Republican-controlled legislatures in Wisconsin and Michigan this week sought to curb the power of recently-elected Democratic governors and others, eliciting howls of protest from critics who called it a power grab after President Donald Trump‘s party lost ground in November’s midterm elections.
The Republican efforts, which echoed actions taken by politicians in North Carolina in 2016, threatened to further deepen political rancour in the key Midwestern battleground states.
“While you can find isolated incidents where legislatures have tried to hamstring governors before, there has been nothing on this scale,” Georgetown University public politics professor Donald Moynihan told Al Jazeera, adding that it married a trend that could undermine confidence in “the tradition of a peaceful transfer of power”.
After an all-night debate and jeers from protesters, Wisconsin politicians voted in the early hours of Wednesday on measures that would limit early voting, which has helped Democrats. They also voted to reduce incoming Democratic governor Tony Evers’s ability to appoint members to a key development board and restricted his power to make changes to state assistance programmes. And they approved a measure that could block incoming attorney general Josh Kaul from withdrawing the state from a lawsuit against the Affordable Care Act.
In nearby Michigan, the election of Gretchen Whitmer as governor, along with incoming Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and Attorney General Dana Nessel, marked the first time in nearly three decades Democrats will hold all three offices.
There, Republican politicians advanced legislation this week that would take over campaign finance oversight authority from the secretary of state. They were also moving a bill allowing the legislature to defend laws challenged in court if Democrat leaders opt against doing so. Nessel has suggested she may not defend a 2015 law allowing faith-based groups to refuse to serve same-sex couples who want to adopt children.
Those actions echoed the moves by politicians in North Carolina after the election of Democrat Roy Cooper in 2016, which led to legal battles.
Criticism mounted on Thursday, including from former US Secretary of State and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
“Republicans in Michigan and Wisconsin lost elections on November 6. Rather than respect the will of voters, they’re using their last few weeks in office to pass laws limiting the power of new governors and put roadblocks on voting. It’s not just anti-Democratic. It’s anti-democratic,” she tweeted.
Robin Vos, the Republican speaker of Wisconsin’s State Assembly, defended the measures in his state as an attempt to better balance the executive and legislative branches. He said in a statement that “with divided government, these bills allow for more discussions and opportunities to find common ground.”
But Gordon Hintz, the Wisconsin State Assembly’s Democratic leader, said it was motivated by “power and self-interest”, adding, “this is exactly what people hate about politics”.
Nationwide, Republicans have gained control of a majority of state legislatures since 2010, allowing them to approve Republican-backed priorities ranging from abortion restrictions to voter ID requirements.
A backlash against Trump helped Democrats gain in 2018, but they still control just 37 percent of statehouses, compared with Republicans’ 61 percent, according to the National Conference on State Legislatures, a non-partisan research group.
Wisconsin Republicans lost a number of statewide races in the midterm election but have kept control of the state legislature. Democratic voters are more heavily clustered in cities, and Democrats say Republicans have gerrymandered election districts that give them an advantage.
Outgoing Governor Scott Walker has 10 days to sign the bills. Evers has said he would ask Walker to veto the measure and then would consider legal action over measures he said were an effort to “override the will of the people of Wisconsin who asked for change on November 6th”.
While political motives are clearly in play, the Republican-led majority has authority to make such changes and “demand more accountability of the executive branch”, Matt Kittle of Wisconsin’s conservative MacIver Institute wrote earlier this week.
At the end of the day, citizens are the biggest losers if politicians put their party's interest over the will of the public.
The controversial efforts are likely to poison any hopes at bipartisan cooperation in Wisconsin that some held after eight years of polarising, one-party rule, Georgetown University’s Moynihan said, which included pitched battles over efforts to weaken labour unions.
Critics of the votes also saw reflections of Republicans’ refusal in 2016 to grant a hearing to President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland.
“The GOP is getting a reputation as the party that does not trust voters or believe in democracy. That is not a good brand in the long run. More generally, Democrats have less and less reason to observe democratic norms when they have a chance to gain a political advantage,” Moynihan said. “At the end of the day, citizens are the biggest losers if politicians put their party’s interest over the will of the public.”