Yesterday a friend posted a comment on Facebook about how sad it was that a constituent of U.S. Senator Ron Johnson had to write the name and phone number of her lawyer on her arm before visiting his office. Nineteen people were arrested recently for attempting to gain an audience with him. She reminisced about the good old days and Wisconsinite’s relationships with former Senator Russ Feingold, who maintained a punishing schedule of listening sessions around the state even in non-election years, and who would visit people in their homes, sharing a meal or a cup of tea.
Today we are living under a constant, low-intensity siege by the organized rightwing from within Wisconsin, which is supported by the out-of-state interests of billionaires who have hijacked our political system. We are suffering the cumulative effects of traumatic stress, which are subtle, powerful, and perverse. Every day people are being arrested for reminding lawmakers that they have the constitutional right to petition their government for redress of their grievances.
This video taken on Monday gives you an eerie sense of the constant police presence in government spaces, as well as the normalization of handcuffing and arresting calm, non-disruptive, peaceful people. The committee proceedings happening during the arrest continue without a hitch or even the slightest acknowledgement that anything unusual is taking place.
This particular hearing was convened by Rep. Steve Nass to hear testimony from the Center for Equal Opportunity, a Virgina-based rightwing think tank that produces reports about “reverse racism” in college admissions. In response to the intense grilling by Democrats Mark Pocan, Barbara Toles and Terese Berceau, CEO President Roger Clegg actually told the committee that there were too many students of color at UW-Madison – a patently ridiculous claim to anyone who has spent any time here at all.
It seems that the Republicans have learned a little something from the events of last spring. Sweeping, sledgehammer legislative measures like the Budget Repair Bill and the state budget itself brought hundreds of thousands of people out into the streets to oppose them. Tactics are now turning toward chipping away at legislative powers while amassing administrative authority under the control of the governor through dozens and dozens of rules, appointments, and bills that are seemingly narrow in scope.
This strategy has the advantage of casting so wide and fine of a net over the workings of state government that it will be very, very difficult to disentangle once power has shifted away from rightwing extremists. This is also why it is difficult to mount an organized opposition to any one particular measure, and why the attack on people’s rights and democratic institutions seems so relentless. Because it actually is.
It came as no surprise, then, that concentration of administrative power in the office of the governor led the agenda on Tuesday as the Wisconsin state legislature reconvened. The senate met for 45 minutes, passing five bills, approving dozens of appointments to administrative positions, and referring four bills to the Senate Organization Committee.
The Assembly passed several bills, including the repeal of the Department of Natural Resource’s “Earn a Buck” program designed to control the spread of Chronic Wasting Disease in the state’s deer herds, and a bill implementing the federal Affordable Care Act that places an inordinate amount of decision making power about health insurance in the hands of the Insurance Commissioner who was appointed by Governor Walker in January this year.
Two controversial appointments were approved by the Senate: Former state senator Jeff Plale as Commissioner of Railroads, and John Scocos as Secretary of the Department of Veteran Affairs, a position he has held - and been fired from - in the past.
Although a Democrat, Plale voted with Republicans on many initiatives, including opposing climate protection legislation and rejecting labor union contracts at the end of 2010. That move set the stage for the infamous Budget Repair Bill that stripped public sector unions of collective bargaining rights. Governor Scott Walker appointed Plale as a top manager in the Department of Administration earlier this year amidst speculation that the appointment was payback for the anti-union vote.
John Scocos held the position of Secretary of the Department of Veteran Affairs for six years from 2003 through 2009, when he was fired by the Veteran Affairs Board for financial mismanagement. Scocos sued the state for discriminating against him on the basis of his active military service status, and that case is still in process. In July this year, the Republican-controlled legislature passed a law that shifts authority for appointing the Secretary from the Veteran Affairs Board to the Governor. As soon as Scott Walker signed that law, he announced the nomination of Scocos.
While hunting trophies and controversial appointments grabbed headlines, the biggest news out of the legislature took place in less than three minutes and has gone unnoticed by the corporate media. The referral of four bills to the Senate Organization Committee effectively voids rules made by the Department of Natural Resources to regulate air pollution, and a Government Accountability Board rule about reporting “independent” campaign finance contributions in the wake of the US Supreme Court Citizens United v. FEC decision.
As long as the bills have been scheduled and are in committee, the rules in question cannot be enforced. These particular bills could remain in limbo through the end of the session sometime in May of next year, though they could be taken up any time Republican leadership determines it would be politically expedient to put them on the floor for passage.
Three of the bills in limbo - SB 110, SB 111, and SB 138 - are proposals from the Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules to repeal air pollution standards and permitting requirements set by scientists and policy makers at the Department of Natural Resources. No one on the committee has explained the reason for repealing these rules, but the effective suspension of the rules lay part of the groundwork for proposed copper mine up north to move forward without having to make any changes in mining law.
Similarly, SB 139 would repeal the Government Accountability Board’s attempt to render contributions made by non-PAC “independent” donors to political campaigns transparent. As they have done with the GAB’s proposed methods of dealing with new requirements for voter IDs and recall petition administrative processes, the Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules could keep this initiative in limbo indefinitely.
I know what it feels like to work in a professional job where my best decisions are undermined and overturned by the personal and political agendas of the bosses. I empathize with the trained, skilled, and experienced people working in state agencies who are being given yet another object lesson in towing the line. As if the gutting of their unions wasn’t enough, now they know at any moment any decision they make can be overturned or disregarded if it is politically unpopular. What’s more, these people’s jobs may be in jeopardy. Rumors are circulating that a new state employee “handbook” of work rules is due out any day now.
Put all these pieces together – racist public policy, intensifying police presence, concentration of administrative power, systematic decimation of worker’s and citizen’s rights, a culture that rewards conformity to powerful interests – and you find it easier and easier to call the political climate in Wisconsin what it is: creeping fascism.
Rebecca Kemble is an Anthropologist who studied decolonization in Kenya. She serves on the Board of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives and as the President of the Dane County TimeBank.