Wisconsin shenanigans: Lame duck legislators’ ‘soft coup’

Outgoing Gov. Scott Walker has not clarified whether he will sign any or all of the governor-power-reducing bills.
REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
Outgoing Gov. Scott Walker has not clarified whether he will sign any or all of the governor-power-reducing bills.

I’m as outraged as most liberals (well, maybe not exactly as outraged) by the Republican shenanigans, especially in our neighboring state of Wisconsin. The particular immediate shenanigan was to call a special session of the Legislature and ram through a bunch of changes to reduce the power of the governor’s office.

This is, of course and transparently, because the voters of Wisconsin had the temerity to elect Democrat Tony Evers to be their next governor, replacing Republican Scott Walker.

Something, possibly that election result, caused members of the Wisconsin Legislature, still controlled by Republicans, to have a sudden revelation that the powers of the Wisconsin governor’s office were too many and too big, especially for a Democrat to wield. So the legislators rushed to Madison for a previously unscheduled “lame duck” special session to do what they can to transfer powers from the executive to the legislative branch while Walker is still has the power to sign (or veto) bills.

The engineers of what might be called this “soft coup” are making no serious attempt to disguise the purely partisan motive based on a form of the logic of Orwell’s “Animal Farm.” (In “Animal Farm” it was “Four legs good; Two legs bad.” Now it’s “Repub good; Dem bad.”)

In some instances the lame duckers seek to remove from the governor’s office powers the same Legislature had themselves recently given to the office, when it was controlled by Walker.

Walker has not clarified whether he will sign any or all of the governor-power-reducing bills. The latest news is that Evers called Walker to ask him to veto the bills, but after the phone call Evers said he was “not particularly encouraged” that Walker would do so. Walker has previously said he would probably sign at least some of the bills.

Under the headline: “Are Republicans Abandoning Democracy?” the general liberal reaction was captured by Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne thus:

In case after case, Republicans have demonstrated an eagerness to undercut democracy and tilt the rules of the game if doing so serves their ideological interests. The quiet coup by the GOP-controlled legislature in Wisconsin is designed to defy the voters’ wishes. It reflects an abandonment of the disciplines that self-government requires.

So, to pick up from the first paragraph, why am I slightly less outraged than some other liberals?

Because I know that both parties have played this game. It was the great Franklin D. Roosevelt who tried to “pack” the Supreme Court with extra seats that he could fill with liberal justices because he was frustrated with some Supreme rulings that got in the way of his New Deal program. It was Senate Democrats in 2013 who reduced the number of votes necessary to overcome a filibuster because – well, for the obvious reason. (Although if you look into it, you’ll find that the Democratic change to the filibuster rule followed a massive change in how often Republicans used filibusters to block President Clinton’s appointees.)

Round and round the blame game goes. I only want to make sure I’m acknowledging (Lord knows why) that each party can (and does) excuse its latest previous outrage by pointing to something the other party did previously.

And, because I’m a Constitution nerd (but not a worshiper of that document) and a (mediocre) student of other systems of government, one other bit of comparative-political-systems point bears mentioning, namely:

What’s happening in Wisconsin is also partly a function of a feature (or does one mean “a bug”) of the U.S. system of politics and government, namely the long, slow transition from election to inauguration, which creates time for the kind of mischief the Wisconsin Legislature is attempting.

In typical parliamentary systems, the transition is much faster. In Britain, the new prime minister and Cabinet members take power the very day after it’s clear who has won the election. There may be downsides to that, but, at the least, it removes the temptation that two-month transitions like ours create. (Our elections have pretty much always been in November. But for the first century and a half the new president wasn’t sworn in until March.) Yikes. It was moved up to January, by constitutional amendment, in the 1930s.

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Comments (38)

  1. Submitted by Greg Smith on 12/11/2018 - 10:13 am.

    As a non-liberal, I find these actions reprehensible.

  2. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 12/11/2018 - 10:16 am.

    “Because I know that both parties have played this game.”

    The quest for journalistic balance has gone from admirable, to cliched, and has ended up at laughable.

    Does FDR’s failed Court-packing plan compare to what Republicans in Wisconsin, and Michigan, and North Carolina, are doing? Recall that the bill to pack the Court did not survive its first vote in the Senate (rejected 70 to 22), and the idea was abandoned. In a clear “both sides do it” moment, the bill was opposed by Democrats and Republicans.

    As far as the filibuster goes, while it may have its uses (depending on whose ox is being gored), the practice is of dubious origin. The Constitution does no contemplate such a practice. It is the legacy of Aaron Burr and his interpretation of Senate rules. Reducing the number of votes for cloture can be argued as a way of limiting the ability of the minority to thwart the will of the majority. How does that compare to Wisconsin, where structural impediments to the will of the majority are being enacted?

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 12/11/2018 - 11:54 am.

      My respect for Mr. Black has been significantly reduced with his practice of both sides-ism here.

      I will continue to read his posts, but with a much more jaundiced eye.

      • Submitted by Stephen Phillips on 12/11/2018 - 12:19 pm.

        As has our collective “respect” for Chuck Todd – who opined that same false (and completely unsubstantiated) equivalency on Meet The Press this past Sunday..

  3. Submitted by Howard Miller on 12/11/2018 - 10:30 am.

    I take no comfort in reviewing a history where both parties have engaged in bad faith governing beyond their political strength among voters.

    Previous abuses of power by either major party do not justify nor excuse current abuses

    And tho’ Democrats have gerrymandered and attempted court stacking in the past, the current problems are nested within the Republican brand. There is no equivalency between the 2 major US parties now.

  4. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 12/11/2018 - 11:22 am.

    So, looks like what I am reading is called “bad faith” government! Seems they are taking their lead from McConnell.

  5. Submitted by Jeff Michaels on 12/11/2018 - 11:43 am.

    Eric is correct. Both parties play the game. I wish he had remembered what happened in the Badger state seven years ago.

    That year, a group of Democrat lawmakers in Wisconsin blocked passage of a bill to limit union power by sneaking off in order to avoid a vote. According to a Feb. 17, 2011 National Public Radio report, “As ever-growing throngs of protesters filled the Capitol for a third day, the 14 Democrats disappeared from the grounds. They were not in their offices, and aides said they did not know where any of them had gone. A state police search is under way.” Hours later, one Democrat told The Associated Press that the group had left Wisconsin and was hiding out in Illinois.

    Republicans held a 19-14 majority in the state Senate but needed at least one Democrat to be present for a quorum. I trust Democrats will temper their outrage. It is simply payback time in Wisconsin.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 12/11/2018 - 01:26 pm.

      How is that in any way analogous to imposing structural limitations on the exercise of governmental authority?

      • Submitted by Bob Barnes on 12/11/2018 - 03:55 pm.

        It shows that Democrats pull the same things yet we only hear outrage when the GOP does it.

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 12/12/2018 - 08:58 am.

          It shows desperation on the part of conservatives to deflect attention from what their people are doing.

          How did leaving the state affect any further proceedings in Wisconsin? Or alter the workings of state government. Or, for that matter, do anything except give the right-wing something to fall back on for their “wuddabouts?”

  6. Submitted by Tim Smith on 12/11/2018 - 11:59 am.

    The big question is what are liberals not outraged and hysterical about, espcieally when it comes to Scott Walker?

  7. Submitted by Josh Lease on 12/11/2018 - 12:12 pm.

    It’s sad how pundits always have to do the “a pox on both their houses” dance. Especially because it gives cover to the bad actors and allows them to get away with their shenanigans: if everyone is to blame then no one is to blame.

    This isn’t politics as usual, and your should know it, Eric. Neither example you cited occurred in a lame-duck session. neither example you cited was a case of the legislative body attempting to strip powers away from the executive (or judiciary) because they no longer shared the same party. (even in FDR’s court-packing plan, nothing actually changed the powers of the judiciary; it simply added members to the bench, something that legislature had the power to control. you’ll note they rejected it, soundly)

    Occasionally, both parties have rushed through legislation during a lame duck session because the makeup was about to change, but a) that’s been on the decline, and b) that’s still in their lane, even if it’s not advisable absent an actual emergency. This is something else, and you know it.

    The false equivalency I keep seeing from punditry who cannot seem to resist tracking back into history to find an example when Democrats behaved badly is distressing. It’s bad analysis. It’s bad writing. It’s bad commentary. It’s exactly the sort of twisted thinking and confusion these anti-democracy legislators hope will get sown so they won’t or can’t be held responsible.

    ONE party is doing this, ONE. It’s the GOP. They are engaging in massive power grabs in order to overturn the will of the voters and anyone who engages in this sad false equivalency is complicit in the bargain.

    • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 12/15/2018 - 11:45 am.

      They pull the “but the Dems do it, too” trick out of storage because if they don’t, then the right-wing media will accuse them of “liberal bias.”

      My response is, “So what?” Better to have a liberal bias than a fascist bias, which an increasing number of Republican politicians and pundits seem to have.

      (Note that I do not use the term “fascist” lightly, and I used to roll my eyes when my contemporaries used it to characterize mainstream politicians during the Vietnam War protests.)

  8. Submitted by John Ferman on 12/11/2018 - 12:18 pm.

    Does the Wisconsin Constitution define the powers of both the Governor and the Legislature. Might this act precipitate a Court case. Such would keep the matter before the populace into rhe next election cycle with reasonably expected consequences.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 12/11/2018 - 12:31 pm.

      A court case will be before the WI Supreme Court, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Koch-topus and the Club For Growth. If anyone wants to bet against the GOP in those cases, I’ll gladly put money. Just, not near as much money as the wealthy corporatists have put up to buy the WI government.

      • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 12/11/2018 - 03:25 pm.

        It would probably end up before the Supreme Court.
        Roberts and Kavanaugh still seem to have some respect for the law.

        • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 12/12/2018 - 07:38 am.

          Surely you’ll understand why I’ll not trust either of those two to protect democracy.

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 12/12/2018 - 09:24 am.

          Since this involves questions of state law, I’m not sure what grounds the SCOTUS would have for hearing the case. Arguably, it’s a violation of the “Republican Form of Government” guarantee, but that’s pretty thin. Hamilton (Federalist 21) seems to have thought that the clause just referred to continuation of the existing forms of government in the several states.

  9. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 12/11/2018 - 12:45 pm.

    I strongly agree with Josh Lease. This move by the Wisconsin GOP legislators is a bald attack on democracy. And I find it new, in the several states that are trying the tactic to avoid the effects of the people’s voted will to have some Democrats in power.

  10. Submitted by John Evans on 12/11/2018 - 01:00 pm.

    Representative legislature relies on democratic norms and trust. The abuse of the filibuster by Senate Republicans made a 60-vote super-majority necessary. It obstructed majority rule to a greater degree than had been customary. That’s an anti-democratic power-grab. Whatever you think of the Democrats’ response in lowering that threshold, it clearly wasn’t anti-democratic.

    The power-grabbing tactics employed by Wisconsin, Michigan and North Carolina Republicans appear to be permissible within the laws of those states. But they badly violate trust and the norms required in order to legislate. They obstruct the will of the voters to a greater degree than has been customary. With any luck they will have earned themselves a little backlash from voters.

    But the fact that it’s happening in several states at once isn’t coincidental. This is the way the national Republican Party has chosen to go. Anti-democratic power-grabbing is part of their brand.

  11. Submitted by Pat Terry on 12/11/2018 - 02:15 pm.

    Eric is really both-sidesing hard today. What really, really poor quality journalism.

  12. Submitted by Harris Goldstein on 12/11/2018 - 02:15 pm.

    Let’s put this in context. Combined with extreme gerrymandering and voter suppression, it’s an all out assault on democracy.

  13. Submitted by Bob Barnes on 12/11/2018 - 03:27 pm.

    Like Democrats haven’t done the same kinds of things. Do any of the Democrats here plan to hold their own party to the same standards you are trying to hold Republicans to?

    • Submitted by ian wade on 12/11/2018 - 03:58 pm.

      All the time. You guys should give it a go instead of doubling down and screaming “fake news” to pretend things don’t exist.

  14. Submitted by chuck carlin on 12/11/2018 - 04:17 pm.

    It seems a shame to have citizens voting and thereby mucking up the art of governing by knowledgeable legislators. President Mugabe had the proper attitude toward transitory governance and expensive, time-consuming elections.

  15. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 12/11/2018 - 05:48 pm.

    Most – not all, but most – of the arguments presented in defense of Republican legislative actions in WI, NC and MI are specious. There’s a thin veneer of equivalency, but as others have pointed out, none of the Democratic actions sought to fundamentally alter the structure of the state government in question **after losing the most recent election** – to thwart the expressed will of the public in a free and (in most cases) democratic election. People who defend this are not using reasoned arguments, they’re falling back on ideology. “When the facts don’t support your case, talk louder, and if that doesn’t work, try to distract your audience.” The “What about…” argument is an example of distraction.

    In Wisconsin, the false pretense of defending the legislature’s action is especially egregious, since some of the powers the legislature wants to take away from the incoming Democratic governor are powers **just granted by the same legislature** to Governor Walker in this most recent legislative session. In case more evidence should be needed, this provides conclusive proof that, at least in those three states, the GOP doesn’t want to **govern.” It wants to **rule,** which is an entirely different matter, requiring an entirely different governing philosophy. That philosophy doesn’t fit either the Constitution of the United States or, in the closest example, the Constitution of the State of Wisconsin, and is the antithesis of a society based on democratic ideals.

  16. Submitted by Eric Black on 12/11/2018 - 06:12 pm.

    Sorry to have annoyed so many of the regulars. I don’t engage in both-sidesism for its own sake. I do see danger in a rising culture of Manichaeism on (pardon the expression) both sides. When each side decides that it is the purest of good and other is pure evil, bad things happen.
    Our system depends heavily on norms, which are not really enforceable and are only as strong as the willingness on both sides to respect them. And each side justifies the next breakdown of the norms by citing something the other side did that previously violated the norms, which can become a race to the bottom. I’m fine with norms when they work, but when they suddenly don’t (and I think we are there) the system breaks down. I subscribe to the Ornstein/Mann concept of asymmetric polarization, which is to say that both sides are guilty but not equally. Cheers and thanks for the feedback.

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 12/12/2018 - 08:58 am.

      The problem is that the stain can only spread–not be sucked back into the bottle.

      The hardest temptation to resist is the support of your faction uncritically.

      While the current crop of Republicans is working hard to make sure that their views persist in the face of demographic decline, there are numerous examples in the past of Democratic machines that walked all over the vote. Neither should be acceptable and all should be called out.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/12/2018 - 09:04 am.

      Eric, I want to thank you for NOT using the “tribalism” analogy… that would have been REALLY irritating!

      However, I respectfully suggest that your rationale is seriously flawed. I know the “polarization” narrative is popular among many American journalist, but it’s a false narrative that ends up obscuring reality rather than examining it. I would say that what your actually doing here is servicing radical centrism,

      The problem with the polarization narrative (asymmetric or otherwise) is that it assumes that any reaction to extremism is equally extremist. It assumes that only reasonable response to extremism is no response at all and thereby creates false equivalencies.

      In the end, those who normalize extremism by seeking equivalent comparisons end up being the primary agents of extremism, though they may think they are the antidote.

      The polarization narrative assumes that our current crises is driven by a collapse of the “center”. The truth is that this “center” was never more than an elitist illusion to begin with. The crises at hand is an emergence of reactionary extremism, and there is no liberal equivalent. In the end these “comparisons” end up being little more than pseudo intellectual forms of denial… and that denial is and has contributed to the crises, it’s not the antidote centrists like to think it is.

      If we step back and look at the reality of reactionary extremism rather than the false narrative of polarization, we can understand the reaction that’s been provoked here. On a basic level you (Eric) are attempting to compare Donald Trump to FDR, as if FDR could be partially responsible for the current crises. That simply doesn’t work.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 12/12/2018 - 10:33 am.

      Yeah, but . . .

      Isn’t there a real danger in minimizing the degree of asymmetry? If every wrongdoing by one party is balanced by another, albeit unequal, wrongdoing by another party, aren’t we slipping towards nihilism?

      It’s also no polarization to call out a specific instance of wrongdoing without mentioning others. We should be able to discuss Native American treaty rights without dredging up tiresome old tropes about how the Ojibwa drove the Lakota out of what is now Minnesota.

    • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 12/15/2018 - 11:53 am.

      The false equivalency narrative has been parodied as:

      “And now to provide a different perspective on slavery from the one offered by Mr. Douglass, Mr. Northrup, Miss Grimke, and Mr. Garrison, here’s Jefferson Davis to explain why Africans need to be enslaved for their own good.”

  17. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 12/12/2018 - 07:37 am.

    When GOP legislators around the country are simultaneously enacting very similar legislation, it typically leads to ALEC’s doorstep. There is every reason to believe that is the case here. This legislation was introduced right after the election. Did anyone notice that Robin Vos and the GOP did not campaign on this?

    It’s time that Democrats and democrats recognize this for what it is, an existential threat to the Democrats and democrats. That was the motivation behind knee capping public employee unions in WI and around the country. There is one political party that is fully committed to gaining and retaining power by any means necessary, norms be damned.

    Tony Evers, Democrats, and democrats need to step it up, and now. There should have been a better effort to organize citizen action at the capitol while the slow rolling GOP coup was being debated. Never doubt the value of thousands of citizens gathering in one place. It’s a powerful springboard when people look around and say, “Wow. I’m no the only one. Look how many of us there are! Look at what power we have!”

    Democrats should be looking at which WI GOP legislators are vulnerable to recall efforts. And those efforts should begin soon. With Citizens United, a relatively small amount of dollars can have a huge impact.

    When some states were denying efforts to recognize the MLK holiday, pressure was applied to professional sports leagues to withhold events like the Super Bowl. WHen bathroom bills were debated and enacted around the country, pressure was applied to corporations to resist those efforts. Paypal pulled 400 jobs from North Carolina, and Indiana saw similar pressure. The Milwaukee Bucks desperately want the NBA All Star game. The NBA needs to be asked “Which side are you on?” The social conscience of NBA players can be put to work against forces that have worked tirelessly to disenfranchise black voters in WI and around the country.

    There is every reason to believe that WI will be pivotal in the 2020 POTUS election. Progressive forces need to riff off of both the 2018 elections and this GOP coup. Tony Evers “considering a law suit” will not cut it. Better organized demonstrations would have helped, recall can still can help. Frequent reminders to voters of exactly who voted for this power grab are in order. Town hall meetings should be flooded, as the Tea Party did in ’09 & ’10. The Tea Partiers made sure those town halls were raucous affairs, and they sure made tier concerns known. Turnabout is fair play. And if timid pols are afraid of town halls, citizens can hold them in legislator’s offices.

    Tony Evers should not be “considering” a law suit. His attorneys should be camped on the doorstep of the courthouse, papers in hand, waiting for the moment Scott Walker cements his legacy as a hand maiden of the Koch-topus. And he should loudly and frequently tell everyone that he will ignore this undemocratic coup. If someone wants to sue him in defense of unconstitutional law, have it baby.

    The carefully measured oh-so-civil response typical of liberals will not work anymore. Reaching across the aisle with the side that is trying to take you out permanently? It’s a foolish strategy.

  18. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/12/2018 - 10:22 am.

    Just to put a finer point on it, these “comparisons” between Republican initiatives and Democratic initiatives no matter how well documented, end up being intellectual rabbit holes rather than serious analysis.

    The problem with this “comparative” analysis is that it invites us to take magnifying glasses to the trees rather than step back and look at the forest. I’ve been warning people for years that Republcans/Libertarians and reactionary conservatives don’t believe in democracy on a very basic level. This has been relatively obvious for decades, long before the latest manifestations in Wisconsin.

    Republican extremism can only be “normalized” if you take these individual examples of totalitarian impulses out of context, and try to look at them as individual or isolated actions that are comparable to individual and isolated Democratic initiatives.

    In reality, when you step back you can easily recognize these individual initiatives as part of a larger and ongoing agenda to thwart basic democratic institutions in the US, from the courts to school boards. Democrats have never mounted a campaign like this, and liberals would never mount such a campaign.

    The suggestion that everyone does this, or does this to a lesser degree, is simply corrosive the body politic because it denies the nature of extremism. Complacency, false narratives, and false equivalencies got us into this crises, they cannot provide an antidote.

    The crises at hand is that we have a Fascist in the White House, and Republicans are “all-in”. This crises didn’t spring from nowhere, you can trace it’s origins back to the toxic, anti-democratic, totalitarian impulses of reactionary Republicans and Nixon’s foray into burglary. I always recommend Blumenthal’s: “Republican Gomorrah”.

    Look, Trump is bizarre but his actions and policies are pure Republican. Almost everything he does is drawn from a Heritage Foundation playbook, the guy’s a living breathing dream candidate, they just wish he was a little better behaved.

    So when journalists pretend to rise above the fray with their “objective” impulse to look for comparisons, they’re actually entering the fray on behalf of extremism to the extent they compare it to normalcy. The idea that comparing Trump to FDR or Omar to Bachmann is legitimate analysis is just plain goofy.

  19. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 12/12/2018 - 11:03 am.

    We are now at the point that we are only one election away from authoritarianism. Other nations have shown that democracy can slip away faster than one might imagine. Hungary is an example both recent and illustrative.

    Opposition parties are marginalized into irrelevancy. The press is muted. The courts are subverted to serve The Leader. Dissent is made illegal.

    The GOP and the “conservative” movement are no longer dedicated to democracy, and such trite norms as the peaceful transfer of power.

    Read Don Trump’s words of earlier today, telling us, “..people would revolt if that happened…”, referring to impeachment. In my above post, I referenced that the GOP is committed to gaining and maintaining power by any means necessary. I did not stop short of the use of violence. Make no mistake, the threat of violence is violence. And about the time I was writing my post, Don Trump was threatening violence.

    If Don Trump leaves the White House in 2020 via election defeat or 2024 via term limit, I have every expectation he will seek to stay in office by hook or by crook. And his followers? I fear how they might react to his exhortations.

    And that is why this is so important, and why liberal politicians like Tony Evers and Amy Klobuchar need to man and, uh, woman up and start taking this slow rolling GOP coup seriously, as should true conservatives who seek to limit government power.

  20. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 12/11/2018 - 02:38 pm.

    “Minnesota’s own Republicans long ago abandoned our local flavor of Independent Republicanism.”

    Funny thing about the “Independent Republicans.” The renaming of the party was branding, not ideology. The local GOP wanted to distance itself from the Nixonian shenanigans of the early 70s, and especially from the fallout from them. The “Independent” was dropped in ’81 or thereabouts, when Reagan purified the Republican name again.

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