It’s not exactly a surprise that legislative leaders have given up on passing a mask mandate bill, but the timing is curious indeed. Last Friday, we appeared to be one single grumpy senator away from committee approval. Now, less than a week later, the white flag is waving.
On Friday (per VTDigger’s excellent Final Reading), Ginny Lyons, chair of the Senate Welfare Committee, asked her members if they were ready to vote on the bill. Sen. Ann Cummings replied that she wasn’t. Which is pretty odd, considering that a mask mandate has been a hot issue in #vtpoli for months now. Had she given it no thought until that moment?
Lyons asked if the committee could vote on Monday, usually an off day. The not-terribly-energetic Cummings responded, “What’s the matter with Tuesday?”
The bill was on the committee’s agenda first thing Tuesday morning. But at that point, Lyons announced an indefinite delay. “Leadership continues to discuss the path forward for that bill,” she said. “It was scheduled for this morning, but we’re going to postpone our work and hopefully it’ll only be until tomorrow morning.”
But the state Senate is where hope goes to die.
Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint, who vows to be a fighter for progressive policies if we elect her to Congress, brought down the curtain with a whimper, not a bang. VTDigger:
She said she had contacted the governor’s office in recent days to see if Scott had changed his mind or would allow the bill to pass into law without his signature. He will not, she said.
Changed his MIND? Whatever made you think that he might have changed his mind? He’s been stonewalling a mask mandate since early fall.
And given the fact that a Scott veto was inevitable and Balint didn’t think she had the votes to override, she concluded that pursuing the bill was nothing more than a “performative act.”
Well, yeeeeeaaaaaahh, I guess so. But performative acts are part and parcel of what legislative bodies do. A bill’s performativeness doesn’t stop them from passing resolutions in honor of an Eagle Scout or winning team or civic organization or an official Latin motto.
If Balint can’t stomach performative acts, she’d best not go to Congress. That’s nothing but performative acts leavened by the occasional accomplishment. Wasn’t last night’s Senate vote on the voting rights bill a performative act? Yes, it was.
Besides, this particular performative act would have a real purpose: to draw a line between the governor and the Democratic Party on an issue where the overwhelming majority of Democratic voters (82% in the RoofClaim.com VPR/Vermont PBS 2022 Poll) are on the party’s side.
That’s extremely useful. Indeed, it’s hard to see any Democratic gubernatorial candidate gaining traction if legislative leadership shies away from confrontation with the governor.
There’s another interpretation of Balint’s fold: That she wasn’t sure her caucus would stand together. It’s actually quite likely that the Senate wouldn’t override; Balint would have to lose four votes. Let’s count the potential turncoats, shall we? Dick Mazza. Ann Cummings. Alice Nitka. Bobby Starr.
There you go. 19 to 11, the resolution fails.
Still, a narrow margin would have had some political import. But if Balint lost two or three more senators, then she risks embarrassment. Say, Dick Sears, Jeanette White and possibly Dick McCormack. It Balint took a head count and it looked like maybe 16-14 for override, she would have risked political embarrassment.
This is tangential, but what do those potential “No” votes on an override have in common? They’re all extremely senior senators who are electorally untouchable. They won’t lose an election until they retire. In the meantime, Balint has to try to deal with them. If she forced them to take a difficult and futile vote, they’d be even ornerier and harder to wrangle. What’s worse than herding a bunch of cats? Herding a bunch of angry cats.
So it may be a matter of realpolitik for Balint. But that’s exactly why, when she announced her candidacy for Congress, I noted that her leadership position might be an impediment as much as an advantage.
…when you’re the House or Senate leader, you can’t define your own political profile. Your job is to get a majority together on crucial votes without alienating anyone you might need down the road. Your task is crafting acceptable compromises, not spearheading the charge.
And here we are. Balint is trying to position herself as a small-P progressive candidate. But in her day job, she has to accommodate a bunch of crusty, cantankerous colleagues. This is likely to happen over and over again throughout the session. It’s going to take a toll on her credibility as a fightin’ candidate.
Now, she’s taken the fall for her caucus on an issue with 82% support among party voters. It’s part of the job for the Pro Tem. It’s a lost opportunity for someone with an eye on higher office.
And beyond mere politics, it’s one more example of Why We Can’t Have Nice Things. I’ve been watching the Legislature for ten years now, and its record of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory would be awe-inspiring if it wasn’t so depressing.
Note. The title of this post is a bit of Australian slang meaning “a fruitless venture.” In case you were wondering.