After a series of closed-door meetings earlier in the week, on Thursday, the first day of business of the 2013-2014 legislative session, Wisconsin State Assembly representatives voted to change some of the rules that govern that body. Two separate resolutions were put forward: One that passed unanimously and another that passed on a mostly party-line vote with one Democrat siding with the Republicans.
In addition to the two formal resolutions, assembly leaders from both parties signed a Memorandum of Understanding about how they intend to conduct their business. Most of the bullet points relate to time limits on debate, how the daily calendar is set up, and notification deadlines.
Members of the assembly leadership from both parties sit on two standing committees: Rules and Assembly Organization. Although they met behind closed doors in what they called a "Bipartisan Leadership Meeting," their coming together to negotiate rules changes without public notice or a published agenda, may have violated open meetings laws since they comprised quorum.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that legislators checked with the Attorney General's office and had been assured of the legality of their gathering. But consider the source: This is the same Attorney General's office that defended the violation of open meetings law two years ago when Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald rammed the bill that sparked the Wisconsin Uprising through the Senate without proper notice.
According to the Memorandum of Understanding, assembly leaders from both parties wanted to strike agreements around rules changes and process so as to avoid overnight sessions and "to provide greater transparency of the legislative process to the citizens of the state of Wisconsin."
However, both the content of the document and the manner in which it was crafted seem to cast more shadow than light on the legislative process. The points of agreement are as follows:
Our goal this session is to finish debate at a reasonable time
The Rules Committee will meet to set goals for the structure and timing of debate, including the division of the time on final passage for both parties.
The Majority Leader and Minority Leader will make an effort to minimize the number of contentious bills on any session day.
The Majority Leader and Minority Leader will consult before the rules notice is distributed regarding the time frame for debate on each bill.
The time frame for debate on a bill will be defined by the point at which the Assembly Chief Clerk reads the bill to the point at which there is a vote on final passage.
Amendments submitted to the Assembly Chief Clerk by 9 a.m. on a session day will receive priority consideration and shall be considered by each caucus.
Bipartisan Leadership Meetings will be held on a regular basis.
The floor rules will be strictly enforced; including time limits. There will be objections to breaking for caucus, except under extenuating circumstances, and extending time limits for debate.
There will be a minimum of 30 minutes set aside for debate on final passage of each bill, unless agreed to by the Majority Leader and the Minority Leader.
The session start time published on the rules notice will be strictly followed.
When the agreed upon time frame for debate has expired on a bill, the Majority Leader may make a motion to dispense of all remaining amendments. Every effort will be made to consider all amendments.
If a rules Committee meeting needs to be convened, any such break for the meeting will not count against the agreed upon time for debate on the bill under consideration.
At a press conference before the floor session began, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Burlington) and Minority Leader Peter Barca (D-Kenosha) congratulated each other on the civility of their discussions and their willingness to negotiate with each other as compared to the strained, combative relationship between the parties last session.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Burlington) and Minority Leader Peter Barca (D-Kenosha). Photo by Rebecca Kemble.
But as the day wore on, it became clear that the thin veneer of bipartisan agreement had been carefully orchestrated behind the scenes and masterfully choreographed to afford lawmakers a brief period during which platitudes about unity, cooperation and compromise could be spoken before more contentious items came up for debate.
As was typical last session, representatives on the Republican side rose to speak on items they knew would result in a unanimous vote. But when it came to defending controversial changes to rules in the public galleries and dress code for members of the assembly, only two members of the leadership made any attempt at all.
And as was typical last session, every amendment brought to the floor by the Democrats was tabled on party-line votes by the Republicans. Majority Leader Scott Suder (R-Abbottsford) did try to put a shine on the first tabling motion: He added the word "respectfully" before moving to table.
At the morning press conference, Barca told reporters, "We want to introduce a new cooperative culture of respect and civility." Unfortunately, this desire seems doomed to fail.
Human culture cannot be "introduced" like bacteria into a Petri dish. Culture grows out of the web of history, social relations and material interests of a particular group of people. And for the past two years this group of people and the institution in which it exists has been characterized by an enormous imbalance of power.
Marathon, overnight debates are a weapon of the weak. They are a form of filibuster that the minority party uses when their ideas are not being considered, they feel locked out of decision-making processes and they reach a point of desperation. They are a symptom of the poor health of a democratic institution.
Trying to eliminate the symptom through time limits, creative agenda setting and closed-door meetings of party leaders does little to address the deeper malady of one party ruling with impunity.
That impunity was on display during the "debate" on changes to rules in the public viewing galleries. The new rules essentially say to members of the public who wish to watch their government in action, "sit down, shut up, don't move and leave all your belongings outside."
Democratic representatives raised many issues around freedom of expression and pointed out the bizarre fact that the rules allow people to carry concealed weapons into the gallery but not crayons, telephones, cameras, or bags.
Rep. Cory Mason (D-Racine) said, "I seem to recall that on inauguration day we all swore to uphold the state and U.S. constitution. Was that just part of the ceremony, or are we serious? The absurdity being proposed here in these rules -- we're going to say, 'Kids with books or vets with hats: no. But if you want to bring your handgun in, that's fine?' You can't choose which part of the Bill of Rights you want to defend."
Speaker Vos was condescending and flippant in his response to a direct question put to him by Christine Sinicki (D-Milwaukee): "A question usually ends with an inflection ... We're trying to set reasonable restrictions on this body. If you're here to observe, observe. I think your issue is not serious."
Several Democratic lawmakers also took issue with the Memorandum of Understanding signed by their leaders. Gary Hebl (D-Sun Prairie) said, "A contract is only as good as the people who sign it. When I got elected, I really wanted to fight for my constituents and discuss these issues face to face with others we may disagree with."
Mason put a finer point on it: "It is disconcerting to be told that my team has already reached the limits of time for new ideas in debate. We know that this is just a fait accompli. Then nobody actually debates. The public deserves better than that. This is not what the state's founders had in mind -- to just rubber stamp what the two teams have decided behind closed doors in secret meetings."
He continued: "What we have now in place is already a bad practice of closed door meetings, but now we want to streamline what happens after those closed door meetings! I don't want this to be a farce. But patting ourselves on the back for bipartisanship without regard for the long-term consequences for this body is a tragedy. We have a responsibility not just to our respective parties in those closed door caucuses, but to the people who sent us here."
The people who want to watch their representatives on the assembly floor will have to be extra careful to toe the line. Speaker Vos referred to the penalties applied to rule violators as a "progressive discipline system." First offense gets you thrown out for the day, second rule violation gets you banned for the floor period (several months) and for the third violation you're out for the remainder of the two-year session.
Before voting on the resolution about which Peter Barca said, "To say it gave me heartburn would be the understatement of the year," he had a warning for Vos and his Republican colleagues: "You work for the people in the gallery. They don't work for you, so you need to be cautious about how you restrict their rights."
Rebecca Kemble  reports for The Progressive magazine and website. She also participates when she can in the Solidarity Sing Along.