Despite the unbelievable events going on in the Middle East, it’s been impossible to turn on the news without hearing about the ongoing demonstrations in Wisconsin. In protest over a Republican bill seeking to strip collective bargaining rights from public unions, all fourteen Democratic Senators packed up shop and left the state in order to prevent the quorum necessary to bring the bill to a floor vote.
Before we delve any deeper, I would like to make one thing clear: I’m not offering a commentary on the contents of the bill or its purpose. The far more important issue to discuss is the intentional decision of fourteen Senators to shirk their constitutional obligations and subvert the democratic process in order to avoid unwanted legislative outcomes.
The American political process functions on the basic principle that we, the governed, have consented to this government under the condition that it be representative and respects the rule of law set forth in its founding documents.
Put another way, we, the people, give the government a high level of deference and flexibility so long as they act within the system of rules that we have all agreed on.
I find it difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile the actions of the fourteen Wisconsin Senators with their sworn duty to their constitution and their constituents.
As set forth in the Wisconsin constitution, every elected representative must swear an oath or affirmation to faithfully discharge their duties to the best of their ability. Fleeing the state and shutting down all Senate business with the express purpose of preventing a vote from taking place is hardly a faithful exercise of their constitutional duties as elected representatives.
Back in 2009, President Obama quipped that “elections have consequences.” He was right then and he remains right today. The people of Wisconsin made their decision known in November of 2010. Wisconsin’s citizens voted Republican majorities into both the House and Senate and put a Republican in the Governor’s mansion for the first time since 2003. That majority of the Wisconsin electorate cast their votes with specific political intentions and desires. It is undemocratic for the runaway Senators to subvert the express will of the people by refusing to do their jobs and preventing the Wisconsin Senate from conducting the people’s business.
The Democratic Senators in Wisconsin were also elected for a reason. They were elected to go to the floor of the Senate and emphatically vote against this sort of legislation. They were elected to go to the media and make their case to the court of public opinion. They were elected to attempt to compromise and to draw attention to any failure by the other party to meet in the middle. Most importantly, they were elected to give a voice to their constituents.
They have failed in these duties. By refusing to allow the democratic process to progress, the Democratic Senators have not only failed to represent their constituents, they have actively prevented other Senators from representing theirs. So long as the Democratic Senators stay out of town, no Senator can functionally represent their electorate because no bill can come to a vote.
Many have compared the actions of the Democratic Senators to the Congressional Republicans’ unprecedented use of the filibuster. While the flagrant abuse of the filibuster by the Republican minority is disgraceful, the important distinguishing factor is that the use of the filibuster is an integral part of the codified Senate rules. Like it or not, Senators from both parties have defended the filibuster as a necessary tool to protect the rights of the minority.
Supporting the undemocratic actions of Wisconsin’s runaway Senators promotes a dangerous precedent. A representative and deliberative body can only function if everybody plays by the same rules. Allowing an upset minority party to run away and shut down government rather than stand up and represent the people who put them in office is anathema to the purpose of our republic and should be condemned regardless of personal politics.
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