Sunday, December 18, 2011

The incredible shrinking reform agenda

By Bill Kraus

Not too long ago there were high hopes that an inventive combination of spending limits on candidates accompanied by a dose of public money into campaigns and an offset feature that would have provided matching funds to protect candidates from campaign spending by hostile, outside forces would become law in Wisconsin.

This didn’t happen. The Republicans never liked the public money idea, the Supreme Court didn’t like what they regarded as suppression of free speech, the Obama campaign passed on public financing, and free marketers everywhere, including our own Democratic Governor Doyle, didn’t support this attempt to starve the campaign beast.

The reform movement shifted to what the Republicans had said and the Supreme Court did say was the best option: disclosure. The candidates wouldn’t get any money or any protection against hijacked campaigns, but at least they would know who their enemies were. The Republicans backed off when organizations like Right to Life, which had supported them with collateral campaigns, told them their money would dry up if their donors were revealed.

The Democrats did their own number on the idea. A disclosure bill passed the state Senate over the dead body of Democratic Majority Leader Russ Decker only to be trashed for reasons that were never disclosed by the Democratic Speaker of the Assembly Mike Sheridan.

This was followed by a cavalier and casual disposal of the attempt to insulate the Supreme Court from the two 'P's of partisanship and polarization by the incoming GOP irresistible horde.

The reform agenda was suddenly two items long: redistricting and recalls.

Redistricting, because it is done by the incumbent legislators, has been turned into an effort to create as many safe seats for the party in power as possible with trade offs as needed to the minority. Because people with similar likes and tastes in politics do tend to cluster, drawing legislative district lines so every voter has a choice between a viable candidate from both parties is not feasible. What turning the line drawing over to disinterested professionals would do is take the active attempt to make districts uncompetitive out of the criteria. A worthy idea with little or no incumbent support, which makes it typical of the way reform ideas are regarded historically.

Could this happen if it wasn’t immediate, if it went into effect after the 2010 census? Only if the people want it enough to make it a campaign issue--okay, topic---and the current majority realizes the other guys may be in power in 10 years so what the hell.

Recall mania if it maintains its current feverish pitch will lay the key feature of the parliamentary system on our representative system. The parliamentary system reacts to policy decisions by calling elections unpredictably and more or less frequently on the basis of what is perceived as bad or misguided policy. The representative system takes care of this in regularly scheduled elections. There is a recall option in our Constitution, but it has traditionally been reserved for misconduct by individual officeholders.

The argument is made that the current flurry does deal with misconduct not policy, and to some extent the rush to legislate in the wake of the 2010 election was at least unseemly and trod pretty roughly over niceties like hearings and secrecy. At it roots, however, the amazing reaction to the legislation rushed through by the Fitzwalker combine in early 2011 was mostly about policy.

What may or may not make the diminished reform agenda is the question of whether parliamentarizing a representative system is workable and desirable.

I don’t think so. It’s on my reform agenda.

And yours?

Follow Bill Kraus on:
twitter / wmkraus

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

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