The freshman representative says current discussions aren’t even close to representing the will or intent of either Democratic caucus.

He’s right. A similar situation occurred back in the 1970s and 1980s when a liberal Democratic group called the Mama Lucys ran the House. One of its leaders was former Rep. David Salman, D-Mora, who recently passed away.

Although the Mama Lucys held a narrow majority in their caucus, a coalition of Republicans and conservative Democrats controlled most of the votes. And eventually, the coalition just decided to take over leadership of the House.

Later, the same thing happened in the Senate. And at that point, minority Republicans controlled both chambers of the Legislature in the early 80s. Primary election battles and party switches sorted out the confusion by the late 80s.

We’re seeing a similar situation now at both the state and national level. At the state level, it seems very peculiar to see a Democratic-controlled Legislature supporting increases in the gross receipts tax, which proportionally hits the poor as a greater percentage of their income.

And at the same time, a Democratic-controlled Legislature is putting the stops on making our state income tax a graduated tax again. That is not what one expects to see from Democrats. And it could be very embarrassing for some in the upcoming primary elections.

Similar rumblings are occurring at the national level and it is hard to tell who will be the winner. But it brings back memories of 1994 when Bill and Hillary Clinton were having one heck of a time selling a health care plan. No one had the slightest inkling the result would be a Democratic loss of both houses of Congress. That hadn’t happened in decades.

I certainly couldn’t imagine such a thing. It was March 1994. I was sitting here on Napili Beach, about 10 steps from our lanai. I was shut off from the world, with no television and no telephone.

Just then a young woman appeared at my side with a message saying a member of Congress wanted to speak with me. The only way anyone at this hideaway could be contacted was to call and leave a message at the office. That message would then be tacked to my door.

But Rep. Schiff had told the receptionist to find me and deliver the message personally. What could be so important? I hurried to the nearest pay phone at a little convenience store nearby.

The congressman was waiting for my call. He said he wanted me to be one of the first news people in New Mexico to know Republicans would take over both houses of Congress in the November election.

He said a backbencher in the House had a plan. He said Newt Gingrich was a political science professor who had written a Contract With America that would guarantee voters the changes in government they always had wanted to see.

Among those changes were ethics laws, term limits and all manner of other limits on government. Challengers for Democratic incumbents had already been recruited. Senatorial candidates were pledged to serve only two terms. Candidates for the House were pledged to no more than three terms.

It sounded good. But would it work? “Just wait and see,” said Schiff.

He was right. The “guarantees” were just what the American public wanted to hear. Republicans swept both houses of Congress. But then scandals on both sides of the aisle, including Speaker Gingrich himself, brought voters back to their senses. There is no magic formula or contract to guarantee good government.

We just have to try the best we can each election to choose honorable people no matter which party.

The term limit bill went nowhere in Congress. Only a handful of those who personally made the term limit pledge fulfilled their contract.