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.
August 21, 2011
Cates and Watergate
By Bill Kraus
One of the lessons learned at the memorial service for Dick Cates is that there is a storytelling gene. Dick was a remarkable storyteller. All four of his sons and his daughter inherited the gene. The memorial service was graced by great stories by great storytellers about their great storyteller father.
The service, the eulogies, the day were about everything about the man and inevitably stirred memories about his and Wisconsin’s role in the Watergate story.
New Jersey Representative Peter Rodino had the job of assembling the team of investigators and prosecutors to examine what would come to be known as “Watergate.” He asked Wisconsin Representative Bob Kastenmeier, another member of the House Judiciary Committee, if he knew of a lawyer with trial experience who he would recommend. Bob did. He knew Dick Cates.
Dick went to Washington D.C. and joined New Richmond, Wisconsin’s John Doar, who was the Judiciary Committee’s chief counsel. Another member of that team was a young intern from Illinois named Hillary Rodham. She was recommended by yet another Wisconsin congressional representative, Mel Laird of Marshfield.
The Wisconsinite’s role in this saga continued through the next stage when Rodino’s committee voted out the articles of impeachment on the recommendation of the staff.
Representative Harold Froehlich, a newly elected Republican from Wisconsin’s 8th district, voted in favor of the bill of impeachment which the committee sent on to the House of Representatives.
This vote cost him his seat in the Congress in the next election. A majority of his constituents disapproved of the investigation, the bill of impeachment, and, probably, President Nixon’s resignation. All of which they took out on Harold.
Everyone else from Wisconsin or with a Wisconsin connection fared better.
Due to the inevitable intervention of the law of unintended consequences, the reforms enacted in the wake of Watergate which were designed to make sure that political parties would never again be able to wield the power that attended their enormous and pretty much exclusive fundraising ability for pernicious purposes again.
What these reforms spawned was a political action committee, special interest-driven, dialing-for-dollars-by-candidate system that is ravaging politics and enslaving political candidates today.
The irony is that the latter day Dick Cates devoted considerable time and energy and brought his skills to a reform committee headed by former Chief Justice Nat Heffernan which worked tirelessly and fruitlessly trying to find a way to rid the country of what had become the illegitimate offspring of the admirable and necessary work of the Rodino Committee.
August 18, 2011
A bet's a bet
By David Blaska
Hello, everyone. My name is David Blaska. I bet Ed Garvey that Democrats would not take control of the Senate in last week’s recall elections. I won so I get to write a blog post for FightingBob.com today. If he had won he would have blogged in the space where I write Blaska's Blog for the website of the Madison weekly newspaper Isthmus.
Perhaps you saw me on the midway of the Dane County Fair. “Step right up, folks. Talk to a real, live conservative.”
Some mothers hustled their children away, admonishing them, “Don’t look, Hillary. It’s a bad man.”
Too many in Madison have never had a political conversation with a conservative. We live and work next to you folks, although we tend to keep our heads down and our mouths shut. Still, there are whole encampments of us in a place called “Waukesha County.”
We’re glad to have a black president, we just wish he wasn’t such a liberal redistributionist. It disappoints us when people cry racism rather than engage in a meaningful debate on the issues.
Banging on plastic buckets, blowing vuvuzelas and stalking Senator Grothman is not what democracy looks like to us.
We believe the Constitution means what it says. We want free speech for every citizen whether acting as individuals or in concert with others in political parties, the Sierra Club, or even corporations. We understand it takes money to disseminate that speech but supply your own. Don’t tax me to spread your message.
It does not bother us that some people live in Bishop’s Bay and some on Northport Avenue. Sacrifice, hard work, studying, saving, and obeying the law will pay off better than government dependency. We don't envy success, we want to emulate it. Nothing is too big to fail.
Most of us are not "rich." We don't know the Koch brothers. No one wants to “destroy the middle class.” If that happened, to whom would WMC-member Harley Davidson sell its motorcycles? We don’t want higher taxes but more taxpayers.
We love teachers but hate their union, which has become the most reactionary force in our society. It is troubling that they will allow 200 of their colleagues hit the unemployment line and leave their classrooms empty rather than share the small sacrifice required by this tough economy. Competition works in all marketplaces, including education. One size does not fit all.
We want what’s best for Wisconsin. We just disagree how to get there.
August 15, 2011
By Bill Kraus
The protest itself was inspiring, hopeful, and puzzling. Inspiring to see so many people so heavily engaged for whatever reason. One could hope that the era of 30-second messages and couch potatoes might be over.
It ended in a whimper not a bang when the recall elections which were the instrument chosen for a referendum on the governor, the Legislature and the radical agenda and steamroller process came up short.
There are those in the Democratic Party who think the fat lady hasn’t sung yet. They are trying to tell us that the purpose of the recalls was satisfied when two hopeless incumbents were ousted sooner rather than later and because the challengers to the four incumbents who survived actually won because they ran competitive but losing races in difficult districts. Really? Do I not hear the sound of spin doctors whistling past a graveyard.
A lot of lessons, other than that there are some things that just don’t spin, were learned.
• We learned that the voters are not as mad as some of us thought they were. Observers on all sides and on the sidelines wouldn’t have been surprised if all the rascals had been thrown out. That the voters were that angry. They weren’t and they aren’t.
• We learned that the voters are not as radical as we thought they were. On sober reflection the voters seemed to have told us that clearing the structural deficit and passing a balanced budget on time is better than the flim flam trickery that preceded it. The voters who kept the crucial four incumbents in office liked that. The defanging of the public unions and other paranoia driven issues like concealed carry and voter fraud were regarded as sideshows.
• Will we hear more about and from the public unions’ power and legitimacy? You can bet on it. One of the reasons you will is that the governor himself was willing to give up on all the things that will make life difficult for the public unions except negative checkoff during the negotiations to bring the emigrant Democrats back home. Will they ever be the 500-pound gorillas (“actually they were more like 600-pound gorillas” one former Democratic legislator told me) who subjugate some legislators and terrify the rest again? Not likely. They will not go away, however.
• The most unsurprising lesson from the recalls is the more money that goes into campaigns the more disgusting the campaigns are likely to be.
• The question whether recalls are an appropriate weapon when they are brought to bear on people and matters that don’t reach the “high crimes and misdemeanors” level which is what recalls were intended to correct seems to have been answered in the negative. The tradition of rejecting bad actors in regularly scheduled elections seems a better idea. Adding recallphobia to the long list of fears that inhibit and warp the legislative process does not get us closer to the goal of having a government that works. The below-the-radar phenomenon in legislative politics that is obscured by the steady flow of proposals that get into bill form and get introduced every year is that many legislators do not like to vote. Introducing bills is good. It creates fodder for the advertising for the next campaign. It shows action beyond mere talk on things that constituents say they want. But getting those bills to the floor where votes have to be cast brings into play one of the major differences between life in the public sector and life in the private sector. If you are selling something nobody wants in the private sector they don’t buy it. If you are voting for something nobody wants in the public sector the people who don’t want it are likely to mount a campaign against you.
Most of the veteran Democratic partisans I talked to during the recall frenzy allowed as how mass recalls looked like an opportunity that they couldn’t resist, even though it was questionable public policy.
Will recalls go back on the shelf where they belong (along with, one hopes, the overzealous use of the similarly recently abused impeachment process) to be brought into play only in extreme circumstances?
I would hope so.
Which leaves the other unaddressed and unanswered question that was raised by the winter of our discontent: What about the really remarkable thing that happened last winter. The physical protest itself. No organization. No delegates. No meetings. No agenda. Just social media and pretty raw emotions brought tens of thousands of people out of their homes into the streets and not just in politically inflammable Madison.
Given the right issue this can happen again. It could even become a standard part of political participation.
Is it a good thing? It sure is a lot better than outsourcing political activity to professional hired guns and voting for candidates based on what we hear and see on TV.
Are we in danger of becoming the Middle East where mob politics makes most of the noise and news?
Not yet. But we know the possibility lurks.
August 8, 2011
Another kind of disclosure
By Bill Kraus
One of Lee Dreyfus’s favorite quotes was, “Never underestimate peoples’ intelligence or overestimate their information.”
This is an aphorism that is currently seriously in play. Thanks to widespread dysfunction in Washington everyone now knows that the feds are like a teenager with a cellphone and no money.
Several years ago, the people began to turn their backs on the credit card life. The shift from credit cards to debit cards was pretty dramatic, except in Washington. A lot of people wonder why they get it and their leaders don’t.
The public’s possible over-reaction to public debt spawned a lot of things including giving the momentary illusion that the tea party movement had more support than it does and that the voters like people who take a hard line and won’t budge. The second take on macho politics is still underway, but doesn’t appear to be as one dimensional.
The desirable side effect of all this bickering disguised as turmoil is there is a welcome public attention to and knowledge about something more important than the social issues which once threatened to become the end-all be-all of politics.
Let’s not waste this. Let’s finish the fiscal term sheet. Let’s talk in great detail about the realities of what governments are spending all that money they get in revenues and, where it’s possible, all that money they are borrowing to meet needs that are outpacing their revenues.
This should be logical and easy. It is neither. The flow of spending information in a form that is both comprehensive and comprehensible is retarded by something called “the need to know phenomenon.”
People who are insiders often susceptible to the dark side of this phenomenon: secrecy. The more they know the more power they have. They understandably decide that those without this information do not “need to know” as much as they do, because this would dilute their power.
Government reporting with rare exceptions is generalized and incomplete as a result.
We all know, for example, that the administration of justice and the dispensing of punishment has become a very large item in the public budget. What we don’t know is who gets how big a piece of this pie. The law enforcement piece is not inconsiderable (how many citizens of the well informed city of Madison know that one half of the city budget goes for police and fire protection?). The prosecutors and judges and courts do not come free. And, worst of all, is the money being spent to incarcerate all those ruffians who threaten the peace loving majority.
Public money that flows to the medical establishment is also reported as a lump sum, an increasingly substantial one as the Wisconsin Taxpayers’ Alliance recently pointed out. We need to know more about who is getting what part of those public dollars too.
Even education spending is not reported in much detail. It is, perhaps, now more generally known that the K12 schools are getting more and more and the post high schools less and less. Beyond that we are not given the dirty details on who gets what to fundamentally make sure the next generations can take over when their time at the helm comes.
At one time in my life, I owned property in another state. My property tax bill was as long and detailed as my grocery bill when I’m stocking up for a Thanksgiving dinner for my large and nourishment needy extended family. If I wanted to know, my property tax bill told me how much I was paying for plowing, garbage collection, the parks, police protection, fire protection, and a lot more including compensating the representatives and administrators who were running the place.
This flow of information broadens the discussion to include the outgo side.
It is irresponsible to deal with taxes as something free standing which can or should be raised or reduced independent of deciding what the money is for.
We have an opportunity because of the difficult times and the difficult people we have chosen as leaders and the difficult jobs we have given them, to quit generalizing and to get specific about the two main jobs we elect politicians to do
1. Decide what role the government should play in society.
2. Decide how to pay the government for doing what we want it to do.
In great detail.