By Mary Beth Schneider
It is one of my favorite moments in American politics: The peaceful transfer of power after an election.
It is most visible each time a new president is elected from the opposite party of the outgoing president. Together, they put politics aside and ride to the inauguration. Any bitter feelings and resentments are secondary to respecting the choice of the voters.
That same peaceful process is repeated in smaller ways as governors, mayors and others assume office every year.
Mary Beth Schneider
After this year’s general election drubbing, though, Republican legislators in some states are trying to rewrite the rules to preserve as much power for themselves as they can while weakening the power of the incoming Democrat governors and other statewide officeholders.
In Wisconsin, the legislature voted in lame-duck session for legislation to shrink the powers of the new Democratic governor and attorney general, during what the Madison (WI) State Journal newspaper described as “an all-night push mostly behind closed doors.” And just to make it clear that they think too many voters is what did them in on Nov. 6, the bill also reduces early voting opportunities.
The Wisconsin House Speaker Robin Vos pontificated that this was all about good government. “We have allowed far too much authority to flow to the executive. To you, this is all about politics. To me, it’s about the institution.”
Notice he didn’t have that epiphany until voters chose Democrat Tony Evers over two-term Republican Gov. Scott Walker.
In Michigan, similar shenanigans are going on. For the first time in nearly 30 years in that state, Democrats have been elected to the office of governor, attorney general and secretary of state. The Republican legislature suddenly sees a need to shift power to themselves.
Losing in politics is never fun. But being the sore loser in politics is not just a bad look, it’s bad for democracy. This week we had the gracious example of President George H.W. Bush, who after a tough loss to Bill Clinton in 1992 left him a letter saying that Clinton was “our president” now. The letters Wisconsin and Michigan legislators are sending are making it clear that the new governor is not their governor.
If you think Indiana has a pure history on this, think again.
In 1994, Republicans won back control of both legislative chambers and the next year voted to diminish Democrat Gov. Evan Bayh’s power by changing the make-up of what was the State Election Board. Chafing at the fact the governor got to pick the head of the three-member board, with each party getting the other two picks, they opted to create a new commission that removed the governor from the process.
The question isn’t whether the four-member commission — which frequently ends any oversight with a two-two party line tie — is better or worse than a three-member board. It’s that it didn’t bother them until it was a Democratic governor making the pick. (I couldn’t find similar Democrat action in modern times, but I suspect that’s more from lack of opportunity as they haven’t had both the governor’s office and legislature since the mid-1960s.)
The most notable Indiana examples come from decades ago. In 1933, Democrats won control of state government and voted to give the Democratic governor stronger powers. Republicans won back the legislature in 1940 and in 1941 repealed those powers, while reorganizing state government into five departments controlled by commissioners, not the governor.
The Indiana Supreme Court had the final word, ruling that the governor is the state’s chief executive and the legislature can’t usurp powers bestowed by the state constitution.
It’s likely the Wisconsin and Michigan courts will have the last word as well. But we shouldn’t need the courts to tell parties to respect the voters’ will.
This isn’t about policies. Those can and should change with election outcomes. This is about power.
When the votes are counted, the declaration of the winner shouldn’t be the signal for the losing side to use what power they have left to change the rules. If reverence for democracy isn’t enough, maybe political parties will recognize this: Being a sore loser is not a winning strategy.
Mary Beth Schneider is editor of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.