A whimper or a bang?

The Idaho Legislature seems likely to adjourn for the year this week, but under what circumstances remains a little unclear. The choice is the legislators’, and in the heat that typically accompanies adjournment, they could go either way.

One way was suggested in an Idaho Statesman piece today by Dan Popkey, the web headline being “1990 battle easily eclipses 2012 ultrasound fracas.” It makes some useful points, implicitly (not explicitly) including this one: Conditions surrounding the 1990 protests over the abortion bill passed that year by the Legislature, and then vetoed by Governor Cecil Andrus, aren’t exactly the same as what has materialized so far over this year’s abortion ultrasound bill.

Reading the story, though, there’s the temptation to toss in a lot of qualifying concerns.

The big one is this: We don’t yet know what the legislative outcome of this year’s hot bill, Senate Bill 1387, will be. Popkey sounds fairly certain that 1387 is dead. (A House committee heading for the Senate-passed bill was scheduled and then swiftly cancelled last week.) Maybe; and if so, then legislative Republicans certainly will have cut what would have been larger losses that would have resulted from passing it. From this vantage, though, that bill (like so many others) will be considered dead only once the session is adjourned for the year. It undoubtedly has plenty of support in the Idaho House, and if it gets on the floor it has a decent chance of passage. Meanwhile, any number of serious Republican strategists right now probably are trying to figure out how to make adjournment (without a floor vote) happen as fast as possible. This is a case for holding your breath and seeing what happens.

The situation could get a lot more explosive, quickly, if the House does pass it. And if it did, what would Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter do? The protests at the Statehouse in 1990 many observers from that time (your scribe included) remember well, peaked as Andrus held the bill and waited to deliver his response to it. The same could happen in this case.

And this: If the bill passed and Otter signed it, the response could be truly explosive; remember that the 1990 abortion bill was vetoed and never actually went into effect.

When you read the story and think about the large crowds, generally larger than this year, of 1990, remember that abortion legislation then was developed over a period of weeks and months before well-advertised hearings and long-running news reports and commentary over a wide range of options and a whole shelf of bill proposals. It was very different from this year, when a single and relatively simple bill option was dumped in the hopper toward the end of this year’s session, with far less public involvement than the 1990 abortion bill had.

Whatever happens to the bill this week, two other more general factors also are different from 1990.

One is the national environment. In 1990, Idaho was one of several states where abortion legislation was active, but that activity was on a far smaller scale than this year, and the social environment surrounding gender and women’s health and related subject is a lot different. In 1990, abortion bill 625 was a relative stand-alone; in this year, 1387 fits into a narrative. (That it why it may not simply recede into the mists entirely even if it does die in House committee this week.)

The second is the technological environment. 1990 was only 22 years ago, but back then there was no popularized e-mail, or web, or social media. No Facebook. No Twitter. (One former legislator quoted in Popkey’s article compared this year’s protests as a “flash mob” next to 1990’s; it seems telling that the concept of a flash mob didn’t exist in 1990.) Structurally, communicatively, our politics are different now. So, likely, will be whatever fallout we see from this debate.

What that means for elections this year is another matter. It may not see much change at all. (The structure of Idaho politics has been remarkably resistant to major change for a couple of decades now.) But we’ll wait a bit longer before drawing many more conclusions about that.

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