How broken is government?

A list of political heavy hitters ranging from past and present members of Maine’s congressional delegation to former U.S. Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts will explore the growing political dysfunction of government during an eight-week lecture series being launched today at the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service and Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.

Actually, that they will discuss government dysfunction is a bit of an assumption on my part, but given the gridlock in Congress and the growing partisan gulf in the Maine Legislature, I don’t see how the premise of a lecture series called “Politics Then and Now, In Maine and the Nation,” could be anything else.  Former Maine Congressman Tom Allen, who kicks off the series at 4 p.m. today at USM’s Wishcamper Center in Portland, agrees.

“It’s getting a lot worse. We have a total breakdown between the political parties,” said Allen, who is now CEO of the Association of American Publishers, and who says he has no plans to seek another elected office. “Here we are again, right on the verge of having a [federal] government shutdown and also having another battle over the debt ceiling. It’s just amazing.”

That’s the kind of talk you’d expect from the author who published the book “Dangerous Convictions: What’s Really Wrong with the U.S. Congress,” early this year.

“My basic argument is that the two sides differ so widely in terms of their views of how the world works, they just don’t even understand each other,” said Allen, a Democrat who was Maine’s 1st District congressman from 1996 to 2008. “Convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies. We get so locked into thinking about the world in certain ways that it doesn’t matter how much evidence we hear to the contrary. We just won’t let that evidence in.”

My personal interest in politics dates back for about a decade. Allen’s warnings about government gridlock are important, but to me his opinion that it’s borne from opposing opinions about policy is somewhat refreshing. To some extent, it seems the gridlock in Congress is more about each party refusing to let the other score a victory, even on issues they agree about. There’s been evidence of that here in Maine, including earlier this year with the debate around how to repay Maine hospitals millions of dollars in past Medicaid debt. That particular battle ended in strong bipartisan agreement, though it counts as a victory for Gov. Paul LePage, who went on tour of Maine hospitals Wednesday to symbolically pay off the debt after months of making it a focus of his administration.

Upcoming speakers in the series include Sen. Angus King, former Sens. George Mitchell and Olympia Snowe, former Gov. Kenneth Curtis and a number of recent and current members of the Legislature from both parties, including former Sens. Elizabeth Mitchell and Cynthia Dill and current House Minority Leader Ken Fredette. University of Maine Professor Amy Fried, who writes an insightful political blog for the BDN, is also on the schedule.

Disclosure: the BDN is one of a handful of media organizations that is offering promotional sponsorship of the series. For a schedule, look here.

Christopher Cousins

About Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.