Lame Duck Republican Legislature Tries to Strip Democrats’ Power in Wisconsin

Since Democrats won all statewide races in Wisconsin, the Republican strategy is to illegally erase their loss by disempowering the offices that the Democrats won. The Nation’s John Nichols discusses the situation

Lame Duck Republican Legislature Tries to Strip Democrats' Power

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Story Transcript

MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner, great having you with us.

Now, Wisconsin is one of those states with a long standing progressive tradition. It came roaring back in this last election with Democrat Tony Evers beating Scott Walker. The new AG is Democrat Josh Call. But through lots of gerrymandering and manipulations, the right wing still controls the legislature. They are pushing through legislation to diminish the power of the governor and to ensure that the new AG cannot fight for the money needed to ensure healthcare in that state. A firestorm has erupted.

And we’re joined by John Nichols, national affairs correspondent for The Nation who is also a devoted bachelor, lifelong Wisconsin person, born and bred there, and now joins us here at The Real News. And John, welcome. Good to have you with us.

JOHN NICHOLS: It’s an honor to be with you, brother.

MARC STEINER: So let’s take it from the top. Let’s hear this quick clip of the governor talking about what the legislature is trying to do, and we’ll start there. This is the clip with Governor Davis.

TONY EVERS: I am very concerned that the 2.6 million people that voted, and they represent the rest of the people of Wisconsin, did not have their voices heard because of the actions of the legislature over the past few days. All issues are on the table, whether it’s litigation or other issues. We are exploring anything to make sure that this legislation does not get into practice.

MARC STEINER: So that was Tony Evers, the governor to be, a Democrat. So what’s the backstory here, John? What happened and where are the battle lines now?

JOHN NICHOLS: Sure. The way I understand this is that, as you suggested, Wisconsin is a historically progressive state. It’s also a state that historically has been Democratic in presidential politics. And while it was a battleground at the state level between Republicans and Democrats, it was a state where there was basically a shared sense of values. And so, politics played out. One side won, the other side lost, they passed power back and forth. What happened when Scott Walker was elected governor eight years ago is that Walker and his allies in the legislature decided to play by a different set of rules. They restructured state government to make the governor dramatically more powerful. They also attacked labor unions, public services, public education, in an effort from a variety of different directions to lock in their political power and to centralize it in themselves.

And they thought they had wired things really well. Donald Trump narrowly carried the state in 2016 and a Republican was elected to the U.S. Senate, Walker had been repeatedly reelected. They basically thought they had they had changed the state. And then, in 2018 the voters didn’t just elect Tony Evers as governor, they also elected Democrats to every statewide office and to a U.S. Senate seat. So now you have a Democratic governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state, state treasurer. And in the Spring, there was the state supreme court election and a liberal won a seat that had previously been held by a conservative on the high court. So you start to get the picture here.

It’s clear that the voters of the state have moved to a different place, that they are in fact reasserting their progressive values, their progressive, Democratic leaning positions. And so, the Republicans are desperate. They’re very, very scared that all the work they had done to change the structures of the state to benefit them weren’t efficient. So they have done something quite remarkable. They took the lame duck session of the legislature, which you know, Marc, is usually used to clean up whatever lingering bits and pieces are there maybe, dot an I and cross a T. They’ve taken the lame duck session of the legislature to radically restructure the government of the state, to take a statewide constitutional office, that of attorney general, and essentially disempower it, make it little more than an extension of the legislature. I mean, the attorney general still exists, they still have some responsibilities.

But on big things like joining federal lawsuits and taking all sorts of key steps, they have to get permission from the legislature to do that. That’s never happened before. They also did a number of steps to disempower the governor, take appointment powers away from the governor, move policy, structural things, in a way that the governor doesn’t have nearly as much power. And then, finally, they locked in a whole bunch of executive orders that Scott Walker had done, making them law. And so, in the case of Tony Evers, he will become governor, A, with fewer powers than Scott Walker, but B, with many the things that he said as a candidate he would reverse now taken out of his authority. So he had said, as a candidate, I’m going to take us out of some of these federal lawsuits against the Affordable Care Act, things like that, because that’s not what the people of Wisconsin want. And now they’ve made it hard for him to do that, possibly impossible.

MARC STEINER: This is a very quick clip I want to play of Josh Kaul, who’s going to be the new attorney general of Wisconsin. Then I’ll come back and talk about what these mean and what John Nichols was just talking about.

JOSH KAUL: One of the central issues in the AG’s race and in the governor’s race was whether Wisconsin should withdraw from a lawsuit that’s seeking to invalidate the Affordable Care Act, a suit which if it’s successful, would eliminate protections for people with a preexisting condition and would eliminate the guarantee that young adults can remain on their parents’ coverage until they turn 26. At no point in the election process did anybody say the legislature might change the process so that the new governor may not be able to direct the attorney general to withdraw from that lawsuit. But now, the legislature has passed legislation that gives itself that power and takes it away from Governor-elect Evers.

MARC STEINER: So I mean, it’s almost incredulous, John, how they could actually do this, but what they’re doing is not necessarily illegal, correct?

JOHN NICHOLS: I mean, it’s complicated. It’s not illegal, because you have a term. And when you’re elected governor, when you’re elected to the legislature, your term goes to that last day. So what is referred to as a lame duck, and people I think generally understand what kind of a lame duck session is, that after an election in the United States, unlike Britain and other places, we don’t immediately transition power, we sort of clean things up, arrange for an inauguration. In that period, those who were elected still have the power to do things. It’s just that we have not, historically in Wisconsin or frankly any place else, had a situation where someone used the lame duck period to rewrite the rules in a way – not to disempower the governor or attorney general, that’s not what’s happening here – in a way to invalidate the decision of the voters. The voters elected people to do certain things, and now they’re changing the rules so that those who were elected couldn’t do it.

MARC STEINER: So two questions here. Does the governor and the newly elected people in the state, the Democrats, do they have a strong legal case? Can this be fought in the courts? I’ve been reading things saying the way the Wisconsin constitution was written makes it very difficult for them to win a case like this if they take it to the courts because of how it’s written. I mean so what –

JOHN NICHOLS: I think that there’s … And I do know the state pretty well, and I can tell you that they might have some standing and they might have … This will be fought out in the courts and there will be battles and it is possible that they could prevail in a couple of areas. At the very least, the constitution of Wisconsin has very, very clear separation powers well defined within it. And these constitutional offices are supposed to have real authority, the attorney general especially. So that is within the realm of possibility. But here’s where the problem comes in, and it is a huge problem. The state Supreme Court is elected and it has a majority that is aligned currently with Governor Walker, including a number of people that he appointed to the court. And so, you don’t have to be too cynical to worry that this Supreme Court is not necessarily going to take a bold stand in favor of separation of powers, and there’s a lot of concern there.

MARC STEINER: So when you look at it what this means in terms of the continuing political struggle in a place like Wisconsin, where the majority of people have voted in, statewide, Democrats, the legislature, through all kinds of gerrymandering and other reasons, has solid Republican control. And so, how do you see this unfolding? I mean, we saw, even though there was this huge fight with teachers and others and union people in Wisconsin, they lost that battle in part because of that. So where do you see the struggle going?

JOHN NICHOLS: Well, it’s a great question, Marc, and the answer is it’s an ongoing struggle. Now, here’s the important thing to understand. Why are they doing all this desperate stuff? Why are they literally rewriting the rules, locking in laws at the last minute, changing structures of the state? They’re doing it because they lost and they lost quite badly. And if you look at it in a narrow view, you can definitely say, well this is, A, horrible, that’s obvious. But B, it’s also kind of troublingly anti-democratic. There’s much to complain about there. But then, here’s the other part of it. In January, Tony Evers will become the governor. Josh Kaul will become the attorney general. They will have some potential legal recourse, they will also have the powers of the governorship and the attorney general’s office, which still do exist in many areas, and you’re going to see a pushback.

And they will be able, possibly, to undo some elements of this, but they also are going to have a moral high ground going into elections in 2020, perhaps even special elections in the mid-ground. That’s the political response. And then, there’s another subtlety that comes into play here. In 2020, when the census is done, there’s going to be a redrawing of legislative districts. When that happens, you will have much more competitive seats across the state. That’s a guarantee just because you have the divided power. It’ll either be decided by a compromise in the legislature or you’ll end up a court drawn map, it will be drawn up ultimately by federal judges. And so, there’s the relatively short term, not immediate, relatively short term prospect of very different politics.

And then, one final thing Marc. The governor does have the power of the pen, the budget. We have a very, very strong veto pen in Wisconsin. That has not been undone. And so, in even the early stages of his term, Tony Evers is going to be able to say to these legislators, we’re in the midst of budget negotiations here, there are things that you want. We may have to restructure some of these things that you just did. And so, it’s a real political tightrope walk. There’s going to be a pull back and forth, but it’s easy to get very cynical about this and get deeply frustrated. The one thing I would emphasize is never lose sight of the fact that the Democrats won all of the statewide races. They clearly had the wind at their back and that does provide the opportunity to push back once they get power in January.

MARC STEINER: Well, John, it’s always a pleasure to talk with you because you bring this positive light as well as deep analysis. As always, great to have you on this program and with me at a time. John Nichols, the National Affairs Correspondent for The Nation, longtime Wisconsinite, born and bred there. For generations, his family has resided in Wisconsin. Thank you for joining us, John.

JOHN NICHOLS: It’s an honor to be with you, Marc. Good luck.

MARC STEINER: Thank you. And I’m Marc Steiner, here for The Real News Network. Thanks for joining us, take care.