RI Governance: A Matter of Structure or Personnel?

Katie Mulvaney got some play with this article in PolitiFact RI assessing Gov. Lincoln Chafee’s claim that the Rhode Island legislature is one of the most powerful state legislatures in the country. It’s a fascinating article, mainly focused around one point: Rhode Island has a weak executive relative to the rest of the states.

Whether or not you agree with the assessment that this makes the General Assembly the most powerful state legislature is largely dependent on whether you believe an absence of executive branch power means a strengthening of legislative branch power, or whether there is room for either branch to claim powers it is not explicitly granted under our state constitution (and thus making our judicial branch the deciding group).

The common refrain when the powers of the General Assembly are discussed is to strengthen the executive branch. This is one of those proposals that you can often hear argued for by reformers from all sides, usually in the belief that a stronger executive will be better able to railroad through whatever faction of reformers’ priorities; without all the messy compromise and setbacks that can occur in the legislative process.

This is the way I hear the argument: Rhode Island has an excess of democratic, legislative process that hampers the unitary decision-making of one individual, so the best solution is to eliminate some of that democratic process. It comes down to a matter of values: do you value one person elected by the entirety of the state making individual determinations about what the state’s priorities should be, or do you value the collective decision-making of two groups of people elected by discreet geographic communities to determine the state’s priorities?

If you’re just looking at history, I think the answer should be: neither. They haven’t done an astounding job.

Having a powerful legislature and a weak executive is not inherently a problem. However, good-meaning people often behave like it is and thus suggest weak reforms that will not have a major impact on Rhode Islanders’ confidence in their government. Again, there is no correlation between a line-item veto, its strength, and economic success in American states. Just days before, Mulvaney showed that the city of Providence has a median income equal to or below that of Mississippi. Rhode Island got to that point without the veto, Mississippi got there with it.

There are troubling structural redundancies and issues of unethical arrangements in Rhode Island’s government, but again, I think we really always miss the mark here. We need to talk about a state leadership that’s bereft of ideas. We need to talk about creating mechanisms to ensure that legislators are submitted to a high-turnout, strongly competitive democracy. We need to talk about creating an electoral system that ensures that voters aren’t making the choice between the lesser of two evils but rather the greater of many goods.

The problem in Rhode Island isn’t the power of the legislature or the weakness of the governor, it’s in the people who occupy those spots and how they use the powers of their offices.

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2 comments

  1. “This is the way I hear the argument: Rhode Island has an excess of democratic, legislative process that hampers the unitary decision-making of one individual, so the best solution is to eliminate some of that democratic process.”

    That assumes the GA is more democratic than the governor. Is it? The speaker arguably has equal power to the governor, but fewer statewide votes. The proccess of electing the speaker is also looks more like strongarming rather than an open debate.

    What would you think about somehow making the speaker a more democratic position? I think european parliaments achieve a more democratic outcome because of the multiple parties. But, that’s probably never going to happen here. Are there alternatives?

    Maybe just making the speaker more visible would have a good effect, so Rhode Islanders at least know who he is.

  2. […] powerful office in the state is based on 75 votes, not a few hundred thousand. But this is still a democratic system, and the legislature is the most democratic of all the branches of government, and the House of […]

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