Whimper

A week ago, maybe a bit more, the Idaho Legislature was poised on the brink of ending its session this year with one of the most explosive legislative debates it has ever seen. It didn’t do that. The bill that might have provoked the response, a measure mandating an ultrasound procedure in the case of abortions, was shelved just as opposition to it was ramping up on a national level.

Instead, maybe the most most striking thing that happened as legislators prepared to split town was a photo op, of all the legislators who would not be back – because of their own decision to opt out – next session. (At least, not to the same chamber; some at least are highly likely to return to the other one.) And the number of out-opters is unusually large this year. There will be a lot of new legislators next time regardless how the elections go.

For many people this may have given the sense and feel of transition, of a major change between the legislature that has been and the one that is to come. It is likely an over-estimable feeling. The larger probability is that next session will be a lot like this one, maybe a little more so.

Those Republican legislators who pulled the ultrasound bill back from what would have been likely passage in the House made a smart decision on the politics. Has it gone forward, the eruption that just had begun in the days before would have built to truly major levels, which would have roared through whatever period the governor took to decide whether to sign or veto. Instead, a relative quiet reigned, and the large-scale organizing that might have happened will be, however much it amounts to, smaller than it would have been.

Democrats have positioned themselves this year better, with a larger roster of candidates, for legislative contests than in a long time. They will be running in a presidential year, though, which doesn’t help them in Idaho. Will they make gains? Maybe; as matters sit at the moment, you might even say probably. But unless conditions change, they’re unlikely to make truly major changes in the legislature.

What’s a little easier to predict is this: The Republican caucuses which will arrive at the Statehouse in December, which are nearly certain to be back in control, will be more unilaterally hard-core conservative than those leaving the building this week. A long string of moderates – most of whom would have been described by themselves and others as “conservative” not long ago – are among the opt-outs. And the Senate, which has been an occasional block against the more hard-core legislation from the House, is likely next session to look a lot more like their colleagues on the other side of the rotunda.

This session is likely, in other words, to be a preface for the session of 2013. It will be another step in the pattern that has recurred for a decade or so now, edging ever further, bit by bit, toward the horizon …

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