Opinion Columns & Blogs

Davis Merritt: Ideological purity leads to legislative paralysis


The ruling majority of legislators whom voters sent to Topeka continue to make hash out of the public’s business because, collectively, they have placed too much faith in narrow ideas. In doing so, they mirror the illness that affects all of American politics and endangers what was once the most successful nation in history.

In our closed political life, many people talk and listen only to like-minded others, so the progression of the illness is swift: Facile slogans are transformed into beliefs, which thoughtless repetition eventually disguises as eternal truths.

Until, that is, some inconvenient and previously denied reality breaks the comforting cycle. Then paralysis sets in.

House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, provides a near-perfect illustration of the syndrome. Last year, you may recall, Merrick, in an excess of tea party-libertarian sloganeering, declared, “Government employees produce nothing. They’re a net consumer … and they’re on all the government insurance and everything” (“House speaker to public workers – drop dead,” Nov. 18 Opinion).

Last week, because the Legislature was incapable of writing a budget – the most basic act of governing – 24,000 government and state university employees deemed nonessential faced furloughs. The intrusion of that self-inflicted reality changed Merrick’s tune. In an open letter to the Senate he wrote, pompously, “Kansans expect government to be there when they need it, and state workers who provide valuable services should not have to endure furloughs.”

And then, codifying his hypocrisy, he pushed through the House a bill defining every single one of those nonproductive government workers as essential, thus staving off furloughs.

The budget deadlock occurred solely because a majority of both houses refuse to admit that their deep 2012 income tax cuts are yet another proof that trickle-down economics does not work.

In light of the budget fiasco, Kansans would be wise – if also terrified – to recall that it was created by the same people who, in 2014, voted overwhelmingly to grant themselves “primary responsibility” for the health of Kansans and to “suspend by legislation the operation of all federal laws, rules and regulations and orders regarding health care.” In other words, legislators, no matter how untrained, undereducated or conflict-of-interest ridden, would run not just health insurance but everything that affects anyone’s health: oversight and safety of food and drugs, eligibility for Medicare and Medicaid, what medical procedures are allowed, what research is approved and how it is used, how public health programs work – the whole shebang.

Yet they have stumbled and struggled to put together a budget for a small state.

These are also the people who are using extortion to threaten the state’s constitutionally independent judicial branch. A separate budget bill says that if a state court declares unconstitutional a 2014 law that stripped the high court’s authority over local court budgets and the selection of local chief judges, state funding for the court system will be invalidated. That’s blackmail. As with much else about governing, the fact that the separation of powers among the legislative, executive and judicial branches is fundamental to the idea of American democracy is apparently lost on them.

Gov. Sam Brownback signed that bill explaining, incredibly with a straight face, that it was written to protect the courts from furloughs.

Not all the actors in the ruling majority are bad or ignorant people, but they all are captives of narrow ideas rooted in the false concept, reinforced by brigades of lobbyists and their dollars, that ideological purity trumps public good.

Davis Merritt, a Wichita journalist and author, can be reached at dmerritt9@cox.net.