ADSHEAD: WI Assembly meets in secret to promote ‘transparency’

By   /   January 10, 2013  /   No Comments

By Kirsten Adshead | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON — If my toddlers were around, I’d choose a few euphemisms.

“Sham,” perhaps. Or maybe “hypocrisy.”

“Total mockery of the democratic process” comes to mind, though it’s quite a mouthful.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and other Assembly leaders announced rules changes Thursday aimed at avoiding all-night debate on controversial bills.

But we’re all adults here, right?

So let’s call your elected Assembly members’ recent hand-wringing over putting limits on legislative debate what it actually was:

Bull.

At issue this week, the first of the new legislative session, were changes to the Assembly rules governing the workings of the chamber – specifically, whether and how to limit debate so that Assembly sessions on controversial bills don’t go on all night, and what restrictions to put on members of the public watching the proceedings from the galleries overlooking the floor.

Newly chosen Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, in a pre-session news conference, touted their agreement as a harbinger of a new era of bipartisanship.

It all sounded nice and pretty, as any good bull does.

Said Barca, D-Kenosha: “We want the public to be able to participate and follow their democracy, and we found a way we believe to help us get there, which is so important.”

And, from Vos, R-Rochester: “One of the things that I think Republicans and Democrats began with an agreement on is we do not want to have all-night sessions. We think that is not in the best interest of the people and clearly not in the best interest of transparency and open government.”

Here’s where “hypocrisy” seems appropriate.

This agreement devoted to “transparency,” “open government” and “public participation” was the culmination of days of private meetings between Vos, Barca and a few chosen lawmakers.

No press were invited to those meetings. No public, either.

The rules were presented Thursday morning, in essence, as a fait accompli.

And if Vos and Barca object to that characterization, well, they’ll have to take it up with Rep. Cory Mason. It’s his term.

“In reality, the outcome of all these bills has been determined in closed-door meetings that the public can’t access anyways, so it’s just a fait accompli when we come to the floor anyway,” said Mason, D-Racine. “That’s not democracy. It’s certainly not a deliberative body.”

Mason said he applauded Democratic and Republican leaders’ willingness to talk with each other and reach a compromise.

But, he added, “I don’t think we should hurt ourselves patting ourselves on the back.”

Vos and Barca gave their news conference only after meeting with their respective Republican and Democratic caucuses, to ensure that their members knew what was coming and were all in agreement.

Asked at the news conference why, if the aim was to encourage open democracy and public input, the discussion over Assembly rules wasn’t held out in the open, Vos and Barca defended their process.

“We wanted to ensure that negotiations were done in the very best of faith,” Vos said. “Sometimes, when you’re on the floor, people say things, it gets contentious, and you lose the spirit of trying to find a compromise. … And sometimes, the two leaders get together, talk about common goals and try to find that area of agreement. That’s what we were able to do today.”

Barca promised there would be debate, on the Assembly floor, over the new rules.

And,  yes, officially there was – assuming that you define debate as lawmakers, mostly of the minority party, airing their opinions publicly on a piece of legislation with a pre-determined outcome.

There was a solid three-hour “debate,” actually, on the new rules.

Three hours of debate on previously agreed upon rules governing how the Assembly will operate doesn’t bode well for avoiding all-night discussions on hot topics like mining and tax cuts. But let’s keep an open mind.

For what it’s worth, members of the Assembly agreed Thursday to announce at the beginning of each day how long debate will last. They’re going to try to stick to that pledge as well as adhering more strictly to Assembly rules that limit how long each lawmaker can speak.

In addition, over Democrats’ objections, the GOP-led Assembly approved rules that would authorize the removal of members of the public who break gallery rules.

On first offense, the person would not be allowed back for 24 hours.

Upon a second offense during the two-year legislative session, the violator will be banned until the next floor period.

A third violation will ban the violator from being in the gallery for the remainder of the legislative session.

Mason chastised the Assembly, saying the rules codify a process that already greatly limits public input.

First elected in 2006, Mason said he recalls only one bill, about milk, that has ever had a true debate on the Assembly floor.

“(The new rules say), ‘Look, we know what the outcome’s going to be anyway. We go to our closed-door meetings where the public can’t hear us, where the press can’t get in. We do the arm twisting and then we come to the floor, and that’s it. So we really need to streamline how long this is going to take,’” Mason said. “That’s not deliberation. That’s not democracy.”

For once, someone’s not talking bull.

Contact Adshead at kadshead@wisconsinreporter.com.

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Kirsten Adshead