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Rise Of Block Voting In The Wisconsin State Legislature One Reason For Public Policy Lull

By Jacob Stampen

The column below reflects the views of the author, and these opinions are neither endorsed nor supported by WisOpinion.com.

Will Wisconsin's Legislature ever again be famous for the high quality of legislation and stirring public policy debates? James K. Conant in his 2006 book, ``Wisconsin Politics and Government: America’s Laboratory of Democracy,'' eloquently describes a century-long record of nationally important legislative accomplishments. They include: ``good government'' measures in the original 1847 Constitution, the Civil Service Law of 1901, Workmen’s Compensation in 1905, old age pensions in 1931, and education, campaign finance, court, health care, jobs, taxation, and welfare reforms between the late 1940s and 1990s.

The Legislature no longer gets such kudos, and the reason could lie in my study comparing voting behavior in the 1965-66 and 2005-06 Wisconsin Legislatures. The reason for comparing the two legislatures is to better understand the ways in which politics in Wisconsin, a state that in 1965 was widely thought of as the “Nation’s Laboratory for Democracy,” had by 2005 changed to a point where leaders of both political parties were either in jail or on their way there.

In what ways did the Wisconsin Legislature change between 1965-66 and 2005-06?

In 1965-66 Republican Gov. Warren Knowles presided over a state Senate with a 20-to-13 Republican majority and an Assembly with a narrow, 53-to-47, Democratic majority. In 2005-06 Democratic Gov. James Doyle faced a Senate with a 19-to-14 Republican majority and an Assembly with a 60-to-39 Republican majority. But, these comparisons tell us little. In order to learn more, individual and collective voting patterns were statistically analyzed to identify core groups of legislators and their manners of treating issues A conceptual framework, based on research in a variety of settings was used to classify the Wisconsin Legislatures. Finally, the background characteristics of individual legislators (age, birth location, campaign contributions, education, gender, lobby ratings, previous occupation, race, and veteran status) were compared to determine whether legislators’ world-views as expressed by their voting behavior changed more than their background characteristics.

The findings show a growth in block voting, a characteristic of special interest and national influence.

Voting behavior changed more than legislator characteristics between 1965-66 and 2005-06. In 1965-66 Knowles and legislators in both parties were oriented to state issues, tolerant of diverse opinions within and across parties, and when in the majority, much more willing to allow issues raised by members of the opposite party to be openly debated and voted upon. Republicans were much like their peers in other Midwestern and New England states at that time, mainly Libertarian leaning and fiscally conservative, but by today’s standards less ideological and more moderate. By 2005-06 Republicans had been transformed from moderately conservative Midwesterners to Western-styled social conservatives uniting the values and interests of large corporations and conservative religious groups. The latter were oriented to national issues, intolerant of diverse opinions, and often unwilling to allow issues raised by members of the opposite party to be debated and voted upon.

Voting behavior among Democrats changed less than among Republicans. During the 2005-06 session, Democrats appeared to be defending policies similar to ones they championed 40 years earlier, while opposing Republican efforts to alter aid to education and other public services, and the environment.

The 1965-66 Legislature typically passed important legislation after open debates and voting reflected the preferences of sub-party coalitions with unique cultural and/or geographic perspectives. In sharp contrast, partisan block voting was the hallmark of the 2005-06 Legislature. It characterized the behavior of both Republicans and Democrats in both houses. All but 10 of the sixty Republican Party members in the Assembly fell into a single tightly cohesive cluster.

Assembly Democrats divided into two tightly overlapping clusters. In the Senate, all Republicans, except two, were tightly clustered and all but two Democratic senators fell into a single group only slightly less cohesive than the Republican group. Overall, over 80 percent of Senate and Assembly Republicans voted yes on 95 percent of contested bills compared to 33 percent as majority party members of the 1965-66 Senate and 45 percent as minority party members of the Assembly. Over 80 percent of Democrats voted with Republicans on roughly a quarter of Senate and Assembly bills in 2005-06 compared to 52 percent when they were members of the minority party in the 1965-66 Senate and 67 percent when in the majority the Assembly.

Members of the 2005-06 Legislature averaged more formal education and had more gender and slightly more ethnic diversity than in 1965-66. But roughly three out of four legislators were still born in or near the districts they represented, had similar employment histories, and otherwise appeared to differ little from their predecessors.

The 2005-06 Legislature was remarkable in the extent to which lobby ratings mirrored block voting.

**Senate and Assembly Republicans averaged agreement ratings of respectively 73 and 97 percent from The Right to Life (RTL), 72 and 99 percent from Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (WMC); and Assembly Republicans scored 98 percent approval from the National Rifle Association (NRA). Comparable Senate and Assembly Democratic scores for RTL were 49 and 20 percent; for WMC they were 33 and 15 percent. And Assembly Democrats scored 26 percent from the NRA.

**Senate and Assembly Democrats received agreement ratings of 93 and 90 percent from the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC), 85 and 90 from the NARAL-Pro Choice (NARAL) and 79 and 78 percent from the Sierra Club. Comparable Senate and Assembly Republican scores for WEAC were 17 and 17 percent; for NARAL they were 3 and 5 percent; with 6 and 14 percent for the SierraClub.

**In sum, the overall correlation of Republican and Democratic lobby ratings in the Assembly was -0.979, a near perfect negative correlation. The Republican versus Democratic voting correlation in the Senate was only slightly less negative (-0.878).

Both parties were heavily dependent on campaign contributions, but Republicans in the 2005-06 Legislature were much more successful at fundraising than Democrats. According to Wisconsin Democracy Campaign data, roughly two thirds of the funding for members of either party originated outside of the districts they represented. The average Republican running for the Senate in the fall 2004 received $252,447 compared to $61,660 for the average Democrat. Equivalent numbers for Assembly candidates averaged $33,331 per Republican and $8,269 per Democrat.

Using Duke political scientist Scott Morgenstern’s political typology, between 1965 and 2005, Wisconsin politics evolved from a ``Coalition Partner system'' known for collaborative, ethical, productive, and trend setting government into a gridlocked, externally funded, and unproductive ``Exclusivist system,'' with former leaders of both parties convicted of crimes.

Why Wisconsin politics changed so fundamentally requires analysis beyond the boundaries of this study. Conant’s earlier mentioned book, former Assembly Speaker Tom Loftus’ book, ``The Art of Legislative Politics,'' media coverage and my own research suggest a complex interplay among intended and unanticipated state and national developments.

**Republican control of the Legislature after many Progressive Republicans shifted to the Democratic Party during the 1960s. Aided by the Nixon-Era Watergate scandal, Democrats gained majority party status during most of the 1970s and, despite internal strife and scandal, remained in power throughout the 1980s. The election of GOP Gov. Tommy Thompson in 1987, movement to the right on social issues during the Reagan Era, the decline of private sector labor unions, and an increasingly well-organized conservative movement within the Republican Party helped state Republicans regain control of the Assembly after 1995 and the Senate during the first two legislatures of the new millennium.

**Along the way, governors of both parties expanded the line-item veto and oversaw unofficial but well-known deficit spending, despite the state's official mandate of a balanced budget. Running for public office became ever more expensive and dependent on funding from party-aligned interests, often headquartered far from Wisconsin. Debate diminished and block voting became the norm. And, rather than continuing as the nation’s laboratory for democracy, the Wisconsin Legislature had around the turn of the 21st century become part of an Exclusivist political system.

The fall 2006 national and state midterm elections may have signaled the beginning of the end of the Exclusivist politics in Wisconsin. Popular discontent with existing policies contributed to the surprise overturning of Republican control in both houses of the U.S. Congress, and the Wisconsin Senate, and narrowing the Republican majority in the state Assembly. A special session of the 2007-08 Legislature merged Wisconsin’s Ethics and Election boards and charged the new board with policing legislator ethics, and new campaign finance and lobbying reform bills were passed in the Senate.

There is, however, little evidence that there has been significant change in legislative behavior during the first six months of the 2007-08 Legislature. Each party continues to develop legislation behind closed doors. Open and lengthy, substantive policy debate before voting is almost unheard of. Special interests continue to shovel money into the political system, and block voting continues to be the norm.

What can we expect if system doesn’t change? Will the Exclusivist political system end as Morgenstern predicts in some kind of political collapse or realignment? Still another possibility might be that legislators of both parties agree to return to the compromising spirit of the 1965-66 Legislature and see where that leads.

-- Stampen is professor emeritus, Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis, University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is affiliated with the UW-Madison's Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education (WISCAPE). Copies of Stampen's study are to be available from WISCAPE in September.

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