‘SLAP IN THE FACE’
Michigan's Lame-Duck Republicans Waddle Away from Democracy
Democrats dominated the election, so Republicans are racing to take power away from the government while they still control it.
You’ve read about what Republicans are doing in Wisconsin, North Carolina, and Michigan, where GOP-held legislatures are to varying degrees trying to undo things the voters did on Nov. 6 that don’t suit them. Wisconsin has attracted national attention because outgoing Governor Scott Walker is a man liberals love to hate, and North Carolina because the state’s Moral Monday protests have enjoyed national attention for two years now.
But what’s happening in Michigan may be the most egregious of the three. Consider: On one front, the Republicans in the state legislature there are essentially trying to tear up progressive wage legislation that the very same state legislature adopted earlier this fall. On a second front, they’re trying to chip away at two reforms to the electoral system that voters approved by margins of 61 and 67 percent. And on a third, they’re trying to change the way the state decides which lawsuits it will take up and defend.
The second front attacks the powers of the incoming secretary of state; the third does the same to the incoming attorney general. And whaddya know, both of those offices are flipping from Republican control to Democratic.
On front one: Earlier this week, the outgoing (Republican) attorney general ruled that it would be all right for the lame-duck state legislature to amend voter initiatives raising the minimum wage and introducing paid sick leave. More than 400,000 Michiganders signed these petitions. The way it works in Michigan is that initiatives like this can become law either by the legislature adopting them (once they’ve met certain petition qualifications) or by being put on the ballot.
The Republican-controlled state senate and house both adopted them in September. Unusually enlightened? Uh, not really. As State Representative Christine Greig, a Democrat who represents a district northwest of Detroit and will be the Democrats’ leader next year, told me: “The whole idea was to avoid having them on the ballot, so as not to drive up Democratic turnout.”
Also, as the Detroit Free Press has noted, keeping them off the ballot means that the measures can be amended by simple majorities in both houses, rather than the three-quarters that would have been required if they’d passed on the ballot.
And now that they’re law, Republicans are scurrying, while they still have massive majorities in both houses and before a Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer, replaces Republican Rick Snyder in January.
On the electoral front, Michigan voters easily passed Proposal 2, 61-39, to take redistricting out of the state legislature’s hands and name an independent commission, a great reform that’s catching on across the country. It passed 61-39 percent. They also passed Proposal 3, to establish same-day voter registration and automatic voter registration, by an even bigger 67-33 margin.
Now, Republicans are trying to take oversight of all campaign finance away from the secretary of state and give it to a new “fair political practices commission.” And finally, they’re pushing a bill to limit the discretion of the attorney general and the governor to decide whether to defend the state’s position on certain lawsuits and increase the state legislature’s role in such decisions.
Take note of this awkward rhetorical tap dance performed recently on NPR by the Republican who sponsored the lawsuit bill: “I don’t believe it is a power grab. And I certainly understand the optics. It’s being done at lame duck or being considered in lame duck. But as the bill’s sponsor, I can honestly say this is legislation that in retrospect, although it hadn’t occurred to me, so—I mean, I could have introduced a year ago or two years ago or, if I were returning, two years from now because I think it’s good policy. And I think it doesn’t encroach on the attorney general…”
What’s really going on here? This. Democrats cleaned up in Michigan last month, picking up two key purple congressional seats and the three big statewide offices. They’ll hold all three of those for the first time since the early 1990s. Democrats also picked up five seats in the State Senate—so that it will no longer be able to override a veto on a party-line vote—and five more in the lower house. Democratic candidates for the state house, Greig told me, won about 200,000 more votes collectively than Republicans, even though they won only 52 seats, and Republicans took 58.
So whatever they call it, this is what Republicans in Michigan, and Wisconsin and North Carolina, are doing: They’re trying to invalidate democratically chosen outcomes that they don’t like. “It’s a slap in the face to the voters,” Greig says. “We had record turnout in the election. People were taking their government back, and they were so proud of it.”
Brandon Dillon, the state Democratic Party chair, notes that it will all ultimately be up to what Governor Snyder does in his final weeks in office. The wage and sick leave bills have passed both houses; the governor must act in two weeks. The bills on electoral reform and the lawsuits are still moving through the legislature, but all will pass, and on largely partisan lines.
Dillon holds out some hope—Snyder, he says, isn’t Scott Walker and isn’t under enormous right-wing pressure to toe the line. “He’s resisted the far right on abortion and birth control,” Dillon told me. “But we’re mobilizing all kinds of outside groups” to pressure him from the left. Others think his view is a little hopeful.
I don’t want to overdo this, but as I often write, in the age of Trump, the far greater danger is in under-doing it. So let’s call this what it is. These are baby steps to fascism. Lame-duck legislatures, historically, are supposed to name buildings and tie up loose threads left hanging, and maybe very occasionally do something kind of meaningful at the chief executive’s behest. They do not exist to invalidate choices the voters just made. That isn’t democracy. That’s anti-democracy.
And once that door is flung open, how many other doors will swing open, too? Will legislatures just start routinely undoing things voters have done? Things they themselves have done, as they are trying to now in Michigan?
Before long, Republicans will get more and more heedless of custom, and it will become a matter of course for lame-duck sessions—which are an anachronism to begin with, a vestige of the horse-and-buggy era—to be used to strip incoming governments of power. And then to return those powers to governments once the political winds blow more favorably.
And what do we suppose Donald Trump might try to pull off in lame-duck session in late 2020, if he loses that election? He won’t have the House of Representatives to bend to his will, but what about the Electoral College? Imagine he loses the Electoral College narrowly; say 274-262. Will he and the Republican Party try to flip electors, get them to switch their votes?
Once people start bending these norms, it is inevitable that they’ll break. And I think we all know just the man who’ll break them.