There should be a committee whose job it is to hand out awards recognizing political courage and cowardice in the face of difficult times. If one did exist, it would no doubt award the 2011 “Yellow Feather” to the Democrats in the Wisconsin state senate who, confronted with legislation that would damage the political power of their principal special interest patrons, promptly decamped to Illinois and brought the legislative process to a halt.
This is not, by any stretch of the imagination, democracy’s finest moment.
To review, Wisconsin, which has a reputation for being one of the most progressive of the 50 states, took a sharp turn to the right in the last election, voting in Republican Scott Walker as governor, ousting longtime liberal Sen. Russ Feingold in favor of a conservative Republican with no previous electoral experience and giving the GOP control of both houses of the state legislature.
It was, to put it simply, a Republican rout.
Walker is now trying to govern as he promised he would, which means--among other things--taking on the public employee unions whose work rules and generous salary and benefits not only impede reform all across the Badger State but which, over time, threaten to bankrupt it. He has also proposed scaling back considerably the collective bargaining rules for these same unions, something that is a real threat to their power and to their hold on the permanent unelected state government. [Take the U.S. News poll: Is Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker right about the unions?]
The unions, off course, cannot allow Walker to succeed. For them it is a survival battle. They have even agreed to accept the financial concessions on which he insists as long as the governor agrees to drop his demand to change the terms of the state’s collective bargaining laws as they apply to public employee unions
What they are really trying to protect, however, is their political influence. No one less than Franklin Delano Roosevelt warned against--and was unalterably opposed to--public sector unions, calling the idea “unthinkable and intolerable.” He feared, as did others the rise of a powerful political machine, not just subsidized but paid for outright by the taxpayers, capable of withholding vital public services from those who paid for them unless and until their demands were met.
From garbage strikes to “the blue flu” to the current goings on in Madison--where thousands of public school teachers are calling in “sick” so they can help occupy the state capital building, the public employee unions have shown again and again their willingness to flex their muscles in order to get their way. Up to now, the taxpayers have been insulated to some degree from the costs of that muscle. Moreover, the current set up insulates many of these same public employees--especially teachers and regulatory bureaucrats--from being held accountable for their performance on the job. [Take the U.S. News poll: Are Wisconsin teachers unfair to skip school for protests?]
The taxpayers are insulated no longer. What they have is a bad deal all around. They foot the bills. It is an arrangement that is crying out for reform--as Walker and a handful of other GOP governors have proposed to do. Unfortunately, because the public employee unions “own” the Democrats in Wisconsin and in so many other states, the cause of reform is being blocked by the senators’ exodus to Illinois. They know they can keep Walker’s plan in limbo as long as they fail to appear, the requirement for a quorum being higher on budget matters than they are for regular senate business.
The Senate Democrats’ decision to flee the state is childish, reminiscent of the kid in grammar school who owned the football and insisted that everyone play by his rules or he’d take his ball and go home. It is also an insult to the people of Wisconsin who voted in the current leadership last November, knowing full well what they intended to do. Wisconsin Democrats have put the demands of a well-funded, politically-influential special interest group--the public employee union bosses--ahead of the state’s general welfare and regular political order. Rather than stand and fight, they’ve run. Folks will remember in some future November.
And if anyone wants to send a “yellow feather” award of their own, the address is: State Capitol, 2 East Main Street, Madison, WI 53702.