Christian Schneider

Author, Columnist

The Democrats’ Anti-Constitutional Power Grab

The spending bill introduced by Democrats last week is either a “stimulus” bill or a “budget adjustment” bill, depending on what purpose they need it to serve based on the conversation they are having at the time.  (Ironically, the bill is neither, as it won’t stimulate anything and only fills in a fraction of the 2008-09 deficit.)  But one portion of the bill deserves extra scrutiny, as it turns our representative form of government completely on its head in order to facilitate the most naked of power grabs.

With hundreds of millions of dollars of federal stimulus funds headed Wisconsin’s way, Democrats want to spend it as quickly as possible, with minimal oversight.  In order to make this happen, they have included a provision that virtually gives sole stimulus fund spending authority to three people: Governor Jim Doyle, and Represenative Mark Pocan and Senator Mark Miller, who chair the Joint Finance Committee for their respective houses.  (Had Miller not stabbed Senator Judy Robson in the back and voted to remove her as Majority Leader last session, it would be someone else spending the money on behalf of the Senate.  To the victor goes the spoils.)

Article VIII of the Wisconsin Constitution specifically states that “no money shall be paid out of the treasury except in pursuance of an appropriation by law.”  In other words, when money is spent, it must be approved by the full legislature in the form of a law that is debated in an open and transparent way.  The Constitution goes on to require that appropriation bills receive a roll call vote, rather than a voice vote.

Yet this new bill destroys that process as laid out by our state’s founders.  Instead, the new bill gives two legislators the ability to decide how hundreds of millions of dollars are spent in Wisconsin. Since this authority will be granted to these two legislative leaders by a full vote of the Legislature, it appears that it is certainly a constitutional arrogation of authority.  But the end result – consolidating such major spending decisions in the hands of so few people – while not “unconstitutional,” can certainly be classified as “anti-constitutional.”  It goes against the entire principle of open government that the Constitution prescribes.

There’s a good reason appropriation bills must go through the full legislative process.  They get a committee hearing, complete with testimony, and a committee vote.  In committee, there’s an opportunity to amend the bill if necessary.  Then the bill goes to the full floor of the legislative house for a vote, where it is debated, and can once again be amended by the full Senate or Assembly.  Then, after it makes it through one house, it begins the process anew in the other house, where it gets even more debate and tweaking.

Not only does this process allow for public input and bill correction, it spreads the responsibility for the bill over the entire legislature.  Each elected official has buy-in, and can say the interests of their constituents was represented.  Yet under this new consolidation plan, only two legislators are accountable to anyone.  As a result, the new scheme is replete with opportunities for mismanagement and corruption.

Ask the people of Illinois what happens when immense governmental decisions are consolidated in the hands of a few people.  The alleged Blagojevich swap meet for Barack Obama’s senate seat happens.  Favors are handed out with no transparency, no debate, and no public involvement.  If we were to write a recipe that virtually guaranteed as much corruption as possible in the “stimulus” process, we couldn’t do any better than the Democrats’ plan before us today.  A teaspoon of closed government here, a dash of undue campaign contributor influence there, and a heaping helping of hundreds of millions of dollars in federal money all make for a toxic casserole taxpayers are going to have to swallow.  And like it.

Naturally, Wisconsin’s “good government” groups like the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign and Common Cause will be highly critical of Democrats for this pro-corruption, anti-transparency power grab.  And on the same day, a tap-dancing dolphin will be elected to the governorship.

It is often said that the only thing worse than a government that acts too slow is a government that acts too fast.  And we’re all about to learn that lesson the hard way.

2 Comments

  1. So why isn’t it unconstitutional? Arguably the requirement to act on appropriations bills can’t be delegated. Is this constitutional duty met by giving designees the authority to spend a block of money. While the appropriation of the block of money may satisfy the letter of the law, it clearly fails to satisfy the spirit of the constitution.
    With a conservative court in place, there may be some chance of prevailing if this boondogle is challanged. If nothing else, a challange could drag the process into the light of day and the scrutiny of the voters.
    This kind of slight of hand already is giving us socialized medicine at the Federal level. Letting these folks get away with this with out raising a stink, even with the intent to save the ammunition for an election year, isn’t very good strategy. We need to be able to say “I told you so,” not have voters asking why we didn’t say anything at the time.
    While sending this information back and forth to people we agree with is reassuring, we need to wave yellow flags in public.

  2. Happily, they dropped it. The stimulus appropriations decisions will now go through the entire budget committee.

    http://www.madison.com/wsj/arch_local/439116

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