The Legislature is but a stage

By: - May 12, 2021 7:00 am
Two theater masks, one representing tragedy, one representing comedy. Metal masks lit from behind

Comedy and Tragedy | B via Flickr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

As the curtain rose on the opening act of Tuesday’s legislative floor sessions — where predictable, partisan outcomes were a near certain conclusion — Macbeth’s famous words could be applied to the lengthy forthcoming script in the Senate and Assembly:

“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,

And then is heard no more. It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.”

Both houses passed laws making it harder to vote that are sure to be vetoed by Gov. Tony Evers. The Assembly took up resolutions on spending more resources on Texas border security and a bill to force the singing of the national anthem at all sporting events in Wisconsin. The sessions made for an absurd, farcical script, and one that will signify nothing, thanks to Evers’ inevitable vetoes.

Who wore the black hat of the villain and the white hat of the hero depends on whether the viewer’s hat is red or blue. Like most things in politics, it’s seen through the lens of sharply divided partisanship.

state Senator Roger Roth headshot
State Sen. Roger Roth

The Senate’s opening scene, at first blush, seemed to avoid the traps of painful predictability and stock performances. Sen. Roger Roth (R-Appleton), as chair of the Senate Committee on Universities and Technical Colleges, was given five minutes to describe his committee’s report based on months of hearings, testimony and research he said would improve the University of Wisconsin System.

“The overarching goal this committee has in publishing its findings and recommendations is this: to strengthen the state of higher education here in Wisconsin,” said Roth. “The committee report makes known to this body that a crisis is looming in Wisconsin’s higher education system if we continue on our current path. The report provides a course of action to avert more serious consequences in the long term.”

That sounded precisely like the action citizens would want from their elected officials. Then Sen. Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee), also on the committee, rose to speak. 

He derided the “ill advised,” “so-called report,” as the opposite of collaborative work. He said the report was written by the chair with no input from Democratic committee members, whose names were added as authors without their permission. This prompted Democratic members to issue their own “minority report.”

Sen. Chris Larson (via Facebook)
Sen. Chris Larson
(via Facebook)

“This report was crafted without the input of committee members and does not reflect any collaborative work done between committee members or the public,” said Larson. “Most egregiously, our shared values of accessible and affordable higher education throughout our state are directly threatened by this report’s self-declared recommendations.” 

Larson added that the testimony behind the report highlighted another performative measure the Legislature has increasingly embraced: Scripted public hearings by invitation only, barring interested members of the public from speaking and typically of any opposing viewpoint from speaking. In other words, non-public hearings.

“It adds to a disturbing trend of invite-only hearings,” said Larson, indicating all of the players and interested parties who did not get a chance to weigh in on the report. “This is antithetical to what we are supposed to do.” 

A few minutes later, speaking on another matter — the desire to restore local control over residency requirements for police and firefighters that the Legislature superseded years ago — Democratic Sen. Tim Carpenter from Milwaukee gave away the ending of Tuesday’s script with this spoiler: “We come to the floor. We vote. We lose.”

The ultimate performative acts on the calendar in the Assembly were two veto overrides to GOP COVID-related bills. Had the bills not been vetoed by Gov. Tony Evers, one of them would have forbidden government from mandating the COVID-19 vaccine and the other would have prohibited closing houses of worship in a pandemic. A few Democrats would have had to vote in favor of the override, which was not going to happen. So why schedule it? 

A Madison TV station described the gesture of taking a vote that was destined to fail as another chance to try and make Gov. Tony Evers look bad. While Speaker Robin Vos utilizes nearly every news conference and floor speech to try to do just that, he told the Associated Press mid-session that they were not going to take the veto overrides  up this time, but could do so another day.


There were some moments of unity and votes that were productive and likely to be signed into law, for example, a series of bills to hinder elder abuse.

“I rise to speak in favor of this legislation, but also speak in favor of the process. And I hope that we can continue to do this and find more ways to build consensus, rather than contentiousness,” said Rep. Tip McGuire (D-Kenosha) on the elder abuse bills authored by Rep. John Macco (R-Ledgeview) with bipartisan backing. 

And the Senate passed bills that will make some improvements to policing and community relationships with law enforcement, but nothing approaching the level of change called for years by Black Lives Matter groups and other activists who have watched as the list of names of people of color killed by police grows longer and longer.

Stealing the show with raw honesty and the opportunity for the audience to learn about life and values of the 11 tribes in Wisconsin was the annual State of the Tribes address given this year by John D. Johnson Sr., president of the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. Johnson spoke of discrimination, poverty, the loss of elders to the coronavirus and economic challenges.

Democrats stood and applauded while Republicans sat in stony silence at mentions of caring for the planet and natural resources, as well as a discussion on cultural appropriation of Indigenous symbols. (Read more about the address here.)

As the day wore on, both the Assembly and the Senate moved into bills on a topic that has been the ultimate theater since this legislative session began in January: election reform.

A Stop The Steal is posted inside of the Capitol Building after a pro-Trump mob broke into the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. A pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol, breaking windows in the deadly insurrection attempt aimed at stopping Congress from certifying Joe Biden's win in the November election. Photo by Jon Cherry | Getty Images
The Capitol Building after a pro-Trump mob broke into the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Photo by Jon Cherry | Getty Images

Republicans claimed the elections were not secure, that ballots were harvested in parks in Madison, that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg influenced Wisconsin elections with grants from groups he donated to that were awarded throughout the state but only caused fraud in Green Bay and other big cities, that clerks had too much power to correct minor mistakes on ballots — all bills stemming from the false claims Republicans made that the 2020 presidential election results were fraudulent.

Those lies, spearheaded by former President Donald Trump long before the supposedly stolen election even took place, led people to believe fraud occurred despite evidence from courts, recounts and investigations proving the contrary. The more Republicans repeated that soliloquy, the more people doubted the elections, which was then used as the excuse to pass the bills good government groups describe as anti-democratic and dangerous.

The plot thickened with talk of ballot harvesting. When it’s a performance, the more passionately the actors speak their lines, the more convincing they sound.

“The lecture is amusing, to say the least, coming from the side of the aisle that for the better part of three years … the only thing they could talk about was Russian collusion,” said Majority Leader Jim Steineke (R-Kaukana). “Wanna know why people have less confidence in the integrity of their election — look no further than the city of Madison … doing ballot harvesting in the parks.” This caused Rep. Lisa Subeck (D-Madison) who witnessed the convenient collecting of ballots in Madison parks to ask if he was trying to make it sound nefarious, akin to organ harvesting.

The Senate took up SB-203 tamping down on delivery of absentee ballots and SB-212 clamping down on clerks that dare make minor corrections to obvious small mistakes like a missing number in an address. The Assembly voted 60-36 along straight party lines to restrict private grants to help fund elections being given to municipalities.

Rep. Mark Spreitzer | WisEye
Rep. Mark Spreitzer | WisEye

“This isn’t a serious proposal based on facts, it’s a conspiracy theory given statutory form,” said Rep. Mark Spreitzer (D-Beloit). “This is about a party that has lost its way and lost its reason.” 

What could possibly be the denouement of such a performance? As evening rolled around, the Assembly rounded out its acts with a vote to require the playing or singing of the national anthem at Wisconsin sporting events

Republicans, criticizing the national debt and lack of term limits voted to convene a convention of the states that could rewrite the U.S. Constitution. Two-thirds of legislatures — or 34 — are required to successfully vote to convene a new constitutional convention.

And after Steineke and Speaker Pro Tem Tyler August took a recent fact-gathering mission to the Texas border, they pushed forward a resolution ordering the governor to send aid and resources to the U.S. – Mexico border to assist with a crackdown on immigrants in Texas.

Rep. Tyler August (R-Lake Geneva) and Rep. Jim Steineke (R-Kaukauna take a tour in Texas of the border wall | Assembly GOP YouTube
Rep. Tyler August (R-Lake Geneva) and Rep. Jim Steineke (R-Kaukauna take a tour in Texas of the border wall | Assembly GOP YouTube

But the lines of the play diverted from predictability here as August offered an impassioned speech — not following the lines of some typical GOP anti-immigrant rhetoric — but on the needs of the migrant children to be cared for and saved from the human traffickers:

“The trafficking, the smuggling of human beings, compassion for the children… The coyotes turn a human life into a business decision. Think about being in a situation where a child is left behind because he is slowing down the group? What about all the other children?” asked August.  “So, yes, it’s a national security issue, obviously. But more importantly, it’s a humanitarian crisis. ,,, It’s the condition under which they are kept. How is it the humane thing to do to allow that to continue. To allow the cartels to profit off of moving human beings.”

Would a theater critic watching this show find his performance believable or say it rang hollow? Either way — it was an unexpected plot twist. And that’s a rarity when it comes to legislating in the Capitol.


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Melanie Conklin
Melanie Conklin

Melanie Conklin was the Wisconsin Examiner's founding Deputy Editor, serving from its launch July 1, 2019, until Feb. 1, 2022. She 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 before returning to journalism at the 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.