Skip to content

Wisconsin GOP’s Lame-Duck Play: ‘A New Philosophy of Governing’

Democrats’ wins do not prevent late play to curtail their authority in new year

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, center, lost his bid for re-election in November, but the Republican Legislature has passed legislation curtailing the authority of his Democratic successor and the incoming Democratic attorney general.  (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, center, lost his bid for re-election in November, but the Republican Legislature has passed legislation curtailing the authority of his Democratic successor and the incoming Democratic attorney general.  (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Scott Walker era in Wisconsin is ending much as it began: With a controversial effort to weaken his political opponents that attracted protests and a national spotlight to Madison.

Tuesday, protestors continued to disrupt an extraordinary session of the state Legislature but didn’t change the outcome as both chambers moved to approve a GOP bill to enhance the Legislature’s power at the expense of Democratic Gov.-elect Tony Evers, who defeated Walker in the Republican’s attempt at winning a third term last month, and Attorney General-elect Josh Kaul. Republicans maintained control of both legislative chambers in the Nov. 6 elections.

After a combative, all-night session, the state Senate voted 17-16 early Wednesday morning to approve the bill with just one Republican voting against it. The Assembly followed, voting 56-27 to pass and send the bill to the governor’s desk.

The episode comes two years after Republicans in North Carolina’s legislature made a similar gambit, enacting limits on the incoming Democratic governor’s authority that are still being challenged in courts.

Republican leaders in Michigan have also been criticized following the 2018 elections for aiming to limit state authority over clean water enforcement — a central campaign issue for Democrats who won in November — on their way out of office.

“North Carolina in 2016 started the roadmap that other Republican-dominated states are following,” said Kathleen Dolan, who is chairwoman of the political science department at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. “We’ve seen an increasing evolution in take-no-prisoners partisan politicking and using every lever of power. This is part and parcel of a new philosophy of governing.”

As amended, the Wisconsin bill would require legislative approval for the state to back out of a federal lawsuit. The initial version of the bill had also allowed legislative leaders to hire their own attorneys to work on behalf of the state, but that provision was removed in an amendment overnight. Backing out of a lawsuit challenging the 2010 federal health care law had been a major campaign issue for Evers and Kaul.

It would also weaken the governor’s oversight of a controversial state economic development corporation by giving the Legislature the power to appoint some members. Evers said during the campaign he would disband the organization.

Carrie Lynch, a spokeswoman for Evers, said the governor-elect was eager to avoid litigation but didn’t rule it out. Negotiations among Senate Republicans continued late into Tuesday night, indicating the caucus, which holds an 18-15 edge over Democrats, was trying to find a unified position.

“We’ll have to see what they pass and we’re hopeful that cooler heads will prevail,” Lynch said when asked what Evers’ next step would be.

Democrats in the statehouse were apoplectic over the session’s agenda, saying it contradicted the will of the voters.

“When you’re passing laws that undermine a democratically elected governor and attorney general, it’s no longer a democracy,” Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz said in a phone interview. “These people are sore losers . . . It’s exactly what people hate about politics and it’s exactly why people have no confidence in government to address the public’s best interests.”

The move would have a “toxic effect” on the Legislature moving forward, he added, making it more difficult for lawmakers to work with a new governor to address relatively nonpartisan issues.

Walker has not explicitly endorsed the bills, but indicated to reporters he’d support it.

“The governor will review the legislation if it gets to his desk,” Walker spokesman Tom Evens said on Tuesday. “That’s all we’re going to say.”

Phone and email messages to the offices of Republican legislative leaders, Sen. Scott Fitzgerald and Assembly Speaker Robin Voss, were not returned.

What Will Voters Do?

Protestors in Wisconsin have flooded the state Capitol this week, chanting slogans during Senate proceedings. A public hearing on Monday lasted nearly nine hours, with the testimony from the public overwhelmingly against the GOP agenda.

The protests were reminiscent of a scene in 2011, just after Walker took office, when he pushed a bill to reduce the power of public-sector unions. The move led to a recall effort, but the outrage among Democrats didn’t translate into electoral success, as Walker survived, won re-election and the GOP maintained majorities in both chambers that still exist.

The same could happen with the current fight, said Brandon Scholz, a Republican strategist in Wisconsin. The perceived power grab will likely motivate the Democratic base, but Republicans may also point to the breach of decorum by protestors, he said, adding that by the 2020 elections, much of the details will have faded anyway.

“If you use Act 10 [the 2011 anti-union bill] as a marker, and you go back to what happened around here . . . with all that went on, Scott Walker won the recall election handily and no legislative seats really changed hands,” Scholz said. “Nothing really became of it. ”

Much of the current controversy amounts to “inside baseball,” in the words of Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, that hasn’t broken through with much of the voting public.

Still, even if voters in North Carolina didn’t understand every nuance of the legislature’s play in the 2016 lame-duck session, Democratic-leaning voters had a sense Republicans overreached, said Thomas Mills, a Democratic strategist in that state. There was no statewide race at the top of the ticket on Nov. 6, but Democrats flipped 10 state House seats and six Senate seats — enough to break GOP supermajorities.

“It’s going to energize [Democrats] a hell of a lot more than it’s going to energize the Republicans trying to hold onto some of their gains,” Mills said of Wisconsin. “The Republican base may like that but it’s not the thing that gets them going. It’s easier to motivate people to vote against stuff than for stuff, and voting against a Republican that’s trying to steal your majority … is a far more motivating factor.”

In Michigan, the Republican-controlled state Legislature is pushing a measure through its lame-duck session aimed at placing limits on what science the incoming Democratic governor can use when creating chemical clean-up standards.

The measure, which would require regulators to only accept studies used by the Environmental Protection Agency, which under the Trump administration is rejecting previously accepted studies that cite proprietary data, is believed by activists to be fast-tracked so it can make it to Republican Gov. Rick Snyder’s desk before Democratic Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer takes office.

The bill is moving fast; it was introduced Nov. 29, reported out of committee Tuesday morning and passed that afternoon by the full Senate, where Republicans have a 22-16 majority.

Advocates said they are unsure of the bill’s prospects in the House, where Republicans hold a 58-52 edge. However, they said they are shaken by the urgency of Republicans legislating environmental policy during the lame-duck after Democrats won in Michigan campaigning largely on environmental issues like clean water.

“I’m just shocked by the way that Republicans in Michigan are handling this issue. It seems really tone-deaf. It seems really out of step with where the public is,” said Bob Allison, deputy director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters. “The public just elected candidates across the board who are talking about this issue and then the first order of business after the election is to gut clean-up standards.”

Jael Holzman contributed to this report.

Recent Stories

Supreme Court backs South Carolina’s congressional map

Capitol Ink | Legal benefit of marriage

‘We have half a piece of art’: Chris Murphy continues quest to reinstall Calder clouds

Florida’s Rick Scott enters race to be next Senate GOP leader

Louisiana abortion drug bill latest front in post-Dobbs fight

Capitol Lens | Grant-ing access