Following bruising losses in statewide elections last month, Republicans in Wisconsin and Michigan have responded with pushes to limit the power of Democrats who won those offices, as advocacy groups threaten to block their efforts with legal action.
The legislation in Wisconsin took a significant step forward Wednesday when Republican lawmakers passed bills that effectively kneecap the state’s incoming Democratic governor and attorney general with measures that limit or eliminate their abilities to act on aspects of gun control, a lawsuit on the Affordable Care Act and various other state matters.
Republican lawmakers in Michigan are similarly attempting to shift authority from the Democrats recently elected as governor, attorney general and secretary of state, the first time the party will hold all three positions in nearly three decades.
The one-two punch is a blunt attempt by Republican lawmakers to maintain power, Democrats say.
“It’s a power grab — clear and simple,” Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said in a telephone interview. “It’s literally going against the will of the public that voted for these officials just 30 days ago.”
Republicans have said their push to sap authority from these offices — weeks after voters chose Democrats to fill them — is necessary to better balance power between the executive and legislative branches.
“The legislature is the most representative branch of government and the closest to the people of Wisconsin. Our proposals guarantee that the legislature always has a seat at the table,” said Robin Vos, the Republican speaker of the State Assembly, in a statement. “With divided government, these bills allow for more discussions and opportunities to find common ground.”
Caroline Fredrickson, president of the left-leaning American Constitution Society, said that legal action likely will be taken against many of the provisions in Wisconsin.
“The basic question is, ‘Who’s been injured?’ ” by the Republicans’ efforts to curb the governor’s authority, she said. “And you could say the voters of Wisconsin are the ones who have been injured.”
During an ACS event Tuesday, former Democratic governor Jim Doyle, who also served as attorney general, called the efforts “a very obvious violation of the separation of powers” codified in the Constitution.
The efforts come two years after a similar scene played out in North Carolina, where GOP lawmakers responded to the election of Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, by trying to curtail his power. That set off a string of legal battles, an outcome expected in Wisconsin if Gov. Scott Walker (R) signs the legislation, as he is expected to.
The measures in Wisconsin and Michigan are a setback for Democrats afterthe party’s significant victories in recent races for state legislature seats, attorney-general offices and governorships. The successes in Wisconsin and Michigan were among the most notable.
In Wisconsin, where Tony Evers (D) defeated Walker, who was first elected in 2010, Republican leaders have defended their lame-duck efforts to strip power from Evers. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said the legislation is needed because Republicans “don’t trust Tony Evers right now.”
Walker’s office did not respond to messages seeking comment Wednesday.
The legislature stayed in session Tuesday night into Wednesday to pass the bills amid a backdrop of protesters. Among other things, the legislation would prevent Evers from taking over Walker’s new economic development agency for months — a unit that Evers pledged to dismantle — and require that he get lawmakers’ approval to block guns from the capitol building. The legislation would also limit early voting and require posting online the names of anyone pardoned by the governor. Josh Kaul, the incoming attorney general, would also be blocked from fulfilling his campaign pledge to withdraw the state from a lawsuit against the Affordable Care Act.
“Wisconsin has never seen anything like this,” Evers, the state schools superintendent, said in a statement Wednesday. “Power-hungry politicians rushed through sweeping changes to our laws to expand their own power and override the will of the people. . . . Wisconsin values of decency, kindness, and finding common ground were pushed aside so a handful of people could desperately usurp and cling to power while hidden away from the very people they represent.”
In a statement, Vos, the Assembly speaker, accused Democrats of “exaggerating and resorting to hyperbole” about the legislation. His office did not respond to an interview request.
The situation in Wisconsin is a consequence of the heightened polarization in politics, during which “trust between parties has broken down completely,” said William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
“One of the great promises of constitutional democracy is that people will respect the rules and understand that within the framework of the rules, there will be a competition for political power and an orderly rotation from one majority to the next,” said Galston, who was a senior domestic policy aide to President Bill Clinton. Parties seeking only to maintain power and change the rules will likely damage how voters view their government, he said.
“I cannot imagine that the historically low level of public trust in government institutions is going to be increased by maneuvers such as this,” he said. “It is almost bound to increase cynicism that politics has more to do with a pure struggle for power than it does with any concern for the well being of the public.”
In Michigan, measures introduced last week by Republican lawmakers would dilute the authority of newly elected Democratic leaders — Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer, Attorney General-elect Dana Nessel and Secretary of State-elect Jocelyn Benson — on campaign finance oversight and other legal issues, while boosting power in the GOP-led legislature. One proposal suggested shifting campaign-finance oversight away from the secretary of state’s office to a six-member bipartisan commission. Another would let the legislature step in on a state law that the attorney general may opt not to defend.
A spokeswoman for Benson — a nationally known election and campaign finance expert who ran on informing the public about such spending — called the proposed oversight change “an affront to every Michigan taxpayer who clearly wants and deserves a government that is transparent and accountable.”
Republican advocates and lawmakers argue that they are being good stewards of government and guarding against one party having too much power. The campaign-finance change, which has been approved by a Senate committee, heads next to the full Senate and, if approved, the Michigan House.
Wendy Weiser, director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, linked the efforts in Wisconsin and Michigan to the eroding political norms seen across the Trump administration and beyond.
“Extreme wings of the GOP have pushed the envelope and are now getting away with things that used to be out of bounds,” Weiser said. “The ordinary way to respond to an election is to regroup and regain voters support, but the Republicans are now treating every election as an existential threat and the guard rails have been removed. It’s a deep threat to our democracy.”
These actions are also unfolding quickly. In Wisconsin, less than a week elapsed between the rough outlines of that state’s legislation becoming public and lawmakers sending the bill to the governor’s desk, said Barry C. Burden, a professor of political science and director of the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
“It did not look like a deliberative process where the legislature was interested in gathering expertise about these various ideas and trying to make good policy, necessarily,” Burden said.
While Vos said lawmakers had to retake power from the executive branch, that same power was given to the governor during Walker’s tenure, Burden said. The legislature allowed Walker to oversee all the administrative rules that state agencies can produce, giving him the power to reject rules created by state agencies. The change was a way for Walker to rein in control of state agencies, Burden said, and the new legislation would reverse that for Evers.
In 2010, Walker campaigned on creating an economic development agency tasked with bringing jobs to the state. It has been controversial and Evers campaigned on dismantling and replacing it. In the bill approved Wednesday, the legislature shores up the agency by weakening Evers’s ability to dissolve it. Lawmakers also expanded the agency’s board and gave itself the ability to appoint more people to it.
“There are quite a few of those kinds of things, where the legislature was quite willing to let the governor have that kind of reach when it was Scott Walker, and they’re quite unwilling to do it now that the governor is Tony Evers,” Burden said.
Katie Zezima and Isaac Stanley-Becker contributed to this report.