Assembly set to take another major Republican power grab

The core motivation for Speaker Vos appears to be retribution

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, listens to Rep. John Nygren speak to the press
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, listens to Rep. John Nygren speak to the press. Photo by Coburn Dukehart/Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

The Assembly will vote on job accommodations for Rep. Jimmy Anderson (D-Fitchburg), who became quadriplegic when the rest of his family was killed after being hit by a drunk driver as they were heading out to celebrate his birthday in 2010.

Due to injuries from the accident, Anderson has a routine that requires hours to complete to be able to leave his house, so he requested being able to phone into meetings to participate when he is not able to come to the Capitol. It is a method of participation already permitted by the State Senate.

Democrats said they will have to vote against the accommodations for Anderson that they support and a colleague they have been arguing deserves accommodation because of what Rep. Debra Kolste (D-Janesville) called the other “poison pill” rule changes.

Anderson himself said he will have to vote against the measure “because the majority wants to do this in the most petty way possible.”

Rep. Jimmy Anderson

The measure that would help Anderson is part of a massive list of rules changes that Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) is putting forward for a single vote on the Assembly floor today. The list requires just a simple majority vote to pass.

Vos has a package of 10 rules changes, published in the Capitol’s veteran legislative watchdog The Wheeler Report early this morning.  You can read the details of the assembly resolution or AR-12 here in the Wheeler blog

The legislature’s benevolence toward Anderson is what made headlines when it first came up, and Speaker Robin Vos likely hopes the media will focus on that issue today. Ignoring the broader implications of the rules-change maneuver, Vos gave this quote to Wisconsin Radio Network: “We took the politics out of it, just took a step back.” 

The nine OTHER rule changes

Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz charged that Vos was using the rule change needed to accommodate people with disabilities, as a distraction to force through nine other moves designed to enhance Republican power. At first blush, the other rule changes sound boring and technical. 

They are not.

Today’s vote, said Hintz, is a monumental power grab to help the majority party–currently Republicans–and harm the minority party. Vos’ move attempts to make Democrats powerless and their constituents further under-represented if the other nine rule changes pass.

In the GOP bland wording they do not reveal the intent behind them. The Wheeler Report lays out the changes in today’s blog. The descriptions quoted below are from the blog post, which provides historical context as well.

  • Appearance at Committee Meetings by Telephone or Other Means of Telecommunication or Electronic Communication
    • Why is this important? This provides a member with a permanent disability the opportunity to participate fully in committee action when their disability may have prevented them from doing so before.
  • Reconsideration of Assembly Decisions on Vetoes
    • #1 -The Wisconsin Assembly has 99 members. Not all members are present on session days. In Wisconsin, a vote to override a Governor’s veto only requires 2/3 of the members present, not 2/3 of the total Assembly. (Wisconsin is one of 15 states to require only a vote by the members “present” and not all the elected members.) So if a number of legislators are absent on a given day, this would change the number of votes needed to override a veto. (It should be noted that there is a lack of consensus on whether this means present as in those who answered the original role call of the day, or present as in those who are in the chambers at the moment the motion is made. The later would provide for a veto override in the same manner as done earlier this year in North Carolina when a group of legislators left the chambers for a 9/11 memorial service and the House voted while they were gone to override the governor’s veto.) If a clarification is made of this point – this will be updated to reflect that clarification.#2 – Wisconsin has precedent going back to 1919, when the Assembly attempted to “reconsider” a failed veto override vote. In 1919, Speaker Young ruled on a point of order that a “motion to reconsider the vote by which the assembly refused to pass a bill over the objections of the governor was not in order, holding that inasmuch as the vote proposed to be reconsidered was taken in a manner provided for by the constitution, and having been thus taken, the decision must be considered final. “#3 – If the Assembly votes to change this rule, and gives themselves the ability to reconsider a failed veto override attempt, they will essentially be allowed unlimited opportunities to attempt an override, or be given the opportunity to wait until the needed Assembly attendance is available to ensure the wanted outcome.
  • Establishing time limits for debate
    • Why is this important? Currently if one party is unable to agree to a debate time, no debate time is set. This change allows whichever party is in the majority to determine and enforce time limits on debate on the minority party.
  • Dilatory Motions
    • “Why is this important? It prevents a member of the Assembly from repeatedly asking the same question over and over in an effort to delay Assembly action. In the past, both parties have used a request to go to caucus as an opportunity to delay the Assembly proceedings.”
  • Call of the Assembly
    • “In some instances it has required law enforcement to track down legislators who left the building to return to the Assembly chambers. This rule change allows the presiding officer to order a call of the assembly without a second.”
  • Orders of business
    • “Why is this important? According to Majority Leader Steineke at the media availability on the rule changes, the resolutions (which now become the 13th order of business) are, in general, used to recognize individuals, congratulate people, or celebrate events. Steineke said these resolutions are not the “important work” of the legislature and if members need to leave session early they miss less by missing resolutions at the end, then missing the bill actions at the beginning of session. The Senate made this change earlier in the legislative session.”
  • Determination of Legislative Day for Purposes of Referral of Proposals to Calendar
    • Why is this important? If the Assembly has chosen to only be on the floor one day of the week, the Speaker may still refer a bill to the calendar because while it is the first legislative day of action, it will now be considered the 2nd legislative day for referring purposes.”
  • Definitions of Assembly chamber
    • “As Speaker of the Assembly, Rep. Robin Vos chose to utilize the space which was formerly the Majority Leaders office for staff of the Speaker’s office. The Majority Leader’s office was then moved to the first floor of the capitol located below the Assembly chambers. This rule changes the definition of the chambers to account for the fact the Majority Leader office is no longer on the second floor in the Assembly chambers.”
  • Withdrawing Proposals from Committee
    • “…motions shall be decided by vote a majority of the members present and voting.” Additionally, motions to withdraw a proposal are taken up on the Assembly Floor under the 13th order of business. The rule changes proposed move the withdrawal motion to the 12th order of business (before the resolutions would be considered – if they are moved to the 13th order of business as earlier discussed).”
  • Motion to Return to Second Reading Stage
    • Why is this important? This changes the number of votes required to return to the amendable stage of a bill if an objection is raised to turning to the amendable stage.”

As more is divulged on these rules changes, this story will be updated here. Pay particular attention to the change on veto powers above.

Lame duck Part II?
Of course, should Democrats take back the majority at any point if the Republican’s extremely gerrymandered majority should be overturned in courts, rules changes are reversible.

As the Wheeler blog noted: “It is important to make clear that any changes made help whichever party is in the majority at any time, and may be changed again by resolution at any point in time in the future.”

Why Vos is angry

Anderson, who after months of trying to get accommodations behind the scenes quietly, had hired an attorney from Disability Rights Wisconsin, who sent Vos a letter asserting that his refusal was a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and called on him to make changes by Oct. 1. 

Anderson told the AP that “Republicans were acting to avoid a lawsuit, which he said he was still considering but hoped not to file.”

Vos, as one of the Republican leaders who was behind the lame-duck late night session that first excluded Anderson and caused the issues for his attendance during odd hours, is going for a major power grab of rules changes that could be interpreted as punishment for Anderson’s request. 

Anderson said Vos excluding him from any discussions on the accommodations, was “offensive, disappointing and frankly really frustrating,” in an interview with AP.

He expressed frustration that it was unnecessarily being tied to other changes that had nothing to do with the situation. 

Vos said, “We took the politics out of it, just took a step back, and all figured out the best way to make sure that Representative Anderson can represent his district, but also do it in a way that doesn’t really compromise the integrity of what we think the legislature should be, and that’s a body where citizens have a right to come and see eye-to-eye with their legislator.”Wisconsin Radio Network Wednesday, October 09, 2019 6:28 a.m.

But the move actually escalates political division, as Vos seizes more  power using a rule book, stifling debate and limiting the minority’s ability to convey its message.

 

Melanie Conklin
Melanie Conklin is proud to be a native of the state of Wisconsin, which gave humankind the typewriter, progressivism and deep-fried cheese curds. Her several decades in journalism include political beats and columns at Isthmus newspaper, the Wisconsin State Journal and other publications. When not an ink-stained wretch, she served time inside state, local and federal government in communications. She is excited to be back at the craft of journalism as Deputy Editor of the Wisconsin Examiner. It’s what she’s loved ever since getting her master’s degree in journalism from the UW-Madison. Her family includes one husband, two kids, four dogs and five (or more) chinchillas.

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