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Lawmakers dealing with issues that are largely irrelevant

Mar 23, 2015

Democrats in the Michigan House of Representatives are introducing bills to repeal the state’s ban on same-sex marriage. This has about as much chance of becoming law as I have of becoming starting forward for the Detroit Pistons.

Republicans have large majorities in both the house and the senate, and they’d never support this. 

In any event, the most Democrats could do is put this on the ballot, since same-sex marriage is banned by the state constitution and a repeal would take a statewide vote.

In any event, this is almost certain to be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court this year. I do not often agree with Senate Majority Leader Arlen Meekhof, but for once I do. He said last week that we all should wait to see what the nation’s highest court does.

Democrats aren’t the only party capable of beating their heads against the wall. In Washington, Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives have wasted their time and taxpayer money by repeatedly voting to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

Even though they now also control the Senate, President Obama is certain to veto any bill repealing his signature achievement, and the Republicans don’t have nearly enough votes to override him. Now I know that in these cases what’s going on is symbolic. I know both parties are doing this to please and rally their core constituencies.

But this reminds me of something else, too. Almost exactly one hundred and fifty years ago, Jefferson Davis was sitting in church in Richmond, Virginia when he was handed a note from General Robert E. Lee. He could no longer hold the Confederate capital, and Davis needed to flee. The Civil War was essentially lost, and there was nothing meaningful Davis could do about it.

So what he did do was this. Before fleeing, he went back and carefully tidied up his office.  We live today in a far different world. But it sometimes seems that our lawmakers have also lost the ability to do – or at least try to do -- anything really significant.

Instead, they play political games, or “tidy up their offices” by devoting their energies to relatively minor points. This weekend I saw State Representative Jeff Irwin on the public TV show “Off the Record.” He is an intelligent man who was pushing two issues: Legalizing marijuana and repealing Daylight Savings Time. 

Neither of those things is going to happen either.  But a better question is: Are these really the biggest issues facing Michigan?

We are spending far more on prisons than on higher education. Higher education is becoming more and more indispensable – and less and less affordable.

This is an economic crisis bearing down on our state with the velocity of a demographic freight train. Beyond that, our nation has had a vast and steady increase in income inequality since 1981.

Alan Greenspan, of all people, said last year that he thought this was the most dangerous trend in America. Yet few politicians dare mention it, lest they get accused of trying to start a class war. Well, I am mentioning it, and I’m not running for anything.

But I am heretical enough to suggest that marijuana and marriage might not be the biggest issues facing us today.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.