Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Republicans’ Plan for Permanent Power

They began plotting last spring to retain power even if a Democrat won for governor.

By - Dec 11th, 2018 11:32 am
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Robin Vos and Scott Fitzgerald.

Robin Vos and Scott Fitzgerald.

Amid the outrage over the Republicans’ lame duck legislation has been the repeated salvo that they are simply “sore losers,” as many Democrats have charged. But the narrative this suggests — of petty and partisan mischief making — completely misses the point of what’s really happening here. As a recent story in the New York Times reported, the planning for this sweeping 141-page legislative package began last spring — more than half a year ago. This is not an upsurge of angry revenge, but a cooly-plotted, long-term scheme to assure Republicans continue to hold power permanently in Wisconsin.

The unstated goal is to assure that Governor-elect Tony Evers is so constrained by the legislature that he fails as governor, much as the chief objective for Republican U.S. Senate leader Mitch McConnell, as he declared it, was to make sure Democratic President Barack Obama failed. And Evers’ failure will then make it much easier for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos to run for governor in 2022, which he is expected to do, as Urban Milwaukee columnist Steven Walters wrote yesterday. His column offered a revealing look at the thinking of Republican leaders, who see Evers as a weakling they can easily push around. 

Evers and newly elected Attorney General Josh Kaul, in short, will have no honeymoon period. Nor will they have much luck pursuing bipartisan solutions with Vos and Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald. The two Republicans are convinced they needn’t cooperate with Evers and won’t be punished by voters for their laws constraining the governor, because Republican Scott Walker won a majority of the state vote outside of Madison and the City of Milwaukee, two areas where Republicans don’t even bother to field candidates for the legislature. Evers and Kaul are in for four years of scorched-earth politics, with the GOP goal of assuring neither can be reelected. 

Vos and Fitzgerald have been planning their scheme since the special legislative elections won by Democrats in the last year, followed by the decisive victory of moderate liberal Rebecca Dallet in the April 3 election for the Wisconsin Supreme Court. These were clear signs that a blue wave was coming, as Walker himself warned.

It was sometime that spring, that “Vos said he had met with the governor and Mr. Fitzgerald to discuss ideas to rein in executive power,” the Times reported.  

Vos told the Times he had an interest in restricting the governor’s power and that some provisions being passed would have introduced even if Walker had won re-election. But if so, why hadn’t that been done in the eight years they held power? And why would Walker agree to meet about restricting his power? 

The more likely scenario was that all three were mapping out ways to constrain the governor should a Democrat win. As the Times reported, Vos and other Republicans “acknowledged the obvious: Some of the provisions passed this week would not have been put forward had Mr. Evers lost.”

Actually it’s difficult to think of any change contained in the lame-duck bills that Walker or the legislators would have favored had he been reelected. Fitzgerald told the Times he and Vos had conferred about how best to “put on solid ground” some of the policies the Republicans had advanced during eight years of full control of state government. “We were kicking it around, nervous about the way the elections were going to go,” Fitzgerald said.

But while Democrats swept all the statewide offices, the red wall Republicans built with gerrymandered legislative districts held firm. Moreover, GOP leaders felt Evers did not win overwhelming statewide support, “so they could take him on in a history-making way,” Walters reports. “After all, Republicans reasoned, Evers won largely because voters in two counties – Dane and Milwaukee – favored him over Walker by a stunning margin of 288,915 votes…Evers winning margin of only 29,227 votes was ‘no mandate’… (as) Vos told his caucus when they met to re-elect him speaker.”

And no mandate meant they could rewrite state laws with no fear of punishment from voters. Moreover, Vos and Fitzgerald “have never considered Evers their political equal in take-no-prisoners Capitol wars,” Walters reveals. “So, they thought he would struggle to offer a quick response to their rewrite of the rules of governing.… After all, Evers had a ‘Tony too nice’ reputation.”

And so the two legislators and Walker loaded up the lame duck bills with constraints on the governor’s power, while Walker appointed a massive list of 81 Republican loyalists to various state boards and commissions. 

Walker and Vos told Walters they “didn’t include some of the most radical steps they had considered. That not-so-subtle message is: ‘It could have been worse.’”

But that was only because they knew they couldn’t get away with it. They dropped their plan to move the date of the 2010 presidential election only after it came out that would cost taxpayers $6.8 million and after county clerks across the state and the bipartisan Wisconsin Elections Board opposed three straight months of elections as practically impossible to administer. As for trying to cut back the governor’s veto, which Republicans say they were too nice to include, there is a long history of court cases in Wisconsin upholding this powerful veto power. 

Evers ran on a platform of increasing state funding to K-12 schools, and Vos has already made it clear the legislature won’t approve this. Evers wants to provide more health care coverage, but Republicans will oppose his plan to accept the more than $1 billion in federal Medicaid money Walker rejected. And the lame duck legislation prevents Evers and Kaul from opting out of the lawsuit to overturn the Affordable Care Act and its coverage of pre-existing conditions. Vos would likely work with Evers to increase highway funding, but an increase in such funding will make more funding for schools all the more impossible. 

Meanwhile Evers will find it harder to reshape state agencies to serve the public as he sees fit, because they must comply with onerous documentation requirements added by the new legislation. Even should this be accomplished, the law also gives the legislature far more power to block any rules promulgated by state agencies and bars judges from giving deference to agencies’ interpretations of laws when challenged in court. 

As for Kaul, the legislation takes away his solicitor general, which leaves him less ability to pursue high profile legal suits, and takes away his power to determine how funds won through court cases are distributed — something attorney generals of both parties have used to win favor with voters. Republicans have done everything they could think of to make it harder to Evers and Kaul to govern effectively and win reelection.

Vos has insisted the legislature “hasn’t taken away” any of the governor’s power and suggested his critics were “grossly exaggerating” the impact of the lame duck legislation. That claim was repeated in an especially slippery column for Atlantic by sort of conservative but always opportunistic commentator Charlie Sykes, who called on Walker to not sign the legislation, while claiming the 141 pages of legislation accomplishes “extraordinarily little.”

In short all the planning by Walker, Vos and Fitzgerald since last spring was just to accomplish some “de minimus” legislation, Sykes contends.

This disingenuous claim is deliberate, to prevent independent voters in Wisconsin — who opposed the 2012 recall as an attempt to wrongly overthrow their elected governor — from deciding Republican legislators are now doing the same sort of thing to a Democratic winner. That is clearly the message Evers is trying to convey to voters.

Certainly, the new governor still has powers he can use to his advantage in determining his approach to governing. But it should begin with a clear realization: this “history making” legislation that passed with barely any public discussion is merely the first battle of a four-year war that Vos and Fitzgerald intend to wage against Evers. Your move, too-nice Tony. 

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More about the Lame Duck Laws

Categories: Murphy's Law, Politics

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