Wisconsin Republicans Spurn the Will of the People
They came from all over Wisconsin, not as partisans but patriots. What the Wisconsin legislature was proposing to do offended their sense of right and wrong. That was the refrain, heard again and again, as hundreds of citizens packed the state capitol and sought to insist that legislative Republicans did not go through with what everyone recognized was a power grab.
“I’ve sat here for six hours,” one of the first speakers told a state legislative committee on Monday, “and I am more cynical now than before.” What was happening, the speaker said, was “not just an effort to suppress votes but an attempt to negate an election.”
On November 6, Wisconsin voters turned out in large numbers to elect Democrats Tony Evers over Governor Scott Walker and Josh Kaul over Attorney General Brad Schimel. The GOP leadership in both houses responded by calling an extraordinary session meant to strip powers from both offices.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald set out to limit the authority of the new governor to make changes to federal health care benefits and that of the attorney general to withdraw Wisconsin from a lawsuit meant to kill what remains of the Affordable Care Act—both measures they actively campaigned on and won. The GOP lawmakers also acted to limit early voting, even though a previous effort to do so was rebuffed in the courts.
The proposals were unveiled on Friday, November 30, and the one and only legislative hearing took place on Monday, December 3. It went on for ten hours before the bills were rubber-stamped by the committee on a party-line vote.
“No one in either party ran on a platform including these structural changes to state government,” one woman testified. Representative Chris Taylor, a Democratic lawmaker from Madison, mused with regard to the proposal to limit the governor’s ability to pursue health care changes, “If this is such a great accountability measure, I wonder why you haven’t proposed it before?”
Vos and Fitzgerald were not present to defend their proposals or listen to the hours of impassioned opposition. They didn’t care, and they made no bones about it. That is how thoroughly Scott Walker has degraded Wisconsin’s political landscape, replacing cooperative government with smash-mouth politics.
On Monday night, more than a thousand people gathered in the cold on the steps of the Wisconsin state capitol to protest what was happening inside. They came hoping that their presence would make a difference. The people who waited hours to testify were motivated by the same desire: That an appeal to logic and decency might have a chance.
On Tuesday, legislators convened to hastily pass about eighty last-minute appointments from Walker to state positions and boards. Evers objected, to no avail, noting that there was no opportunity to vet these appointees or even time for them to provide disclosure about possible financial conflicts of interests. The only purpose it served was to keep him from filling these slots.
The Republican-led senate approved the appointments anyway, en masse.
The votes on the bills to reign in Evers and Kaul’s powers were scheduled to take place on Tuesday, but the GOP worked well into Wednesday morning, mostly in closed door caucus sessions, to work out differences among themselves—the only ones, in their view, whose opinion mattered.
Just before sunrise on Wednesday, the senate approved the bills to restrict early voting and curb the powers of the incoming governor and attorney general. The state assembly was expected to follow suit. The bills could be on Walker’s desk yet this morning.
“The Republican strategy has been secrecy and speed,” said Ben Wikler, the Washington director of MoveOn.org, at the Monday night rally.
Indeed, this is now an integral part of the Wisconsin GOP’s playbook—to ram through controversial legislation that has been drafted in secret with as little advance notice as possible. The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism ran a recent expose on this trend, titled “Last-minute surprises and secretive moves hide Wisconsin lawmakers’ actions from public view.”
On Tuesday, former Democratic Governor Jim Doyle, who mostly held his tongue during the massive protests at the Wisconsin capitol in 2011, lashed out at the GOP’s current power grab. “What we’ve seen in Wisconsin in the last number of weeks is completely different from anything we have seen in my experience,” Doyle said at a news conference. “We are seeing something that’s really quite unprecedented.”
Doyle predicted that the courts would likely strike down the bills the Republicans were ramming through: “The legislation is so obviously an unconstitutional violation of separation of powers that it’s going to fail.”
Thousands of calls and emails have flowed into legislators’ offices, opposing these changes. Newspapers have editorialized against them, and hundreds of citizens have expressed their outrage in letters to the editor. When Walker appeared Tuesday at a holiday tree-lighting ceremony, he was greeted by protesters, one of whom held a sign saying “All I want for Christmas is democracy.”
There was, by all appearances, little to no public support for the bills to diminish the powers of the new governor and attorney general. No one traveled from the far ends of the state to wait in cramped overflow hearing rooms for ten hours for their turn to say this was a good idea. But the GOP’s leadership did not care.
Evers, in his written remarks to the committee, said the Republicans’ scheme “flies in the face of democratic institutions and the checks and balances that are intended to prevent power-hungry politicians from clinging to control when they do not get their way.” He went on to make a plea for Republicans and Democrats to “work together.”
But the point could hardly be clearer that the state’s Republicans will, like their President, stop at nothing to achieve their political goals. They are not going to accept Evers’s invitation to work together on anything—now or ever. They will ride roughshod over his agenda, and dedicate themselves to refuting the quotefrom Fighting Bob La Follette that adorns the ceiling of the governor’s conference room: “The will of the people shall be the law of the land.”
That’s not true in Wisconsin, and it hasn’t been for some time. Walker has corrupted the state’s politics and corroded its reputation. There is no longer any chance of progressive gains being won through diplomacy. A smash-mouth political climate merits a smash-mouth response.
What will defeat the GOP’s agenda for keeping control in Wisconsin despite an inconvenient election result will not be appeals to conscience, but a determination to fight over months if not years. The party’s power grab needs to be fully challenged in the courts, and the energy of the populace turned toward turning out the lawmakers who couldn’t be bothered to pay attention when appeals to conscience were made.