Mr. King goes to Washington

Independent Angus King’s arrival in the Senate would have never happened if Sen. Olympia Snowe hadn’t surprised Maine with her decision.

After that shock wore off, and the campaign got started, one oddity was that the candidates often sounded like they didn’t quite know they weren’t running for governor of Maine.

With Americans at war in Afghanistan and international economic and security issues simmering, the candidates vying to replace Snowe had little to say about foreign policy and the military. They talked about job training in central Maine, attracting businesses to Down East, promoting new agricultural markets for The County and housing in southern Maine.

Given King’s background as Maine’s 72nd governor, the easiest prediction would have been that a Sen. King would be mostly involved in domestic policy.

Perhaps he’d involve himself with education and improving access to high-speed Internet, or emphasize health care in rural areas, or mostly attend to issues affecting small business owners.

But when King’s committee assignments were announced, suddenly it seemed his agenda would range wider. And now, just about a month into his term, King has used his platform as a member of the Intelligence and Armed Services committees.

In questioning Chuck Hagel, the nominee for secretary of Defense, King asked real questions about matters affecting Maine jobs, like naval procurement, but also about broad national matters like cybersecurity. Unlike some of his colleagues, there was no political posturing, no attempts to push talking points or exaggerated concerns.

On drones targeting U.S. citizens, King staked out a position that doesn’t easily fit ideological categories. King argued that drones were a more “humane” alternative than many other weapons. But, criticizing the existing process, King said the president should not become “prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner all in one,” so “some independent check on the executive is healthy for our system.”

With this, King reiterated a deeply rooted right, first found in the Magna Carta’s requirement that punishment must be preceded by legal processes. More recently the Supreme Court stated (in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, 2004), “We have long since made clear that a state of war is not a blank check for the President when it comes to the rights of the Nation’s citizens.  . . Whatever power the United States Constitution envisions for the Executive in its exchanges with other nations or with enemy organizations in times of conflict, it most assuredly envisions a role for all three branches when individual liberties are at stake.”

On core domestic issues of taxes and the federal budget, King has recognized realities often overlooked by congressional colleagues. As he told a reporter on Fox News a few days ago, most federal spending has barely budged. Tax loopholes burgeoned after being limited in the Reagan-era tax simplification law, and health care costs need to be controlled. Moreover, said King, economic growth is necessary to further reduce the deficit.

In the past, King came close to endorsing the Simpson-Bowles budget plan, which would have limited spending but also included as much money in new revenues from raising rates and cutting deductions. About 70 percent of the cuts proposed for discretionary programs have already been signed into law; much less of the taxes have.

Deep cuts now would harm the economic growth King says is necessary. Moreover, as Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz points out, America’s increasing shift of wealth toward the top has held back growth. Programs promoting economic opportunity need funding. Health care costs are growing slowly, with Medicaid and Medicare now projected to cost 15 percent less than earlier projected.

In running for office as an independent, King suggested he could encourage institutional transformation.

King’s arrival has not prompted real change in the sclerotic Senate. True, the body adopted a small change in the filibuster, which, since the start of Obama’s presidency, has been used unremittingly to stymie policies legislative and public majorities support. That new rule hasn’t stopped Senate Republicans from refusing to allow votes for key administration appointments. Frankly, the idea that one independent senator would prompt Senate Republicans to rethink their tactics was always a chimera.

No Mainer will agree with all his positions. I know I don’t. But in his first weeks in Washington, King’s voice has been heard.

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.