Avoiding the Tough Issues in the General Assembly

Reporting for my recent story on crisis pregnancy centers, a sort of pro-life answer to Planned Parenthood, I came across a grand bargain in the General Assembly: a tacit understanding, in place for years, occassionally alluded to in the press, but not as fully aired as it should be.

I had come across it before. Indeed, advocates and legislators on both sides of prickly social issues know it well. But it remains the stuff of murmur and not much more.

So here's the deal: if a major liberal bill on a social issue like abortion moves forward in the legislature, and gets to the floor for a vote, than a major conservative bill must do the same. And vice versa. The effect: with occassional exceptions, nothing happens on the most controversial and important social issues of our time - abortion and same-sex marriage, among them.

It is an unspoken bargain, for the most part. But one top legislator recalls hearing Speaker Murphy actually articulate it in a meeting with colleagues.

The deal serves certain political ends. Moderates get to avoid taking high-profile stands on issues that could inflame voters. And the bargain keeps some semblance of order in the General Assembly.

But the voters, in the end, lose. Rhode Islanders should know where their legislators stand on these key issues. And more importantly, progress on social issues - however one might define it - stalls. Rhode Island, remember, is the only state in New England that has failed to approve gay nuptials. That owes much to Governor Carcieri's opposition, of course. But the grand bargain in the Assembly has played no small role.

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