Sunday, August 28, 2011

The road to dysfunction

By Bill Kraus

From polarization to dysfunction turns out to be a short trip. A short trip that everybody seems to be taking in Wisconsin.

Even the state Supreme Court, whose members are elected as non partisans, has developed an “aisle” that is as wide or wider than those in both houses of the intentionally partisan Legislature. Outside forces are more in evidence than ever in Supreme Court elections, and outside forces do not come in search of things like dispassion, fairness or openness. They come in search of favor. Are they getting what they come for? Can we predict the vote on politically tinted issues that come before this “fact and law driven body”? Does a chicken have lips?

A call is issued for new solutions to the troubles that assail the state government’s primary responsibility: educating its citizens. The organization that represents the teachers who are mainly responsible for delivering on that state obligation turns down their invitation to sit at the table with the lawmakers who will put up the money to do what those at the table decide to do. “We don’t see any reason to discuss and negotiate with people who have vowed to destroy our organization,” they say, not without justification. This begins to sound a lot more like Israel and Palestine than Wisconsin.

A very well funded and single-minded organization called The Club for Growth decides that Tommy Thompson, whose extraordinary reign as governor was based on his “big tent” view of the job and of the people he led for all those years, is not who should represent Wisconsin in the U.S. Senate. Whoever calls the shots for this organization and puts up the money for their communications is suspected of favoring either Speaker Fitzgerald or former Congressman Mark Neumann to succeed Herb Kohl. Since either’s path to election could be blocked by a Thompson candidacy the Club puts its considerable resources into play early and often to clear the path for their favorite(s).

A probably ill-advised and enormously expensive recall summer does not produce the results that those who signed petitions and those who organized those nine campaigns wanted or expected. What was in play was control of the state Senate. The Democrats, whose cause was advanced by a gift of two seriously wounded incumbents, needed to win one more election to get control of that body. The Republicans wanted to punish the Democrats who fled the state to forestall a vote on the budget repair bill which prompted huge protests and set off the recall summer itself. What both got is what neither expected or wanted. They got Senator Dale Schultz, who was the only Republican to vote against the inflammatory aforementioned bill and who was a pariah in the Republican Senate caucus as a result, as a kind of majority of one in the state Senate. Senator Schultz may or may not be joined by emboldened moderates who were subjected to these brutal elections, but even if he isn’t the state Senate is no longer a slam dunk for anything the governor or the majority leader proposes. It is now, thanks to the law of unintended consequences, officially dysfunctional.

And hanging over this polarized, dysfunctional war of mutual destruction is the prospect of a gubernatorial recall and recalls of senators and Assembly representatives who become eligible for recall early in January. Do we begin to look more like the British parliamentary system than the American representative democracy? We do.

What is possible is dysfunction in perpetuity. Unless, of course, the money to fund this nonsense, the voters to propel it, and the public’s presumed appetite for more of the same all go away.

Follow Bill Kraus on:
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Bill Kraus is the Co-Chair of Common Cause in Wisconsin's State Governing Board

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