Elections Have Consequences

Republicans won the right to govern Wisconsin. What does that mean for Democrats?

Commenter WR observes,

It’s adorable how all the righties are screaming that the unionized workers in Wisconsin have to give up their fight to protect their basic rights because [Governor Scott] Walker won an election, and therefore everyone is required to do as he instructs.

I don’t seem to recall them preaching this particular sermon after the 2008 election.

Scott Lemieux makes a  similar argument:

[D]on’t you remember during the health care debate when [Ann] Althouse thundered constantly about how undemocratic it was for Republicans to use parliamentary gimmicks to thwart the party that won the presidency and both houses of Congress by substantial margins from passing its signature initiative? And when she said that “democracy” required the Democratic majority to ignore the reactionary teabagger faction, most of whom after all weren’t even Obama voters? Funny, neither do I!

While this sounds good on the surface, I would argue that the parallel is not as strong as it might seem.

The United States government was intentionally set up with a series of institutional barriers to democracy, on the theory that we were a collection of states with partial sovereignty and we did not want fleeting majorities to be able to impose their will. Aside from separation of powers, the most notable concession to this was the creation of the United States Senate, which gives each state equal power despite vast differences in population. (Admittedly, this was part of a necessary compromise, with the House being more-or-less democratic.)

State governments, by contrast, typically do not have these sort of institutional barriers because states are thought to be more homogeneous. So, the election of a governor of one party and a legislature of the same party tends to produce rapid, coherent policy adoption.

The more powerful argument, it seems to me, against the “elections have consequences” meme is that those in the minority party in the legislature — whether at the Federal or state level — were also elected. They have not only the right but the duty to represent their constituents to the best of their ability. The minority Republicans in the last Congress had every right in the world to use every legitimate means at their disposal to defeat ObamaCare or to force Democrats to make concessions. The minority Democrats in Wisconsin similarly have every right to use every legitimate means at their disposal to defeat Walker’s attempt at union busting or to force Republicans to make concessions.

The question then becomes: What means are legitimate?

In the case of the Senate Republicans, the use of the filibuster — or threat of same — was perfectly within the accepted rules of the game. While I’ve lamented the over-use of the filibuster — regardless of who was in office — over the years, I’ve never had a problem with its use to forestall truly major and controversial policy changes.

I’m much more dubious of the practice of the minority party hopping on a bus and hightailing it out of the state to deny a quorum. The only other time I’ve heard of it being done was when Texas Democrats did it to oppose a mid-cycle redistricting by Texas Republicans. (For the record, I opposed both the skedaddling and the unprecedented redistricting as foul play.)

Relatedly, while I think the public sector unions have a legitimate complaint about Walker’s highhanded changing of their working conditions, their going on an illegal strike is wrong. They’re free to demonstrate on their own time, to have their lobbyists go to the capitol, to give media interviews, and various other means of taking their case to the public. They’re not free to break the law or violate their contract.

FILED UNDER: Politics 101, US Politics,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. george says:

    I’m not sure I really see much difference; both are using legal tactics, and basically the border between legal and acceptable is something to be determined by the voters.

    On the other hand, my bias is that since I distrust both parties, I like to see as many checks and balances as possible … ideally the only legislation either would pass would be something both can agree on. Minority governments in parliamentary democracies tend to the best (favoured by almost everyone but the politicians themselves) for that reason.

  2. Brummagem Joe says:

    If only it were that simple. The trotting out of legalisms in this situation is naive and silly. Judging by some of your other comments JJ you apparently oppose dubious pracices by majorities but don’t think anyone should do anything practical to stop them. Yes that makes entire sense.

  3. Axel Edgren says:

    Perhaps republicans should have worked a little harder and had enough of their guys elected? Huh? Maybe?

  4. Mike Drew says:

    Do you know enough to say that something being done here is illegal, or a breach of anyone’s contract? I haven’t seen it claimed even here, where presumably those opposed to the protests would know.

  5. ponce says:

    “In the case of the Senate Republicans, the use of the filibuster — or threat of same — was perfectly within the accepted rules of the game. ”

    No, it wasn’t.

    I was way outside the norm.

    But if it was, why does Wisconsin have a quorum rule if not for situations like this?

  6. Brummagem Joe says:

    The Democrats won the right to govern in 2008. I didn’t notice the Republicans acquiesing in that decision. Did you? Unless you’re Stalin it’s kinda hard to govern without the consent of the governed. Even if this bill is rammed through it’s not remotely over and the consequence will be chaos. There’s probably going to be recall election next year for a start.

  7. Herb says:

    “Relatedly, while I think the public sector unions have a legitimate complaint about Walker’s highhanded changing of their working conditions, their going on an illegal strike is wrong.”

    Perhaps, but such expressions of civil disobedience (which is always “wrong” by the way) have been known to deliver results.

  8. michael reynolds says:

    In brief: Play by whatever rules support the GOP.

  9. John Burgess says:

    Michael, I’m glad you’re finally getting it! I was on the verge of despair that you were one of those guys with an inflexible mind.

  10. James Joyner says:

    @BJ: “JJ you apparently oppose dubious pracices by majorities but don’t think anyone should do anything practical to stop them.”

    No, I think you take steps within the rules. Filibusters. Elections. Recalls.

    @Mike Drew: “Do you know enough to say that something being done here is illegal, or a breach of anyone’s contract?”

    Teachers are contractually obligated to teach when school is in session. They’re not allowed to strike while under valid contract. This is an illegal wildcat strike.

    @ponce: “why does Wisconsin have a quorum rule if not for situations like this?”

    Quorum rules exist to prevent sneak votes. It would be very easy for the leadership to schedule a vote for a time when it knew it could win by exclusion. Quorum rules make that much harder. Intentionally not showing up to deny a legitimate vote is a clear abuse of the rules.

    @Michael Reynolds: “In brief: Play by whatever rules support the GOP.”

    Nonsense. The post defends the right of minority Democrats to take actions within the rules. And my two previous posts on the subject criticize the tactics of the majority Republicans and trying to ram through a major systemic change that they didn’t run on.

  11. michael reynolds says:

    JJ:

    Fair enough, I was being overly cranky.

    In my defense, it’s rainy here. We don’t do rain. I’m not paying a 10% state income tax to be rained on.

  12. MM says:

    On the other hand, my bias is that since I distrust both parties, I like to see as many checks and balances as possible … ideally the only legislation either would pass would be something both can agree on

    Because things like the PATRIOT Act, the TSA and making it a sex offense to pee in an alley are all wonderful ideas.

  13. wr says:

    Dr. Joyner — First, let me say I am truly honored to have my comment highlighted. Thank you for addressing the issue.

    But I think you are ignoring the hypocrisy of your own party. You may draw the distinction between federal and state, but all I heard during the Bush years — daily from Rush Limbaugh and the Bush administration — was that “elections have consequences.” That Bush had won and therefore had the right to do whatever he wanted, and the opposition had no moral grounds for fighting against him.

    We hear it now from the Republicans in Congress. We must all submit to the insane and destructive budget slashing because “the voters spoke” last November. But a lot more voters spoke a lot more loudly two years prior to that, and we got nothing but obstruction from the Rs.

    Republicans simply refuse to accept the results of an election if they lose, but expect everybody to bow down before them if they win. Even if they win by a single vote. (Which is not the case in Wisconsin, obviously.) Winning an election does not give you the right to completely make over society, nor does it compel the entire citizenry to fall into line. Not unless you’re talking about the kinds of elections they have in Iran.

    As for the illegality of the teachers’ strike — what would you have them do? The Republicans in government have vowed to strip away their most basic rights. If they don’t make themselves heard now, then they will never have a voice. You seem to want them to debate the issue politely, then meekly accept being stripped of their rights when the other side won’t listen to them.

    Is blind submission to government power really a Libertarian ideal?

  14. Rick DeMent says:

    The filibuster rule was never designed to have the effect the GOP used it for over the last two years. Never. So the Democrats are using the same playbook and your complaining? Fine complain, but don’t think for a moment that your party drew first blood in the use any legal means necessary game to block the other side.

  15. Axel Edgren says:

    Koch gave Walker lots of money to get elected, and on taxes and the environment he has repaid the favor.

    Now he is using flimsy and temporary fiscal concerns to remove lots of union progress from the state – a campaign Koch Industries is pursuing in many states.

    Basically, fat cats are using power play – teachers are fighting back. The civilians in the middle suffer for it.

    That’s the kind of nation you live in Joyner. Telling the teachers they are the first ones who have to put down arms for the sake of playing by the rules is just silly. They are not chumps, and you fanning yourself and raising your skirts over all this horrible striking commotion isn’t going to make them budge. Someone is trying to mug them here.

  16. Sebastian Dangerfield says:

    A few data points that you should, but failed to, consider:

    1. Walker never campaigned on a platform of eliminating collective bargaining for everyone but cops and firefighters. He ran on vague platitudes about small government and lower taxes — ideas that are popular among the rubes during hard times. (By contrast, Obama quite prominently campaigned on health care reform.)

    2. Walker dropped this extremely far-reaching and detailed bill on a Friday and demanded a vote within a week. He had hoped to move fast enough to avoid any debate counter-mobilization. This is hardly a move by one who respects democratic process. (By contrast, the Democrats in Congress ate up a whole summer getting spit upon by incoherent pensioners screaming about death panels. Then they took a whole lot longer to move their not-very-good health care reform through Congress. There was, in short, plenty of time for debate and plenty of compromises.)

    3. Terminating collective bargaining rights has nothing to do with the current budget. If enacted, it won’t even take effect until after current contracts expire — it could not without offending the contract clause of the Constitution. It is a transparent effort to punish and weaken political opposition. (The health care reform bill, flawed as it is, is germane to the actual stated concerns voiced in support of legislative action.)

  17. James Joyner says:

    @Sebastian Dangerfield:

    Yes, I addressed those points in previous postings.

  18. Sebastian Dangerfield says:

    Fair enough, pardon me for not having read your entire oeuvre in order to comment on a single post. Be that as it may, this post suffers from its failure to weight the meaningful differences between the two cases under review.

    I take it that part of your point here is that there is something unseemly about the Wisconsin state senate democrats’ using a maximalist tactic in order to try to effect a compromise — and that it’s not fair to compare the counter-majoritarian tactics of the republicans in Congress after the screechfest that was the sumer of 09 because the latter is built into the rules and the former is beyond the pale. I see both to be efforts by minorities to exploit the rules to their advantage. Neither is illegitimate in the sense of being illegal. Each is a an extreme tactic, and whether its use is justifiable in a particular case is really a matter of how drastic one thinks the provocation is. In the case of Walker’s proposals, I’d say the provocation is quite serious and in the case of the health care debates, the provocation was not a provocation at all, for the reasons sketched out above. I’ll credit that you may have addressed those points previously, but I find this post to be skewed and incomplete without some acknowledgement of them.

  19. tom p says:

    “The question then becomes: What means are legitimate?

    In the case of the Senate Republicans, the use of the filibuster — or threat of same — was perfectly within the accepted rules of the game. While I’ve lamented the over-use of the filibuster — regardless of who was in office — over the years, I’ve never had a problem with its use to forestall truly major and controversial policy changes.

    I’m much more dubious of the practice of the minority party hopping on a bus and hightailing it out of the state to deny a quorum. ”

    JJ: Huh????????

    THOSE ARE THE RULES OF THE GAME!!! (sorry for the all caps)

    Seriously, it is OK when one side exploits the rules of the game to their advantage, but not OK when the other side does the same? Really? Are you going to stand by that arguement?

    James, you need to rethink this one.

  20. tom p says:

    “their going on an illegal strike is wrong.”

    James, admittedly, I have been busy, but you are the only person I know of to refer to the WI teachers actions as an “illegal strike”… Some may call this an illegal “wildcat” strike…. others will call it a “mass mental health care day”…. or days.

    If it is illegal, why does the Wisconsin Attorney General not prosecute?

    “They’re free to demonstrate on their own time, to have their lobbyists go to the capitol, to give media interviews, and various other means of taking their case to the public. They’re not free to break the law or violate their contract.”

    Wow… freedom redefined. The WI GOP is free to unilaterally abrogate a contract…. BUT…. YOU (meaning “me”)…. are not free to do anything about it… indeed you are BOUND by the contract we deny….

    JAMES…. are you able to acknowledge the idiocy of the very foundation of your arguement? That one side is bound by the contract, but the other is not? (yeah, I know, “the law is an ass”)

    I have a hard time believing you are saying these things…. Who are you and what have you done with my James Joyner? The James Joyner I know was able to follow a line of logic….

    from BOTH sides of an arguement.

  21. tom p says:

    JJ, on a slightly less strident side, go back and re-read “On Civil Disobedience”.

    ps: and yes my insomnia is getting worse.

  22. James Joyner says:

    Tom P:

    The filibuster rules were specifically designed to prevent narrow majorities from pushing through controversial measures. I think they’ve been increasingly abused in recent years — by both parties, when in the minority — but that the use to stop major majority legislation is kosher.

    Quorum rules are for an entirely different purpose: To ensure that the leadership doesn’t take advantage of the absence of opponents to ram through measures. It was never intended as a tool for minority leverage over the majority.

    I don’t fully know what rights the Wisconsin government has here in excluding its workers from collective bargaining. It may be that the terms of the current contract preclude that and the unions would win in court — although I haven’t seen that argued anywhere. But they do have a right to govern.

    You have a point in being bound by a contract that the other side is changing unilaterally. If private sector workers were doing this, I’d be more supportive — although I’d say they were risking being fired en masse. With public sector employees, though, many jurisdictions deny them the right to strike altogether on the grounds that the services provided are too fundamental and that holding schoolkids hostage is bad public policy.

  23. Quorum Rules says:

    […] yesterday’s post “Elections Have Consequences,” I argued that, while legislators in the minority power have every right to use all […]

  24. tom p says:

    “If private sector workers were doing this, I’d be more supportive — although I’d say they were risking being fired en masse. With public sector employees, though, many jurisdictions deny them the right to strike altogether on the grounds that the services provided are too fundamental and that holding schoolkids hostage is bad public policy.”

    Sorry JJ, but I have to ask: Are you really a libertarian? All the libertarians I know argue AGAINST the gov’ts power to persuade thru economic means.

    ALSO: “holding schoolkids hostage is bad public policy”

    But holding teachers hostage is quite all right?

  25. […] Joyner makes a valiant but inherently doomed attempt to defend people who have lionized the Tea Party and the Republican opposition to health care, but […]

  26. James Joyner says:

    @tom p: “Sorry JJ, but I have to ask: Are you really a libertarian? All the libertarians I know argue AGAINST the gov’ts power to persuade thru economic means.”

    I’ve seen various arguments of this type since the Wisconsin thing kicked off and don’t get it. these are public sector employees we’re talking about. The state — and, by proxy, the citizens they represent — are their employers. There’s no liberty stake here.

  27. “The Democrats won the right to govern in 2008. I didn’t notice the Republicans acquiesing in that decision.”

    And I didn’t notice the Democrats vocal support of the right of the minority to filibuster. In fact, as I recall, they went out of the way to argue, and even propose rule changes, that would restrict that right.