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Democrats continue legislative gridlock

By Jacob Stampen

The column below reflects the views of the author, and these opinions are neither endorsed nor supported by WisOpinion.com.

The 2009-10 Wisconsin state Legislature concluded its regular session in late April with a most definite thud.

Democrats entered the session last January with high hopes, controlling both houses of the Legislature and the executive branch for the first time since 1985.

As a longtime student of legislative voting behavior, I had hoped this single-party control would temper the extreme divisiveness that had characterized preceding legislatures and finally lead to vitally important issues getting serious attention.  

Instead, the leaders of the new majority party continued the practices of their predecessors with an unfortunate new twist.

The Republican-controlled 2003 and 2005 legislatures were classic examples of "oppositionist gridlock," as was the GOP-run 2007 Assembly and slightly less so the Democrat-controlled 2007 Senate.

Rather than moving in a healthy new direction, the leaders of the new majority party combined features of less-desirable legislative types. This became evident when majority party leaders decided, in a rather massive way, to mix fiscal and non-fiscal measures in the biennial budget bill.  

Hypothesized reasons for doing so were that majorities in both the Senate (18 to 15) and the Assembly (52 to 46 with one independent) weren't that large.  Issue-bundling would make it easier to hold members together.  It would also avoid conflict with special interest groups that would arise if the non-budget issues were introduced as separate bills. In addition, the minority party elected its most militant members to lead them, so it seemed that gridlock would continue no matter what the Democrats did.

Critics of the bundling approach argued Democrats had enough votes to pass important issues as separate bills and that this would yield legislative achievements that could help Democrats win election in the fall of 2010. Moreover, a multi-faceted budget bill would do much to perpetuate the same kind of feeling that contributed to Republicans losing the Senate in 2006 and the Senate and Assembly in 2008.  

This special interest-driven gridlock, as I refer to it, has bred a high degree of enmity between Democrats and Republicans in recent years. The correlation between partisan lobby ratings and party membership is almost perfectly negative in the Assembly and also almost as negative in the Senate.  Republicans are rated very positively and Democrats very negatively by Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, Wisconsin Right to Life, and the National Rifle Association. Democrats are rated very positively and Republicans very negatively by the AFL/CIO, the Wisconsin Education Association Council, National Right to Life, and the League of Conservation Voters. Sadly, polarized lobby ratings correspond with polarized voting on bills.

Who made the best call on what the Democrat-controlled 2009-10 Legislature should do, the legislative leaders or their critics?

From the legislative leaders' perspective, their strategy led to important accomplishments.  

They did succeed in passing a budget on time, rather than after every other state, as happened in 2007.  As of April 23 of this year, 101 Senate bills and 88 Assembly bills were enacted into law, plus several resolutions, some of which were uncontested or only lightly contested.  

Many bills were essentially edits of existing laws that provided necessary updates to consumer and environmental protections, health care enhancements, licensing requirements, and tax incentives aimed at increasing the number of jobs in the midst of a major economic downturn.  

Some of the bills that passed may even be widely felt, even after being watered down by special interest lobbying. These include authorizing the Department of Public Instruction to intervene in Milwaukee and other failing school districts (SB437), restrictions on pay day lending (SB530), the Badger Care Basic Health Plan (SB484), a ban on smoking within public buildings (SB181), a ”Shield Law” journalists can use to protect the anonymity of news sources (AB333), and a bill clarifying and public financing for state Supreme Court elections (AB913).

There were also difficult-to-judge outcomes.  Battles pitted legislators supported by narrowly focused unions against lawmakers supported by narrowly focused business groups, large and small. Alexis de Tocqueville long ago observed that “whenever two Americans meet they form an association and start lobbying for something.”  Indeed, lobbyists can provide vital information about constituent needs that often can't be obtained by any other means.  But there's a big difference between lobbying that is driven by local constituents and that driven by major special interests.  De Tocqueville argued that bottom–up lobbying enables democracy to succeed.  Big time lobbying appears mainly to breed gridlock.

Sixty-seven Assembly bills were so fiercely fought over that only a handful of votes decided their outcomes. Most fiercely contested was the biennial budget (AB75), which although aided by a great deal of federal money only available this year still left the state with an estimated $2.7 billion shortfall.  According to the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, Wisconsin’s fiscal crisis spans Republican- and Democrat-led state governments and predates problems affecting the national economy. The current shortfall, plus continuous and growing shortfalls since 1999, caused the Pew Center on the States to rate Wisconsin, formerly famous for great public policy debates and good government, among the nation’s top 10 states in fiscal peril.  

Other legislation attracting vehement opposition from Republicans included bills making 5-year-old kindergarten a prerequisite to entering first grade (AB119), providing instruction in human growth (AB458), regulating diploma mills (SB431), making school aid payments (SB232), the already-mentioned bill authorizing DPI to intervene in failing schools (SB437) and teaching labor history and collective bargaining in public schools (AB172).

Similar battles were fought over health care: Badger Care Plus Basic (SB484), prescriptions for certain antimicrobials (SB460), assisting individuals to obtain and maintain health care benefits (AB878), and constructing a rural dental education facility in Marshfield (SB656). And so it went on and on for similar numbers of bills related to commerce such as funding a Public Service Commission intervener (AB689), or for labor such as prohibiting employment discrimination (SB585), or for justice such as public financing for state Supreme Court races (SB40), or for government operations such as regulating county and city campaign finances (AB619), or for the environment such as the appointment of the Department of Natural Resources Secretary (AB138).  

At this point, it's difficult to assess how many of these bills that finally became law were well enough designed and/or funded to yield desired outcomes. And it's difficult to imagine how opposition, often raging over emotion inducing slogans rather than facts, could do anything but erode the quality of legislation.

In the end, very few bills attracted bipartisan support. At the beginning of 2010, some students of the Legislature thought the issue of whether the DNR secretary should be appointed by the governor or appointed by the more politically insulated Natural Resources Board could be one of those unusual issues that transcended party and broke the gridlock that has dominated Wisconsin politics during this century’s first decade. The bill was different than others since it attracted Democratic and Republican support on both sides of the issue. But then 22 groups representing business and agricultural interests, including WMC, the Wisconsin Realtors, the Wisconsin Builders Association, and the Metropolitan Milwaukee Chamber of Commerce -– not to mention conservative Milwaukee talk radio -- registered opposition.  Fourteen organizations, including 10 environmental groups -- among them the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters, the League of Women Voters, the Citizens Utility board, and the AFT -- registered support.  After that, Republicans and Democrats, with very few exceptions, responded in ways that made it difficult to differentiate between that bill and any other gridlocked bill.

Senate Democrats were as tightly united in supporting the bills they initiated, virtually all of them, as their counterparts in the Assembly.  Four bills split Democrats: sale of unpasteurized milk (SB434), extraterritorial plat approval on the basis of land use (AB260), creating renewable resource credits for electricity providers (SB273), and legislation affecting collection agencies (SB286) Otherwise, Democrats voted as a bloc.  

The most important failure of the 2009-10 Legislature was the same as its predecessor legislatures; it failed to attack the really big issues that have been dogging the state for years: ending major budget deficits, improving working relationships between state and local governments and reforming K-12 and higher education finance, transportation, and taxation. Last, but not least, of long-neglected issues: fixing our dysfunctional politics.  

Wisconsin’s gridlocked political system has become an insurmountable obstacle to the timely and effective resolution of important issues.  The current system isn’t working. It is insane, as the old saying goes, to do the same things over and over again and expect the outcome to be different. Gridlock must be broken and bottom-up politics restored if we want a bright future for the people of Wisconsin.

Democrats made the mistake of continuing the dysfunctional practices of their predecessors after they gained majorities in both houses following the 2008 election.  The next legislature must not repeat that mistake.

-- Stampen is professor emeritus in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and a former policy analyst at the National Center for Higher Education in Washington, D.C. His ongoing statistical study of legislative voting behavior began as a doctoral dissertation in 1969 and has continued since then focusing either on the Wisconsin legislature or the U.S. Congress. See more at http://www.education.wisc.edu/elpa/people/faculty/stampen.html

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