The Wisconsin debate highlights chance in political process

Demonstrators jam the Wisconsin Capitol: "This is how Democracy works" (AFP)

As demonstrators wrangled on Saturday over Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker‘s move to weaken public unions, analysts weighed the consequences of 14 Democratic senators’ decision to flee the state to stall the bill’s consideration.

Their absence means the State Senate, controlled by Republicans, lacks the necessary quorum to act on the proposal.

“This is seen as an extreme action you can interpret in two ways,” said Larry Sabato, Director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

“Either they are trying to unfairly deny the people’s vote in November or they feel that things are so inequitable that they have been forced to use these tactics.”

“In doing so, Democrats might end up losing a giant public relations battle in addition to this legislative stand-off,” Sabato said.

Democratic leaders say the senators were forced into the action by Republicans — who won control of the governorship and legislature last fall — seeking to rapidly introduce legislation while breaking legislative rules. Republicans deny that and say the legislation is necessary to create needed flexibility in dealing with the state’s imminent fiscal woes.

Tens of thousands of state workers and their supporters have demonstrated against the proposals this week, and many have added their signatures to a sign in the State Capitol that showed solidarity with the absent senators.

“I think they are doing exactly what they need to do by staying away,” said Julie Rothenbach, 42, a mother and teacher-in-training from Milwaukee after signing the poster. “And if that’s what it takes to slow this thing down and let our voices be heard, that’s okay with me.”

Professor Mark Copelovitch of the University of Wisconsin said the Democrats’ move was a local version of the U.S. Senate filibuster, a tactic once minimally used that he called now “systematic.

Defenders say such tactics protect minority rights and prevent majorities from ramming through legislation without due deliberation. Critics contend they can hinder the legislative process and implementation of policies voters support.

“As far as the constitution goes, there is nothing that expressly forbids their actions,” Copelovitch said. “But if the same thing that is happening in Wisconsin spreads to other states, there should be explicit rules written to forbid it.”

Senator Jon Erpenbach said Friday that the senators were prepared to be away for weeks, and Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca said he didn’t know when they would return.

“Sooner or later all 14 will have to return–they are away from their states, homes, and businesses,” said Sabato, adding that a vote is inevitable and the mathematics is not on the side of the Democrats.

“The upside is that they have brought a lot of attention to their point of view. The downside is they are setting themselves up for a big failure in public relations at some point,” Sabato said.

Copyright © 2011 Reuters Ltd

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