Monday, July 16, 2012

Recalling lessons from history

By Bill Kraus

The current edition of the State of Wisconsin Blue Book features an excellent essay by John Buenker describing the accomplishments of the 1911 state Legislature and then-Governor Francis McGovern. What they did was enact almost the entire Robert La Follette agenda. They did this despite the fact that the Legislature, which was composed of Socialists, Social Democrats, Democrats, Progressive Republicans, and stalwart Republicans appeared to be almost as dysfunctional as today’s.

The populist La Follette not surprisingly had recommended initiative, referendum, and no-fault recall additions to the state Constitution. All passed. All were subsequently rejected when submitted to popular votes in 1914.

Ten years later no-fault recall was resubmitted, passed, and approved. The motivation at the time was purely political. The progressive Republicans feared that the stalwart Republicans would reverse what had been done in 1911 once Fighting Bob was gone.

The recall deterrent either worked or was unnecessary.

It had been more or less dormant until the recall epidemic of 2011 and 2012 took over politics in Wisconsin.

The results of this outburst are debatable and debated. The most unexpected result of the gubernatorial recall is that the voters, not unlike the voters of 1914, expressed serious misgivings about the idea of recall itself.

But it is still there.

I thought that the reaction to the disruption and the distaste would prompt immediate action to restrain at least and maybe even eliminate the recall option, and we would revert to the more judicial impeachment process to deal with public brigandry. I thought the iron was hot.

The governor in his final debate before the recall election, in an answer to a different question, went out of his way to denounce no-fault recall and suggest that making changes would be a priority if he survived, which he did.

Joint Finance Committee co-chair Representative Robin Vos had already introduced a joint resolution that would have made recall a process used to punish malfeasance in office.

The silence from both sources in the wake of the June election has been deafening.

Two consecutive sessions of the Legislature and a popular vote are necessary to modify or remove the recall provision of the Constitution. The first step could be taken in a special session this summer or in the fall during a lame duck session. No one in a position to take this step is showing any interest in doing so. Quite the contrary.

I am no fan of the excessive populism which I think no-fault recall is. The disruption of the governing process and the divisiveness of an already seriously segmented representative government are exacerbated by the specter of a repeat of the frenzied recall year.

I want the 1914 electorate back, the electorate that came down firmly and decisively in favor of representative government despite its shortcomings.

Those voters and the voters of 2012 said, in effect if not in fact, that government by recall is worse.

Does anyone with a hand on the levers of power agree?

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

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