Monday, March 5, 2012


By Bill Kraus

Representative government is an endangered species.

Many states--most of which are in the western and mountain time zones and are relative newcomers to what is now the United States--have long ago expressed their distrust in the idea of fully empowering the representatives they elect by incorporating the populist idea of initiative and referendum in their constitutions.

Other signs that states have misgivings about the idea are the enactment of term limits for representatives and/or by keeping the pay for them so low that only the super rich or super abstemious could keep body and soul together on their legislative stipends. These measures militate against lifelong and fulltime representation.

Wisconsin has joined the list of doubters by using its loose recall process to threaten its representatives with as little as one-year terms of office if they should happen to vote in ways that ignite a movement large enough to make them run for the office they had already won again, and again, and again.

The vision of representatives threatened or cowed by a mideast kind of street protest expressed by lots of people, with blessedly fewer firearms so far anyway, has been widespread recently.

The Tea Party and Occupy movements come from different places, but have in common a clearly expressed disdain for the people who claim to represent them.

Whatever else they want, and it is not entirely clear what that may be, it is obvious that they want the people they elected to pay attention to them.

If anyone has asked the participants in these leaderless movements who they think their so-called representatives are really representing I am not aware of any cohesive or even coherent response.

It is going to be difficult for representative government to function in a world with all this static and with an electorate whose mood can best be characterized as “throw all the rascals out.”

Governing was never simple. Governing with representatives who are widely viewed as no longer responsive or even legitimate or cannot be trusted with something as basic as funding the public sector through taxes is somewhere between unwieldy and impossible. Proposition 13 in California is the poster child for the “starving the beast” school of fiscal responsibility. TABOR, wherever it shows up, is another. The Wisconsin Legislature is being asked to enact a kind of “We trust you, but not really” constitutional amendment. These come in several flavors. Vanilla says that it takes more than a majority to rule on taxes. Chocolate says that neither a majority or a super majority can rule; that tax increases must be approved by the people in a referendum.

As for me, I’m in favor of representative government. I’m in favor of the people participating by recruiting and electing the best among them to deal fully with all the matters that have devolved to the public sector, including defining what those matters are and paying for them.

If the people they elected don’t do this or do this badly, the people can resort to the classic remedy embodied in the system of representative government. They can elect someone else at the next election.

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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