Have you heard? There is a “coup” underway in Wisconsin. With Democrats set to retake the statehouse in January, Wisconsin Republicans convened a lame-duck session of the legislature with the intention of passing bills aimed at curbing the new governor’s authority.
The measures include transferring the power of appointments to an economic development board back to the legislature, curtailing early voting periods, blocking the governor from banning guns in the state Capitol building and unilaterally withdrawing from state challenges to ObamaCare without legislative consent. The reaction to these initiatives from the national press has not been mild.
“Wisconsin Republicans shield their voters from the horrors of democratic elections,” read a snarky Washington Post headline. Esquire’s predictably apoplectic Charles Pierce called the Wisconsin GOP’s move more evidence the Republican Party represents “the greatest threat to the American republic since Appomattox.”
Michigan’s Republicans, too, hope to curb the power of the incoming Democratic governor, attorney general and secretary of state while there is still time. Republicans in these upper midwestern states aren’t exactly thwarting the peaceful transfer of power, claimed Slate’s Jamelle Bouie, but such “legislative coup d’états” are “movement in that direction.”
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Some have observed that this “power grab” looks a lot like the efforts to curb a Democratic governor’s power orchestrated by Republicans in North Carolina two years ago. Then as now, the GOP convened a lame-duck session and sought to reduce the number of appointments the incoming Democratic executive could make.
It’s certainly within the realm of reason to find all this legislative maneuvering distasteful, but it cannot be called unprecedented. As law professor Jonathan Adler helpfully reminded American political observers in 2016, attempts by partisan legislators to handcuff incoming executives of the other party is practically a bipartisan tradition in North Carolina.
Nor is North Carolina the only state in which Democrats engaged in precisely the same legislative actions they now insist are indistinguishable from a putsch.
Following a statewide electoral rebellion against New Jersey Gov. Jim Florio in 1991, the Democratic Party lost control of both legislative chambers. On the eve of decennial reapportionment and with New Jersey set to lose a congressional seat, that would have left Republicans in control of the consequential federal redistricting process.
That simply would not do, so Democrats spent the lame-duck session ceding legislative redistricting authority to an independent commission.
When Republican Bruce Rauner won an upset victory over Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, legislative Democrats moved in the lame-duck session to truncate the length of the term to which the governor could appoint a comptroller from four years to two. Democrats, Quinn included, claimed that this actually made the system more democratic, since it put the vacancy to a vote of the public sooner.
Had former Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry been elected to the presidency in 2004, then-Gov. Mitt Romney would have been legally obliged to appoint his replacement to the US Senate, and that replacement would presumably have been a Republican. The Democrats in the state legislature couldn’t have that, so they overrode Romney’s veto to strip his office of senatorial appointment power.
Following the death of Sen. Edward Kennedy in 2009, Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick was hamstrung by that very same law. So, Massachusetts Democrats simply repealed it.
Brazen power grabs like those above are fortunately rare, but active lame-duck sessions — particularly those that precede a transfer of legislative control from one party to the next — are not. Suffice it to say that Democrats are not the deferential stewards of transition periods their sympathizers in the press make them out to be.
When Chris Christie won the New Jersey governor’s mansion in 2009, Democrats jammed through legislation to legalize medical marijuana and contemplated bills to legalize same-sex marriage and repeal a variety of tax rebates for property owners.
As far back as 1990, the incoming Republican governor of Massachusetts, Bill Weld, was forced to deal with a new sales tax signed into law by lame-duck Gov. Mike Dukakis.
The activities of office-holders after they’ve been voted out have vexed incoming politicians since at least the “Midnight Judges” appointed by John Adams in March 1801, much to the consternation of President Thomas Jefferson. It’s rough politics — unsavory and often untoward — but it is not unprecedented and not a usurpation of power.
And anyone who would confuse the lawful conduct of republican politics with a “coup” either doesn’t know that they’re enabling ignorance or, worse, doesn’t care.
Noah Rothman is associate editor of Commentary, where a version of this column first appeared.
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