December 26, 2011
What 'government-by-recall' begets
By Bill Kraus
The recall frenzy is either a grassroots reaction to an abuse of power by a radical group or it is an unjustified expansion of what the recall provision of the Constitution intended to be a response to personal perfidy into policy disagreement.
If the latter, it is a dangerous departure from the design of our system into something approaching those parliamentary democracies where governments are overturned on bad or unpopular decisions not bad behavior.
Our response to bad decisions has been to throw the rascals out at the next election. The expanded recall definition/option throws them out immediately.
Justified or not, this clearly changes the way we do business in this country. Elections here are for stated terms. In the parliamentary system, elections are mostly indeterminate in length. Usually, new elections are called when those in power wear out their welcome or don’t produce the expected results. They could also be a response to abuses of power or other mis- or malfeasance.
So the decision to recall has much less to do with Governor Walker and the lemmings who came to office on the tsunami of 2010 than with whether we want our elected representatives to be more immediately responsive to a kind of non-stop popularity rating and reacting.
We are getting lots of indications from the tea partiers and the occupiers that there is something amiss in the current system. Even the less noisy among us must wonder from time to time just who our representatives are representing since they surely do not seem to be representing us.
Do we want them on a shorter leash?
Are we sure who will be on the other end of that leash?
The way elections are decided these days it is a pretty sure thing that interest groups with causes and lots of money are not going to be disenfranchised in a recall world.
Other moves in other places to make politics more populous-driven where initiative and referendum laws permit direct intervention in the legislative process do not seem to have been as people-centered as predicted. As a former governor of Wisconsin once said, “The golden rule of politics is that them with the gold make the rules.”
I am less convinced than others that money is the whole thing, but it is certainly a very big part of what our politics has become.
Putting that aside for the nonce, an even stronger argument against government-by-recall is that it will surely dull daring and creativity which are always in short supply.
We have learned that elections have consequences. Recall elections do too. Including having long tails. Do we really want them as a routine part of the governing system?
I don’t think so.
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.
December 15, 2011
A tax break the 1% doesn’t want you to know about
By Rep. Mark Pocan
Did you know corporations can deduct up to $1 million of their CEOs pay from their corporate income tax?
It is simply wrong that corporations can deduct up to $1 million of their CEOs pay on their income taxes while they get away with paying other workers less than family-supporting wages.
If we are going to create a level playing field where everyone can achieve the American Dream, we must change the way we do business in America. Recently, the Congressional Budget Office articulated the wage gap. Since 1979, according to the CBO, income for the richest one percent has increased 275 percent, compared to 18 percent for the remaining 99 percent of Americans.
That isn't right. And I didn't think this was right in 1999, when I was a freshman in the State Assembly. That's when I first introduced the Wisconsin Income Equity Act, a bill based on federal legislation (HR 382). My bill would limit government tax deductions to corporations with inflated CEO pay if that company doesn't also fairly compensate the little guy too.
Rather than the current $1 million deduction, corporations would be allowed to qualify for a deduction up to 25 times its lowest paid full-time employee. Thus, if the lowest paid employee earned $15,000 per year, the corporations would be allowed to claim a $375,000 deduction.
I’m happy to announce the Wisconsin Income Equity Act (AB356/SB-250) recently got some good news from the Department of Revenue. According to the Department of Revenue’s speculation based on the best available federal tax returns, the bill will close a $13 million corporate tax loophole each year for the state, unless corporations start paying the 99 percent (a.k.a. their employees) a fairer wage.
But will Republicans actually take a vote in favor of tax fairness for the 99 percent?
Let’s see if Republicans side with the 99 percent or the 1 percent. My hope is that we will be surprised. My guess is that we won’t.
December 11, 2011
The moderates' dilemma
By Bill Kraus
Judging from the ideas being forwarded and the appeals being made by candidates today it is easy to conclude that the moderates are being marginalized at best, ignored at worst.
Candidates who had the problem of being attractive enough to win the primaries, where immoderates and immoderation are disproportionately represented, without poisoning the general election well don’t appear to be worried about that as much anymore.
Those who vote in primaries are no longer regarded as a stepping stone to the general election. They have become the main event.
This is not surprising at the legislative level, where partisan redistricting has made most general elections irrelevant. Statewide and even presidential candidates are behaving as if that is true in their elections as well.
Candidates who were trying to win nominations in primaries where “the base” and the once taken-for-granted yellow dogs (a yellow dog for the uninitiated is a Republican who would vote for a yellow dog before he would vote for a Democrat, and vice versa) had to be careful not to go so far off to the right or left that they couldn’t get back to the middle to win those crucial votes in the general election. They don’t seem to worry about that anymore.
The Republican moderates of an earlier time believed that the public sector had a legitimate role to play in society, but not the lead role. They liked frugality and competence and were mildly libertarian. They were regulation averse but not anarchistic. They were leery of flights of fancy like wars on poverty and they were wary not cavalier about using the military as instruments of policy.
As the battle for power shifted to the primaries, subtleties like these have given way to behavioral issues, polarization, partisanship, my way or no way, and the whole gestalt of the true believers who are more sure of everything than moderates tend to be of anything.
I happen to believe that the moderates are still there and in numbers significant enough to determine election results statewide, and in the few remaining congressional and state legislative districts that are not hard-wired for candidates of one party or the other.
These moderates are, in short, still worth catering to and worrying about. They are not wedded to conservative ideologies. They do not think that any one thing is the whole thing. They adhere to the Ed Koch rule: ”If you agree with me on 9 out of 12 issues, you should vote for me. If you agree with me on all 12, you should see a psychiatrist.” They do not use litmus tests. They do not suffer fools or foolish ideas.
I still think that the biggest political risk is not offending the single-issue zealots or the rabid “base” voter. The biggest risk is chasing away the mild, moderate, more reasoned and reasonable voters in the middle who want nothing more complicated than a government that works and candidates who will use the powers of their offices to achieve that worthy end.
December 6, 2011
Madison Alive and Livid!
By Daniel Kunene
I could smell my neighbors’ sweat
So could they mine as we jostled
Inside the People’s State Capitol
To defend the workers’ unions so democracy should prevail
I could hear the growing volume of discontent
As we called in one voice that
Workers’ power to negotiate be deemed sacred
So democracy should prevail
I could hear my neighbors’ shouts mingling with my own
To open the ears of arrogant power
That said defiantly: “Let them eat cake!”
As their children’s stomachs rumbled for lack of food
As we insisted that true democracy remain
I could feel my neighbor’s warmth
As he reached out with his hand
Embracing mine in solidarity
For one more difficult step we were yet to climb
For he and I and all of us demanded
That democracy should prevail
From the clutches of those determined
To walk blindfolded to the edge of a cliff
December 4, 2011
By Bill Kraus
I know, I know. It isn’t perfect. It never was. There were always representatives who represented something other than the people who elected them. Like money. Or even something purely self serving.
With “advantage” redistricting doing maximum damage, there are more and more “representatives” who represent a segment or two of the electorate and markedly fewer representatives who believe that while they were undeniably elected by a percentage of the voters they represent everyone in the district they were elected to represent.
These untoward trends and developments are naturally exacerbated when the representatives of one party win majorities in both houses and control the executive office as well.
The question then is whether the two main ideas being used to offset these inherent flaws in this imperfect system are really improvements.
The first and most longstanding idea is something called “Initiative and Referendum.” It is on display in various incarnations in various places. It is running amok in California. The ballots are big city phone book size in that state to accommodate all the referendi that are seeking enactment outside of the representative system. “The people,” we are told, are active participants in the process.
If this is true, the people need a short course in consistency. In California, to cite only one of several aberrations, “the people” put a cap on spending on education while mandating smaller class sizes which inevitably require an increase of the education budget.
On closer examination it becomes obvious that this is not “the people” speaking after all. It is the anti-tax anarchists with their money and the education organizations with theirs. Both seem to have won. Unfortunately, California has lost. The best ads and the biggest spending prevail. And the winners are...TV stations and professional campaign organizations.
I concede that as I have pushed the Sisyphean rock of campaign reform up the legislative mountain over the non-dead bodies of recalcitrant Republicans and duplicitous Democrats I have wished for a route around them. I have concluded the initiative and referendum price is too high.
The other, more recent, movement comes out of the Wisconsin winter of our discontent protests of 2011. Its proponents say that government by recall is a way for “the people” to participate more fully in their democracy and also a way around the invincible, insular representatives who are representing their own interests (and the people who fund their campaigns) instead of the voters who elected them and the people they are elected to represent.
Recall number one failed in its objectives to a.) reclaim a majority in the state Senate for the Democrats and b.) punish those Democrats for decamping to Illinois to fully disrupt the process of representative government.
Recall number two is an expensive, time-consuming, distracting effort to remove the governor for his excesses in his use of the extraordinary powers that devolved on him and his office in the 2010 election.
There is a recall number three possibility afoot as well, which would target legislative miscreants of both parties for as yet unnamed sins of commission or omission.
The assertion is that all of this activity will improve representative government. I doubt it. What it will improve, of course, is the economic well being of the same TV stations and professional campaigners who are routinely enriched in California.
To misquote Winston Churchill, “Representative government is the worst possible system except for all those other systems.”