Don’t give Republicans an opening to yet again meddle with the separation of powers. (Image via Wikimedia Commons.)
The conversation about Wisconsin Republicans possibly limiting Governor-elect Tony Evers’ powers before he takes office is already sliding out of control. GOP leadership in the state legislature hasn’t yet introduced an actual bill to enact a predictable North Carolina-style lame-duck change in the structure of state government, but Democrats are giving them too much breathing room to try and sell a policy proposal that would create a crisis of legitimacy.
Republicans haven’t managed to offer a justification for it that holds up, and they can’t, because it’s about raw power and sticking it to their opponents. (While there are technically legal ways to do this, it’s corrosive to the functioning of a democracy and public faith in representative government.) GOP Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, a grown adult in charge of a legislative body, is talking some incredible gibberish about how lawmaking works, telling the Associated Press’ Scott Bauer that he doesn’t want Evers “to be able to walk in on day one and with the stroke of a pen undo things that the vast majority of the public supports and the Legislature and the governor signed into law.”
Of course, Vos knows that dismantling a law the Legislature passed would require, uh, the Legislature to actually repeal it, and that Wisconsin governors don’t have magic pens, even after the expansion of executive powers that Vos has been enabling over the past eight years. Chances are Vos is less worried about Evers undoing broad swaths of right-wing legislation—Evers will still be up against a Republican-dominated legislature, after all—than he is that Evers will direct state agencies to actually enforce what remains of Wisconsin’s environmental and consumer-protection laws.
What’s worse is that Evers, after initially warning Republicans not to weaken the powers of the governor’s office before he is sworn in, has told the Wisconsin State Journal he won’t draw a “red line” on any such proposals. Wisconsin Public Radio this week described Evers’ comments on the controversy as “low-key.” Even the toughest talk Evers and his camp have brought to this issue doesn’t quite do justice to how dangerous Republican leadership in Wisconsin really is.
This puts Evers and his supporters on a feeble footing. He needs to declare that it’s unacceptable for the legislature and outgoing Gov. Scott Walker to throw a wrench into the one branch of state government that’s not egregiously gerrymandered or packed with ethically shady far-right judges, and he needs to frame the Republican proposal not as “divisive” or as “partisan” but as an outright attack on good government. Every time he talks about it. When he goes “low-key” on this, Evers is basically inviting Republicans to have a polite debate about how they’d like to pull the rug out from under Wisconsin voters. There is no good reason to give them that opening.
Evers and Lieutenant Governor-elect Mandela Barnes should be personally calling for Wisconsinites in Republican-held state Senate and Assembly districts to voice their opposition to any last-minute changes to gubernatorial powers. If you’re in those districts and you voted for Evers, you should be making phone calls or paying visits to your legislators’ district or capitol offices.
As Dave Cieslewicz has observed in Isthmus, Evers is “powerless to do anything but try to rally public opposition.” Well, organizing power is not nothing, especially for people who just toppled a ruthless, disciplined right-wing poster boy. If citizens and Democratic politicians can convince a few Republican legislators that there would be a political cost to supporting the kind of measure Vos is talking about, the proposal might fizzle out for lack of votes. Evers is going to need to do this kind of work anyway over the next four years if he wants to get Republican legislators to work with him on anything.
We’re constantly told that the point of electing Evers was to restore unity and civility to state government. Evers plays that part well enough, and he comes across as a warm, mild-mannered person who genuinely wants to make Wisconsin a better place. It’ll be nice to have a governor who embodies kindness and generosity, rather than sociopathic ambition in a folksy costume. But Evers owes it to his supporters, especially voters in Milwaukee County who overcame years of voter suppression and political fatigue to put him over the top, to get aggressive about what Republicans are plotting.
The real point of electing Evers should be rolling back Republicans’ efforts to insulate elected officials from accountability. Drawing red lines is exactly what Evers should be doing. Before Republicans can roll out their plan and try to sell it to the public (to the extent that they even care about doing that anymore), Evers should say specifically what changes would be unacceptable, which at the very least would allow Democrats to frame the debate for once, instead of getting trapped in Republicans’ framing.
And the framing will come pretty soon. While Republicans have not yet announced all the specifics of a governor-weakening bill, chances are they have plenty of specific ideas about what they’d want to prevent the Evers administration from doing. Vos did say this week that he wants to limit Evers’ ability to appoint board members to the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation. That sounds like small potatoes on its face, but it would insulate an agency that has bungled millions of dollars in government-funded loans and created a moronic ad campaign aimed at getting young workers to move to Wisconsin—and, despite its poor record, is in charge of overseeing the state’s multi-billion dollar handout to Foxconn. Even a few underhanded tweaks the mechanics of state government can make a big difference.
The outgoing governor has yet to weigh in, because Scott Walker doesn’t take a stance on anything until he’s had a few days to let his donors pump their wishes into his sad pickled egg of a skull. But he and Republican legislators know they don’t have much time to pass a bill. If Republicans somehow didn’t already have some kind of language drafted to curb a Democratic governor’s powers before last week’s election, I’ll eat a shoe. And don’t be shocked if some of the proposed changes are more strident than WEDC board appointments—these are, after all, the final days of the “drop the bomb” governor, and he’s not going to be content with just sitting around tweeting Bible verses.
Legitimate, responsive government is more important than the nebulous value of civility. Oh, and by the way, people who want more civility aren’t going to get it by letting Republicans walk all over them. In fact, rightist attacks on the legitimacy of our institutions, not to mention on basic civic concepts like the separation of powers, only help to sow more anger, resignation, and cynicism among the electorate.
The only “civil” political landscape worth having is a stable, responsive one, not one that legislators can rip up and reconstitute on a vindictive whim. Those of us who are glad to see Walker gone need to make sure this counts. That means we need to hold Evers accountable and make sure he stands up for the constituencies who put him in office. This is a good place to start.
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