A subtle change is coming to this column. Very soon, it will no longer read at the bottom: “Bob Duchesne serves in the Maine Legislature.” After four terms and eight years, Maine’s term limit law is going to give me more time for birding. That’s a good thing.
I’ve served all of my time on the Environment and Natural Resources Committee. I’ve learned a lot about environmental policy and about how the legislature works. Readers may be misled by this column into thinking that I am a trained biologist. Actually, my undergraduate degree was in government and my graduate degree was in business administration. I’m not a naturalist, I’m an unnaturalist. I just happened to get curious about birds in the first grade, and that led unsurprisingly to a wider interest in environmental issues.
A little bird knowledge turned out to be useful. Miners once carried caged canaries into the coal mine, knowing that dangerous gases would kill the bird before the miner. Birds are still our early warning system. We take blood samples from birds to study how toxic chemicals persist and travel in the environment. We know that bird populations change with land use alterations. As farms disappear, so do grassland birds. As shorelines develop, waterfowl diminish. Now, alpine birds face mountaintop development.
My experience in the legislature has led me to develop a set of principles that might come in handy for newly elected senators and representatives. I tried to come up with a unique name for these principles, and I’ve decided on Robert’s Rules of Order. I’m sure that’s a title that has never been used before. Here are just a few:
• The single most important thing to remember about any legislature is that legislatures do not solve problems. They make trade-offs. Every law is a balance between competing values. If no conflict exists, no law is needed. Even a speed limit is just a trade-off between the personal liberty to drive like a knucklehead and the public’s right to be safe from knuckleheads.
• The State House is a fact-free zone. In the mathematics of lawmaking, truth is a variable and bull is a constant. I advise the new legislators that we are about to elect Tuesday to fact-check not just what the opponents say, but also what their friends say.
• Legislating is a team sport. The second most important thing a legislator can do is to do right thing. The first most important thing is to give others the political cover they need to do the right thing.
• Politicians ask: “How do we get it passed?” Policymakers ask: “How do we get it right?”
• The surest sign of policy failure is a straight party line vote. The majority party does its best work when it doesn’t have enough votes to do its worst work.
• The cornerstone of good policy is good process, founded on respect for one another and respect for the rules. If a legislator can’t respect others, trust me, he or she won’t be respected either.
• A properly functioning legislature lives by three P’s: politics, policy and process. To do good policy, one must put aside politics and work through the process. If someone can’t put aside the politics, they don’t deserve to be in politics. Are you listening, Congress?
I have a few more Robert’s Rules, but I don’t want to get preachy. America was founded on the basis of mistrust for government. It comes naturally to Americans to regard laws as an imposition upon personal liberty. But laws are really just the rules we democratically agree to accept so that conflict is not settled with insult or violence. These agreements may be changed at any time, and sometimes they should be.
As a state that has forever valued hunting and fishing, our love of wildlife runs deep. Birds aren’t the only concern. Brook trout habitat is threatened. The deer herd has vanished in parts of Maine. We have generally accepted the need for discipline and prudence in order to preserve our natural heritage, and such stewardship values do work. Three years ago, the bald eagle was removed from Maine’s endangered and threatened species list. But there is never full agreement about how to balance the competing needs of critters and humans.
Expect bills to be introduced next year to reduce natural resource protections. The arguments will resume. And this time, I’ll be at home sitting on the couch, reading about it in the paper.
Bob Duchesne serves in the Maine Legislature, is president of the Penobscot Valley Chapter of Maine Audubon, created the Maine Birding Trail and is the author of the trail guidebook of the same name. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.