Sunday, February 20, 2011

Badgering the Governor

The rhetoric is getting heated in Wisconsin as the Tea Party groups are starting to show up to shout back at the protesters who have been besieging the state capitol in Madison. At issue is governor Scott Walker’s bill curtailing public-sector unions’ collective bargaining rights and requiring higher pension contributions. Meanwhile, the state’s Democratic senators are in hiding, refusing to report for work and thus provide a quorum enabling a vote they know they will lose.

I’m not going to get into a discussion of the issue itself; if you’re interested you can check out the opposing arguments, among other places, on the Huffington Post and the National Review. What I'm concerned about today is the rule of law issue; if you've read many of my posts, you know that's an important one for me.

Civilized nations with functioning democracies find ways to solve political conflicts without violence. This is what makes them different, and better, than places like Zimbabwe and Russia. These solutions rest on the idea that everybody has to follow the rules; nobody is above the law. An important corollary is that rules have to be established by public discussion and majority vote. If new rules need to be made or old ones changed, a process that is itself rule-governed exists to do that. And as long as that process exists, people have to respect the rules. When this idea is deeply rooted, societies can make even major adjustments in distributions of money and power without violence.

So the rule of law is important. And whatever you think about what rights Wisconsin public-sector unions should have, you have to be dismayed that an angry crowd, along with the mass desertion of minority party legislators, has succeeded in shutting down the Wisconsin state legislature. That's not the rule of law in operation. That's some other kind of rule.

If you sympathize with the unions, fair enough. But ask yourself this: if a crowd of Tea Partiers had invaded a state capitol, and Republican legislators had fled the state, preventing the passage of, say, a health care law, what would your attitude be?

I know what I'd say: if you don't have the votes in the legislature, tough luck. You have to wait till the next election and hope you gain the seats you need. Taking to the hills to prevent a vote is not democracy. Shouting down the speaker from the gallery is not democracy.

Opinion on the left seems to be that the cause of the beleaguered unions is a moral rather than a political issue, and thus the spanner in the democratic works is justified. But this is an issue of what to do with taxpayers' money. These are public sector unions, and it is legitimate for the state government to set the rules governing the disbursement of public money, including the rules governing collective bargaining. And just for the record, under Walker's bill the unions will retain collective bargaining rights for wages, losing them for benefits and working conditions.

Another objection to Walker's initiative is that the bill is being "ramrodded" through the legislature without consultation. But there was no debate on the bill because there were no Democratic senators there to debate it—they had all fled the state. Now, the outcome of the debate may have been a foregone conclusion because of the numbers. But are we to conclude that it is always unfair to introduce legislation when you have the numbers to pass it?

If Governor Walker violated procedural rules in any way by introducing this legislation, then he should be censured and the violation corrected. But I haven't come across any allegations in that regard. That's not what he's being accused of. What he's being accused of is introducing legislation that a whole lot of people don't like, with assurance of getting it passed. And that's not a crime or a procedural violation. It's pulling the levers of political power. People do that in a democracy all the time.

The uproar in Madison isn't going to die down any time soon. I fervently hope it's not going to escalate to serious disorder. But if it does, it will be the Democrats and their supporters who opened Pandora's box.

The protesters should go home, and the Democratic senators should come home. They should report for duty, make a principled stand in debate, cast their losing votes, and act like the loyal opposition until the next election.

That's how it's done in a democracy. We shouldn't have to be explaining this to people in Wisconsin, a state with an honorable democratic tradition.

Sam Reaves


DA Kentner said...

Well said, Sam.
Stopping the democratic process is not democracy.

Kevin Burton Smith said...

Yeah, but but but.... damn, you're right, Sam.