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A Lame-Duck “Legislative Coup”: Wisconsin GOP Stages Last-Minute Power Grab Before Dems Take Office

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Image Credit: Norm Stockwell / The Progressive

Republican lawmakers in Wisconsin are orchestrating an unprecedented power grab to weaken incoming Democratic Governor Tony Evers before he takes office. In an extraordinary move that some are calling a “legislative coup,” Republican legislators worked throughout Tuesday night and into Wednesday morning to pass a sweeping package of lame-duck bills to give power to the Republican-controlled Legislature before Republican Governor Scott Walker leaves office in January. The Republican-controlled Wisconsin Senate passed a measure to limit the power of the Democratic governor and attorney general-elect and restrict early voting periods. Earlier Wednesday morning, the Wisconsin Senate and Assembly passed a bill enacting a Medicaid work requirement and limiting the incoming governor’s ability to change state laws requiring able-bodied adults without children to work in order to receive public benefits. We speak with Ruth Conniff, editor-at-large of the Wisconsin-based magazine The Progressive.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We begin today’s show in Wisconsin, where Republican lawmakers are orchestrating an unprecedented power grab to weaken incoming Democratic Governor Tony Evers before he takes office. In an extraordinary move that some are calling a “legislative coup,” Republican legislators have worked throughout the night to pass a sweeping package of lame-duck bills to give power to the Republican-controlled Legislature before Republican Governor Scott Walker leaves office in January. Republicans in both houses worked throughout the early morning to gather enough votes to pass the bills. Both houses are still in session now.

At 7 a.m. Eastern time, the Associated Press reported that the Wisconsin Senate passed a measure to limit the power of the Democratic governor and attorney general-elect and restrict early voting periods. Earlier Wednesday morning, the Senate and Assembly passed a bill enacting a Medicaid work requirement and limiting the incoming governor’s ability to change state laws that require able-bodied adults without children to work in order to receive public benefits.

On Tuesday, protesters took to the state Capitol in Madison for a second day to oppose the power grab.

PROTESTERS: Respect our vote! Respect our vote! Respect our vote! Respect our vote! Respect our vote! Respect our vote!

AMY GOODMAN: The Legislature is also considering measures to move up the 2020 presidential primary election to help a far-right judge remain on the state Supreme Court and allow the Legislature to sidestep Wisconsin’s incoming Democratic attorney general in certain legal battles. This is Democratic state Representative Chris Taylor speaking Monday.

REP. CHRIS TAYLOR: Ever in the history of the state of Wisconsin, has there been an extraordinary session convened to take away the powers of a newly elected governor and a newly elected attorney general?

AMY GOODMAN: Republican lawmakers are making a similar push for power with lame-duck bills in Michigan. These actions are in part modeled after a Republican power grab in North Carolina two years ago, when the Republican-controlled Legislature weakened the incoming Democratic Governor Roy Cooper’s ability to appoint Cabinet members, among other actions.

Well, for more, we’re going to Madison, Wisconsin. We’re joined by Ruth Conniff, editor-at-large of The Progressive magazine, which is based there, her most recent piece headlined “Wisconsin Republicans Make Unprecedented Power Grab. The People Push Back.”

Ruth, welcome to Democracy Now!

RUTH CONNIFF: Great to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: I assume you’ve been up all night; at least the legislators have. What is happening in the Wisconsin Legislature?

RUTH CONNIFF: Well, what’s happening in the Wisconsin Legislature continues to unfold. But as of 4:00 this morning, the Legislature had managed to pass the first of this raft of bills to grab power from incoming governor, Tony Evers, before he takes office. And the bill that is going to go to Scott Walker’s desk next is the bill that insists on work requirements for Medicaid recipients and, more broadly, gives the Legislature the power to review all federal waivers that the governor might want to seek to get out of, that Scott Walker sought. So that’s very significant, because it’s putting the Legislature in charge of everything related to healthcare that might involve a federal waiver. And that’s a whole, large, broad array of possible acts that the governor might want to take.

The background, though, I think what’s really important to understand, is that here in Wisconsin in 2018 Democrats won every single statewide race. And our Legislature is still Republican-dominated because it is the most gerrymandered set of districts, legislatively, in the United States of America. It’s been the subject of a federal lawsuit. A federal judge found it to be unconstitutional, the map that was drawn in secret to lock Republicans into power in the state Legislature. It went all the way to the Supreme Court and was turned back on a technicality. The Supreme Court found that the plaintiff in the case didn’t have standing. So, this is going to continue to be litigated. Because of their gerrymandered districts, the Republicans have held onto power in our state Legislature even as they’ve lost power at every—in every statewide office.

So they have called this extraordinary lame-duck session in order to ram through a series of measures that basically decapitate the executive branch and give the Legislature itself power over an enormous number of things, whether it’s agencies, whether it’s making the attorney general come to the Legislature, and specifically to a committee, a Republican-dominated committee within the Legislature, to get permission to pursue lawsuits, whether it’s settlement money potentially in lawsuits. That’s all controlled by the Legislature now.

And then limiting early voting, which is very significant, because Wisconsin had record turnout in 2018. And because of early voting, which the Legislature had tried to cut off—and then a federal judge intervened and said, “No, it’s unconstitutional”—there were enormous numbers of Wisconsin citizens who voted early. And the Legislature is now—and both houses have passed this; they need to get together on it, but they have limited early voting to two weeks. So, instead of six weeks, as it was here in Dane County, where we had presidential-level turnout, they’re going to have two weeks. And again, it’s just an effort to suppress the will of the people and to concentrate power in the state Legislature.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Ruth, in terms of the limits on the governor’s appointment powers, could you go into some of the specifics of what is actually happening with some of these agencies? Some of them, they’re actually packing with more members, that the Legislature—


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —would have say over?

RUTH CONNIFF: Yes. So, for example, the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, which has replaced the Commerce Department under Governor Scott Walker, it’s a scandal-plagued agency that hands out gifts to corporations that promise to create jobs. The Legislature has taken away the governor’s power to appoint the head of that agency. They’re still working this out. It still needs to be signed by Scott Walker. But this is where they’re going. And there was debate on it as I walked into the studio. They plan to pack the board so that, until September—and this is a recent redo. This is as of 4:00 this morning.

They plan to pack the board with Republican-chosen members, so that the governor can’t appoint the head of the board anymore and the Republican Legislature controls the makeup of the board. After September, they say it will be balanced. They’ll be chosen by legislators from the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. But they are—what they are fundamentally doing is undoing Tony Evers’ campaign promise to get rid of this agency altogether, because it has handed out tens of millions of dollars in taxpayer money to corporations that have failed to create jobs. And one of the smaller provisions—

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Including—and one of those corporations was Foxconn, as well?

RUTH CONNIFF: Foxconn. Foxconn, which is a big—yeah, it’s a big company that our state has given an enormous amount of subsidy money to and really is a—was a major issue in the campaign, because it’s a gigantic subsidy for this corporation that is not creating a lot of jobs, and hiring people actually from Illinois, to make big flat screens that will probably be obsolete shortly. There are a number of corporations that have received tens of millions of dollars from the state of Wisconsin. In this bill that the Legislature is pushing through right now, they remove the requirement that those corporations even demonstrate that they’re creating jobs. That was a requirement that they were failing to meet, and it’s the reason that the public is so, so up in arms against this Wisconsin Economic Development Board. It’s going to continue to exist. The Republicans are going to pack the board. And now they’re going to take away the requirement that the corporations they give money to, taxpayer money to, even show that they’re even doing anything in exchange for that money.

AMY GOODMAN: Couldn’t Foxconn well be the reason why the governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, lost—I mean, the touting of Foxconn coming to Wisconsin, and then people recognizing how much it would actually cost them? And, Ruth, before we go on, for people who aren’t familiar with Wisconsin politics—I mean, we were there in 2011, the massive protests that were held on the Capitol grounds against Scott Walker going after the public unions—the significance of what Walker is doing in just having been defeated in his race?

RUTH CONNIFF: Yes. It is really a replay of 2011, when we saw those historic protests. What is happening is, similarly, the public is shocked to find out that our Legislature, in the middle of the night, is ramming through a series of anti-democratic measures. A lot of people have come out to the Capitol. There were more than 1,300 members of the public who, when they found out late on Friday afternoon that this series of bills was going to be pushed through in this extraordinary lame-duck session to limit the powers of the governor and attorney general before they could even take office, turned out at the Capitol, registered against the bills. They all—all of the people who came out, all 1,348—registered against the bill, except for one—there was one person in favor—testified all night long, in dramatic hearings, and then, when they were locked out of the chamber by Republicans who wanted to keep the public out, were pounding on the doors and chanting. There was a huge rally outside the Capitol. It was very reminiscent of 2011.

And the same thing is at stake here. It is really a cabal of people in our state Legislature trying to seize power and consolidate power for themselves and override basic democratic processes. In 2011, they ignored the open meetings law, and they rammed through legislation without giving Democrats time to consider it. And now what’s going on is very similar. Eighty appointments. Governor Scott Walker has made 80 appointments in this extraordinary session, since Monday, without any public hearings and without any disclosure of their financial interests. So, he is packing the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents, he is packing the Public Service Commission, he is packing the Wisconsin Economic Development Board with his friends and cronies, before the new governor can come in.

And this is expressly against what was discussed in the campaign. The people of Wisconsin elected a Democratic governor who was very clear he was going to eliminate that Economic Development Board and he was going to expand access to healthcare. One of the things the Legislature has done is to make sure that the new attorney general does not have the power to withdraw Wisconsin from a federal lawsuit that opposes the Affordable Care Act. So, there’s just a huge effort here to prevent the will of the people from being enacted by this new administration.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Ruth, what’s happening in Wisconsin is not just happening there. In Michigan, Republican state legislators have also introduced several bills designed to clip the powers of the governor, attorney general and secretary of state, after Democrats took all three offices in the midterm elections. One bill would allow the state Legislature to get involved in any state legal proceedings which historically fell to the governor and the state attorney general. So it seems that if Wisconsin succeeds, there are going to be other states following in its footsteps.

RUTH CONNIFF: And even in addition to that, I would add that it is a national strategy. What we’re seeing in Wisconsin and Michigan is a national strategy by Republicans, who are losing their hold on power after the 2018 elections. They see a wave that is trying to push back Republicans. And the response to that is to try to undo democracy. It’s to try to limit voting. It’s to try to, very specifically, bring in private attorneys—and this is happening both in Wisconsin and in Michigan—bring in private attorneys to replace the attorney general, who represents the public. And in Wisconsin this is an issue, and in Michigan this is an issue, because they’re going to bring these private attorneys into court to represent the Legislature, which is Republican-dominated, instead of allowing the executive and the attorney general, who are Democrats, to pursue those lawsuits, as they always have, to make decisions about which lawsuits to pursue and to show up in court.

And just now in the Wisconsin Legislature, there was a Republican senator standing up and saying they ought to be able to hear from both sides: A judge ought to be able to sit there and see the attorney general representing the state of Wisconsin and a private attorney representing the Republicans in the Legislature, arguing against the state’s position right there in the same courtroom—which is chaotic. You have one side that’s represented by two opposing points of view. So, this is—

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Could you talk also—

RUTH CONNIFF: You know, this is, I believe, very clearly a national strategy.

AMY GOODMAN: In Michigan, it’s also interesting just to note that all three leaders, incoming Democratic leaders in Michigan, are women, which is a first for Michigan.


AMY GOODMAN: You have Gretchen Whitmer, the governor-elect. You have Jocelyn Benson, the secretary of state, and Dana Nessel, the attorney general. One of the first times, I think, in the country anywhere that the top three leaders of a state are going to be women.

RUTH CONNIFF: All women, all won by big, healthy margins. And all are pushing back against the same agenda we’ve seen in Wisconsin, which is the disempowerment of unions and the interests of the wealthy represented by a Republican Legislature that is pushing through major tax cuts for corporations and very wealthy individuals—also part of the package in Wisconsin that we’re seeing right now—and that is trying to subvert public education, pouring public money into private schools. That’s a major issue both in Michigan and Wisconsin. So, undoing the public sphere, concentrating power and cutting taxes for the wealthy.

And you see the public’s response, looking at what’s happened. Over the last eight years here in Wisconsin, we see our roads crumbling. We see people losing access to healthcare. We see our schools suffering from massive budget cuts. And the public has really spoken on this, and they have asked to remove Scott Walker from office. They’ve elected Democrats at every level. And they’re ready for a more humane state and a better future.

And instead, what we’re getting is an enormous number of private attorneys who the Republicans in the Legislature now want to hire to represent committees and members of the Legislature and legislative staff to do their business in secret, to hold negotiations that could be subject to attorney-client privilege, when it comes to lawsuits that are filed against the state or decisions that the attorney general would want to make but would have to consult with the Legislature about lawsuits that he would pursue. So you see this secrecy and a lot of public expenditure on private attorneys in order to concentrate power for these Republicans and their wealthy friends.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Ruth, and in terms of public expenditures, could you talk about the effort to add another primary in 2020, change the date of the presidential primary, and what the meaning of that is?

RUTH CONNIFF: Well, this is the one piece of this package of legislation that did not make it out of committee. So, it seems that the Republicans have been shamed into dropping their effort to change the date of Wisconsin’s presidential primary.

And what’s interesting about it is, there is a Republican incumbent judge on the state Supreme Court—and we elect our state Supreme Court justices here in Wisconsin—he was appointed by Scott Walker, and he will have to face the public in an election that will come up at the same time that we’re holding a presidential primary. So what the Republicans did was to propose moving the election for the state Supreme Court off the date of the presidential primary. So they would hold two elections, in very quick succession, at enormous expense, with potentially overlapping early voting. This is the origin of curtailing early voting, to make sure that you can’t go and vote for your presidential candidate in the primary and also vote for that state Supreme Court justice.

There was so much news about this and so much protest, that it never made it out of the Joint Finance Committee. That doesn’t mean it won’t come up again on the floor. And it’s starting to get light outside, so maybe they won’t try to include that in their package now. But I think what that shows—first of all, they were willing to spend $7 million, over the objections of nearly every single local election official in the state, to separate these elections, for no reason except to protect a Republican justice from facing a high-turnout electorate. And I think what it really shows is that public pressure and really bad national headlines shamed the Republicans into ramping that back.

And what we’re seeing now is—you know, they have been readjusting these bills as they work through the night. They were still writing bills, rewriting bills and trying to get their caucuses together at midnight, and at 4:00 they began to bring out new versions of these bills. So, for now, it seems like Wisconsin is going to go ahead and have one election in the spring that will include the presidential primary and the Supreme Court race.

AMY GOODMAN: And, well, I mean, these are legislators voting, so in the new session, a new set of legislators can vote. Is there any way this could be turned back?

RUTH CONNIFF: Well, the Republicans, this is—I mean, this is what you have to understand about Wisconsin. The Republicans, although they lost overwhelmingly—and they lost every single statewide race in 2018—they held onto power in the Legislature. There’s been virtually no change in the makeup of both houses of the Wisconsin state Legislature. And the reason for that is that although many more Wisconsinites voted Democratic than Republican in 2018, the Republicans actually picked up some seats in the Legislature because they have drawn a map in which they have gerrymandered their districts so that they have packed all the Democrats together in one small district and they have stretched out the Republican districts to include every Republican they can find in their area. And this has been the subject of a federal lawsuit. And it will—the federal judge ruled against Wisconsin, said it was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court, on appeal, turned it back to the federal court. So this will come up again.

And then, the big thing, the big threat for Republicans in Wisconsin is that in 2020, after the census, they’re going to have to draw new maps. And those new maps are going to have to pass an executive who is a Democrat. So, they will not be able to do what they did in 2010, which is to go into a back room in a law firm that was friendly to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, draw secret maps and then ram them through, only to be found that they’re unconstitutional. And that’s where I think all of the things that the Republicans in Wisconsin are doing now will come back to bite them.

And just like Republicans across the country, you know, they’re facing a demographic wave that’s against them. They’re facing popular opinion that’s against them. And they’re doing everything they can to consolidate and hang onto power at the last minute. But, ultimately, they will have to face the voters. And so, this Legislature is not going to change in this session, and they’re going to try to run the state and take powers away from the governor. But they are not—it is a bad long-term strategy. And I spoke to many Republicans who came out to the Capitol to say they would never vote Republican again, after watching this kind of self-serving behavior. So, they’re losing their own constituents with these maneuvers.

AMY GOODMAN: Ruth Conniff, we want to thank you for being with us, editor-at-large of the Wisconsin-based magazine The Progressive. Her most recent piece, we will link to, “Wisconsin Republicans Make Unprecedented Power Grab. The People Push Back.”

When we come back, Rick MacArthur, author of Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War. We look back at George H.W. Bush’s legacy when it comes to the Gulf War. Stay with us.

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