If it weren’t such a threat to constitutional democratic order and so offensive to the valuable notion of comity, what’s happening in the legislatures of Wisconsin, Michigan and North Carolina could be written off as the petulance of spoiled children.
But as the traditional January transfer of authority from one political party to the next approaches in two of those states, the core of peaceful political process is being eroded. Starting in North Carolina two years ago and picking up this month in Michigan and Wisconsin, legislatures dominated by Republicans are maneuvering to strip as much authority as possible from incoming Democratic governors and lesser executive branch officers.
In the process, they are not only trampling on the expressed will of their state’s voters, they are also mimicking the irresponsible, dangerous example of their legislative guru, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, to do everything within their power to ensure that the incoming executives fail.
Their use of what history should revile as The McConnell Strategy forecloses any hope of bipartisan action to resolve their states’ problems. It also reinforces at every level of public life the partisan divide that frustrates, frightens and repels so many Americans who value the best traditions of self-governance.
Is this how democracy dies, killed by the small-minded self-interest of state and local political puppets manipulated by tax-sheltered big-money lobbying organizations?
Is “hard-ball politics” against “snowflakes” all that remains of our polity?
Is our new normal going to be fictional rationalizations such as the one used in Wisconsin to justify stripping traditional powers from the incoming Democratic governor and attorney general? In that state, after eight years of one-party control of the legislative and executive branches, Democrat Tony Evers defeated Republican incumbent Gov. Scott Walker. The outcome caused Republican Speaker of the Assembly Robin Voz suddenly to re-think the balance of power between the governorship and the legislature.
“If there are areas,” he said with a straight face, “where we could look and say, ‘Geez—have we made mistakes where we granted too much power to the executive,’ I’d be open to taking a look to see what can we do to change that and try to rebalance it.”
The result of Voz’s supernatural, post-Walker revelation was the 4:30 a.m. passage of a package of bills designed to curb the powers of the governor and attorney general: limiting early voting; lawmakers, not the governor, controlling the majority of appointments to an economic development board; removing the governor’s sole authority to ban guns in the Capitol; requiring the governor to get legislative approval to seek adjustments in joint federal-state programs—such as the Affordable Care Act; blocking the new governor’s ability to withdraw the state from a lawsuit challenging the ACA. The last two items had been major points in Democrat Evers’ winning campaign, but that voice of the voters obviously was unheard or ignored in most legislative offices.
Seeing Wisconsin’s pillaging, Republican legislative majorities in Michigan are working on a similar package to shrink the authority of the incoming Democratic governor and secretary of state.
Both states took their cues from North Carolina, whose voters in 2016 ended years of one-party domination by curbing super-majorities in the legislature and picking a Democrat as governor.
It the final days of 2016, the N.C. legislature, among other grievous things, expanded the state elections board and split it evenly between Republicans and Democrats so that the new governor could not appoint a Democrat majority; slashed the number of state employes who served at the governor’s pleasure (and thus could be replaced by him), and limited his authority to appoint members to many state boards, including those that regulate industry and finance.
That was two years ago, and some of those actions are still in costly litigation at various levels of the state court system. In most instances so far, the North Carolina courts have struck down the legislature’s lame-duck actions as violations of the separation of powers designated in the state’s constitution.
Litigation seems likely in Michigan and Wisconsin. Gov.-elect Evers on Sunday strongly implied that lawsuits would be forthcoming. In an attempt to avert them, Evers said, he asked incumbent Walker to veto the bills, which passed the Wisconsin Senate by only one vote. But, Evers said, Walker was “noncommittal.”
It’s important to recall that Republicans defending their lame-duck gimmickry and opposing the lawsuits brought by their constituents also are fond of the mantra that “voters should decide elections, not the courts.”
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio fell back on that oh-so-democratic rationalization on Sunday while talking about the multiple, extended lawsuits from his state’s 2018 midterm voting. But, of course, Rubio and other Republicans did not seem offended when “the courts” decided the presidency of the United States in 2000.
Constitutional government is based on the belief that the ultimate authority for self-rule resides with the people. Constitutions are merely plans expressing how that ultimate authority is to be preserved and executed by legislative, executive and judicial branches. The powers thereby assigned are not meant to be productive assets to be traded, bargained for, manipulated or re-assigned by one branch or another. That’s for the people to decide with their votes.
But is anybody listening in Wisconsin, Michigan and North Carolina?