May 19, 2015

Last week commenced the first major legislative skirmish between Republican Governor Charlie Baker and the Democratic legislature. Governor Baker testified in favor of his MBTA reform plan, the Carmen’s Union massed in opposition, and the Senate Democrats killed the plan. A lot went on – including some interesting lessons from political science.

The dispute over the MBTA featured management proposals from Baker that would weaken the Carmen’s Union, a major ally of Democratic legislators. Senate President Stan Rosenberg recently told reporters that he regards the pro-union Pacheco Law as a “political target” of conservatives who are using the MBTA’s woes to weaken the law. That would be consistent with what we know from political scientists like Deborah Stone or John Kingdon – a crisis provides an opportunity for policy actors (such as union opponents) to use the crisis to achieve policy goals.

Also, the senate president remarked that “There’s an ideological-slash-political component to this.” Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack responded that it’s simply redress for a system that needs reform. That is a lesson from political scientist E.E. Schattschneider: in a conflict one side will try to expand the scope of the fight, the other will try to narrow it.

The administration argues that its T reforms are all about the public good. But the legislative politics around this are that the Carmen’s Union enjoys substantial benefits from current law, while the public pays for it. The benefits are concentrated, the costs are distributed. The Carmen’s Union has a lot of incentive to pressure their allies in the legislature, while the diffuse public doesn’t perceive a call to action. This is what James Q. Wilson called “client politics.”

Governor Baker has lost in the legislature, now he needs to change the site of the conflict in hopes of a more favorable outcome.  That is another lesson from Schattschneider. It is also why Governor Baker has been going public with his arguments. He is trying to move the site of the conflict from the legislature to public opinion. Legislators are hard-wired to listen to public opinion, say political scientists Thad Kousser and Justin H. Phillips.

The governor is getting some assistance from the Boston Globe. In an editorial the Globe urged Boston’s state senators to get behind the Baker plan, “to start speaking up for their constituents.” Facing the inside advantage enjoyed by the Carmen’s Union and its legislative allies, the governor is finding formidable outside allies to help pressure the legislature.

The union isn’t just playing the inside game either; it is touting itself as a force for “real reform of the T and its management policies” in a new radio advertising campaign. “We’re here to help” says the ad as the union battles the public perception that it is an obstacle to meaningful reform.

One melancholy note in this fight came when the governor remarked that “Winter really isn’t that far away.” Too cruel, Governor Baker, too cruel.

Massachusetts legislature, Charlie Baker, Senate President Stan Rosenberg, MBTA

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