GOP ‘power grab’ in Wis., Mich. angers Democrats

Re­pub­li­cans move to limit au­thor­ity of statewide elec­tion vic­tors

The Washington Post - - POLITICS & THE NATION - BY MARK BER­MAN, EMILY WAX- THIBODEAUX AND DAN SIM­MONS mark.ber­[email protected]­ [email protected]­ Katie Zez­ima and Isaac Stan­ley-Becker con­trib­uted to this re­port.

Fol­low­ing bruis­ing losses in statewide elec­tions last month, Re­pub­li­cans in Wis­con­sin and Michi­gan have re­sponded with pushes to limit the power of Democrats who won those of­fices, as ad­vo­cacy groups threaten to block their ef­forts with le­gal ac­tion.

The leg­is­la­tion in Wis­con­sin took a sig­nif­i­cant step for­ward Wed­nes­day when Re­pub­li­can law­mak­ers passed bills that ef­fec­tively kneecap the state’s in­com­ing Demo­cratic gov­er­nor and at­tor­ney gen­eral with mea­sures that limit or elim­i­nate their abil­i­ties to act on as­pects of gun con­trol, a law­suit on the Af­ford­able Care Act and var­i­ous other state mat­ters.

Re­pub­li­can law­mak­ers in Michi­gan are sim­i­larly at­tempt­ing to shift au­thor­ity from the Democrats re­cently elected as gov­er­nor, at­tor­ney gen­eral and sec­re­tary of state, the first time the party will hold all three po­si­tions in nearly three decades.

The one-two punch is a blunt at­tempt by Re­pub­li­can law­mak­ers to main­tain power, Democrats say.

“It’s a power grab — clear and sim­ple,” Sen. Deb­bie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said in a tele­phone in­ter­view. “It’s lit­er­ally go­ing against the will of the pub­lic that voted for these of­fi­cials just 30 days ago.”

Re­pub­li­cans have said their push to sap au­thor­ity from these of­fices — weeks af­ter vot­ers chose Democrats to fill them — is nec­es­sary to bet­ter bal­ance power be­tween the ex­ec­u­tive and leg­isla­tive branches.

“The leg­is­la­ture is the most rep­re­sen­ta­tive branch of gov­ern­ment and the clos­est to the peo­ple of Wis­con­sin. Our pro­pos­als guar­an­tee that the leg­is­la­ture al­ways has a seat at the ta­ble,” said Robin Vos, the Re­pub­li­can speaker of the State As­sem­bly, in a state­ment. “With di­vided gov­ern­ment, these bills al­low for more dis­cus­sions and op­por­tu­ni­ties to find com­mon ground.”

Caro­line Fredrick­son, pres­i­dent of the left-lean­ing Amer­i­can Con­sti­tu­tion So­ci­ety, said that le­gal ac­tion likely will be taken against many of the pro­vi­sions in Wis­con­sin.

“The ba­sic ques­tion is, ‘ Who’s been in­jured?’ ” by the Re­pub­li­cans’ ef­forts to curb the gov­er­nor’s au­thor­ity, she said. “And you could say the vot­ers of Wis­con­sin are the ones who have been in­jured.”

Dur­ing an ACS event Tues­day, for­mer Demo­cratic gov­er­nor Jim Doyle, who also served as at­tor­ney gen­eral, called the ef­forts “a very ob­vi­ous vi­o­la­tion of the sep­a­ra­tion of pow­ers” cod­i­fied in the Con­sti­tu­tion.

The ef­forts come two years af­ter a sim­i­lar scene played out in North Carolina, where GOP law­mak­ers re­sponded to the elec­tion of Gov. Roy Cooper, a Demo­crat, by try­ing to cur­tail his power. That set off a string of le­gal bat­tles, an out­come ex­pected in Wis­con­sin if Gov. Scott Walker (R) signs the leg­is­la­tion, as he is ex­pected to.

The mea­sures in Wis­con­sin and Michi­gan are a set­back for Democrats af­ter the party’s sig­nif­i­cant vic­to­ries in re­cent races for state leg­is­la­ture seats, at­tor­ney­gen­eral of­fices and gov­er­nor­ships. The suc­cesses in Wis­con­sin and Michi­gan were among the most no­table.

In Wis­con­sin, where Tony Evers (D) de­feated Walker, who was first elected in 2010, Re­pub­li­can lead­ers have de­fended their lame-duck ef­forts to strip power from Evers. Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Scott Fitzger­ald said the leg­is­la­tion is needed be­cause Re­pub­li­cans “don’t trust Tony Evers right now.”

Walker’s of­fice did not re­spond to mes­sages seek­ing com­ment Wed­nes­day.

The leg­is­la­ture stayed in ses­sion Tues­day night into Wed­nes­day to pass the bills amid a back­drop of protesters. Among other things, the leg­is­la­tion would pre­vent Evers from tak­ing over Walker’s new eco­nomic devel­op­ment agency for months — a unit that Evers pledged to dis­man­tle — and re­quire that he get law­mak­ers’ ap­proval to block guns from the capi­tol build­ing. The leg­is­la­tion would also limit early vot­ing and re­quire post­ing on­line the names of any­one par­doned by the gov­er­nor. Josh Kaul, the in­com­ing at­tor­ney gen­eral, would also be blocked from ful­fill­ing his cam­paign pledge to with­draw the state from a law­suit against the Af­ford­able Care Act.

“Wis­con­sin has never seen any­thing like this,” Evers, the state schools su­per­in­ten­dent, said in a state­ment Wed­nes­day. “Pow­er­hun­gry politi­cians rushed through sweep­ing changes to our laws to ex­pand their own power and over­ride the will of the peo­ple. . . . Wis­con­sin val­ues of de­cency, kind­ness, and find­ing com­mon ground were pushed aside so a hand­ful of peo­ple could des­per­ately usurp and cling to power while hid­den away from the very peo­ple they rep­re­sent.”

In a state­ment, Vos, the As­sem­bly speaker, ac­cused Democrats of “ex­ag­ger­at­ing and re­sort­ing to hy­per­bole” about the leg­is­la­tion. His of­fice did not re­spond to an in­ter­view re­quest.

The sit­u­a­tion in Wis­con­sin is a con­se­quence of the height­ened po­lar­iza­tion in pol­i­tics, dur­ing which “trust be­tween par­ties has bro­ken down com­pletely,” said Wil­liam Gal­ston, a se­nior fel­low at the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion.

“One of the great prom­ises of con­sti­tu­tional democ­racy is that peo­ple will re­spect the rules and un­der­stand that within the frame­work of the rules, there will be a com­pe­ti­tion for po­lit­i­cal power and an orderly ro­ta­tion from one ma­jor­ity to the next,” said Gal­ston, who was a se­nior do­mes­tic pol­icy aide to Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton. Par­ties seek­ing only to main­tain power and change the rules will likely dam­age how vot­ers view their gov­ern­ment, he said.

“I can­not imag­ine that the his­tor­i­cally low level of pub­lic trust in gov­ern­ment in­sti­tu­tions is go­ing to be in­creased by ma­neu­vers such as this,” he said. “It is al­most bound to in­crease cyn­i­cism that pol­i­tics has more to do with a pure strug­gle for power than it does with any con­cern for the well be­ing of the pub­lic.”

In Michi­gan, mea­sures in­tro­duced last week by Re­pub­li­can law­mak­ers would di­lute the au­thor­ity of newly elected Demo­cratic lead­ers — Gov.-elect Gretchen Whit­mer, At­tor­ney Gen­eral­elect Dana Nes­sel and Sec­re­tary of State-elect Jo­ce­lyn Ben­son — on cam­paign fi­nance over­sight and other le­gal is­sues, while boost­ing power in the GOP-led leg­is­la­ture. One pro­posal sug­gested shift­ing cam­paign-fi­nance over­sight away from the sec­re­tary of state’s of­fice to a six-mem­ber bi­par­ti­san com­mis­sion. An­other would let the leg­is­la­ture step in on a state law that the at­tor­ney gen­eral may opt not to de­fend.

A spokes­woman for Ben­son — a na­tion­ally known elec­tion and cam­paign fi­nance ex­pert who ran on in­form­ing the pub­lic about such spend­ing — called the pro­posed over­sight change “an af­front to ev­ery Michi­gan tax­payer who clearly wants and de­serves a gov­ern­ment that is trans­par­ent and ac­count­able.”

Re­pub­li­can ad­vo­cates and law­mak­ers ar­gue that they are be­ing good stew­ards of gov­ern­ment and guard­ing against one party hav­ing too much power. The cam­paign-fi­nance change, which has been ap­proved by a Se­nate com­mit­tee, heads next to the full Se­nate and, if ap­proved, the Michi­gan House.

Wendy Weiser, di­rec­tor of the Democ­racy Pro­gram at the Bren­nan Cen­ter for Jus­tice at New York Univer­sity, linked the ef­forts in Wis­con­sin and Michi­gan to the erod­ing po­lit­i­cal norms seen across the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion and be­yond.

“Ex­treme wings of the GOP have pushed the en­ve­lope and are now get­ting away with things that used to be out of bounds,” Weiser said. “The or­di­nary way to re­spond to an elec­tion is to re­group and re­gain vot­ers sup­port, but the Re­pub­li­cans are now treat­ing ev­ery elec­tion as an ex­is­ten­tial threat and the guard rails have been re­moved. It’s a deep threat to our democ­racy.”

These ac­tions are also un­fold­ing quickly. In Wis­con­sin, less than a week elapsed be­tween the rough out­lines of that state’s leg­is­la­tion be­com­ing pub­lic and law­mak­ers send­ing the bill to the gov­er­nor’s desk, said Barry C. Bur­den, a pro­fes­sor of po­lit­i­cal science and di­rec­tor of the Elec­tions Re­search Cen­ter at the Univer­sity of Wis­con­sin at Madison.

“It did not look like a de­lib­er­a­tive process where the leg­is­la­ture was in­ter­ested in gath­er­ing ex­per­tise about these var­i­ous ideas and try­ing to make good pol­icy, nec­es­sar­ily,” Bur­den said.

While Vos said law­mak­ers had to re­take power from the ex­ec­u­tive branch, that same power was given to the gov­er­nor dur­ing Walker’s ten­ure, Bur­den said. The leg­is­la­ture al­lowed Walker to over­see all the ad­min­is­tra­tive rules that state agen­cies can pro­duce, giv­ing him the power to re­ject rules cre­ated by state agen­cies. The change was a way for Walker to rein in con­trol of state agen­cies, Bur­den said, and the new leg­is­la­tion would re­v­erse that for Evers.

In 2010, Walker cam­paigned on cre­at­ing an eco­nomic devel­op­ment agency tasked with bring­ing jobs to the state. It has been con­tro­ver­sial, and Evers cam­paigned on dis­man­tling and re­plac­ing it. In the bill ap­proved Wed­nes­day, the leg­is­la­ture shores up the agency by weak­en­ing Evers’s abil­ity to dis­solve it. Law­mak­ers also ex­panded the agency’s board and gave it­self the abil­ity to ap­point more peo­ple to it.

“There are quite a few of those kinds of things, where the leg­is­la­ture was quite will­ing to let the gov­er­nor have that kind of reach when it was Scott Walker, and they’re quite un­will­ing to do it now that the gov­er­nor is Tony Evers,” Bur­den said.


Robin Vos, Re­pub­li­can speaker of the Wis­con­sin State As­sem­bly, said the GOP mea­sures pro­vide op­por­tu­ni­ties “to find com­mon ground.” Crit­ics say that the Re­pub­li­cans’ pro­pos­als will weaken the au­thor­ity of the newly elected gov­er­nor and at­tor­ney gen­eral.


Protesters Peppi El­der, left, and Chris­tine Tay­lor hold signs at the state Christ­mas tree light­ing at the Capi­tol in Madison on Tues­day.

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