When I think of Butch Otter, what comes to mind is this principled Republican congressman who had the courage to oppose the Patriot Act – at a time when it was not popular to do so.
His defiance on that issue put him at odds with President Bush and many of his Republican colleagues, wanting to take drastic security measures in the wake of 9/11. But Otter’s interests went beyond reactionary politics. He talked about constitutional rights and the dangers of big government invading the privacy of Americans.
Recently, Congress came around to Otter’s thinking by not renewing the Patriot Act.
So, for me, it’s difficult to imagine this modern-day “Profile in Courage” – who is serving his third term as Idaho’s governor – essentially spitting on the state Constitution he took an oath to uphold, and trying to change the rules for his political convenience.
The governor has five days to veto a bill, otherwise it becomes law. He knows that, and so does practically everyone else in state government. The governor was two days late in his veto aimed at shutting down instant horse racing terminals, which in the eyes of the Senate had the look and smell of slot machines.
I don’t believe his intentions were evil. Perhaps he was reluctant to pull the plug on an enterprise operating at Post Falls, Garden City and Idaho Falls. Maybe he was feeling compassion to those who had jobs running those operations – jobs that were lost after the court voided Otter’s veto.
But the rules are clear. Otter did not exercise his veto power in time, and that should have been the end of story.
Others then carried on with the trail of irresponsibility. The Senate leadership allowed for a veto override vote, knowing full well that Otter missed the veto deadline. Secretary of State Lawerence Denney and Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, as independent constitutional officers, could have taken steps to stop the insanity, but didn’t.
These were not actions of evil people. What they did, or failed to do, is reflective of the Statehouse culture. Rule No. 1 in this environment is to avoid upsetting the governor. One of the few people who got away with violating that unwritten rule was Congressman Raul Labrador, but only because he built his own power base.
Russ Fulcher, a former Senate Republican caucus chair who challenged for Otter’s seat in last year’s primary, was not as lucky. Fulcher opposed the governor on two big issues – the proposed 2-cent gas tax in 2009, and more recently on the insurance exchange issue – and paid the price.
“When I said no to the gas tax, it never was the same after that,” Fulcher said. “I had crossed the line and was no longer the team player. The leadership meetings were a little less open when I was there. There’s pressure not to mess with the system, or the status quo.”
In 2009, Labrador and other House members were doing more than mess with the status quo. They were turning the place upside down in opposing the gas tax. As the communication adviser for House Republicans at the time, I was sending out my share of press releases and op-eds defending the House view.
It all changed in 2010, a re-election year for the governor. I was directed to work with the governor’s office on developing a unified message for Republicans. That has been the culture ever since. The debacle of the horse racing machines was just the most recent reflection of that culture. Other examples include the failed attempt to privatize the prisons and the botched Idaho Education Network.
“There’s a human nature that transcends politics,” Fulcher said. “If you have attention and resources, you are idolized in many ways. The lobby role is to build you up and be on your good side, and it becomes an unhealthy situation.”
As one who has seen these cultural changes, Fulcher has become an advocate for term limits. “The system is geared toward the incumbent.”
There has been no shortage of negative media coverage of the horse racing machines, or scandals that have popped up. But in this environment, those in power don’t need the media, and accountability is not a priority.
Otter, especially, wins by convincing margins regardless. Unless the culture changes, that entitles those in power to make up the rules as they go.