After the Republican-dominated legislature in Wisconsin passed a package of bills to strip power from the incoming Democratic governor for nakedly partisan purposes, NBC’s Meet the Press host Chuck Todd spuriously claimed that such maneuvers were not unprecedented because Democrats had done the same thing to Republican governors in the past.
There is no evidence of that -- and Todd offered none.
On December 9's Meet The Press, after detailing some of the changes that Republicans are making -- in both Wisconsin and Michigan -- and describing them as “a couple of end runs around the November election results,” Todd said: “Now, this has happened before in many a legislature. Democrats, in fact, have done this in the past to Republican governors in lame-duck sessions in other states.”
But Todd failed to provide a single example of Democrats taking comparable action, simply shifting to start his interview with incoming Wisconsin Gov.-elect Tony Evers.
The obvious precedent for this situation is North Carolina in 2016. Republicans there used a special session for the sole purpose of pushing bills “to undermine [incoming Democratic Gov. Roy] Cooper by stripping him of his ability to make key appointments to state and local boards and mandating, for the first time, legislative approval of his cabinet.” At the time, Todd discussed the matter on Meet The Press, saying that what the Republicans were doing was “perfectly legal ...but it doesn't feel in the spirit of ending an election.” In the years since, some of these changes that Todd deemed “perfectly legal” have been rolled back following court challenges.
So what else could Todd have pointed to? The examples are minimal at best. As Russell Berman wrote in The Atlantic, “It’s not uncommon for a party on the cusp of losing power to use its final days in office to pass significant legislation even after voters have rendered their verdict. ... But until recently, it has been rarer for a party to act so punitively toward its opponents after a defeat.”
A December 4 “weekly politics chat” on FiveThirtyEight’s website featuring several experienced political journalists and election analysts discussing whether lame-duck sessions are undemocratic highlighted a single 19-year-old example of Alabama Senate Democrats taking some of the lieutenant governor’s appointment and legislative powers and giving them to the state’s Senate president pro tem in 1999. However, as the Montgomery Advertiser reported, both Republican- and Democratic-controlled state senates have decided to keep the lieutenant governor’s power the same since the 1999 rule change. In fact, Republicans recently attempted to reduce the powers of Alabama’s lieutenant governor even further.
Limiting the powers of a state’s lieutenant governor two decades ago in an arrangement that has satisfied both parties is not at all comparable to current Republican efforts to undo election results by limiting powers. Even some Republicans are objecting to the current move in Wisconsin.
Former Wisconsin Gov. Scott McCallum, a Republican who served a short term in the early 2000s, said outgoing Gov. Scott Walker should veto many of the bills passed by Republicans to strip the incoming governor of some of his powers. In comments to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, he said: “There are going to be differences over executive control and legislative control, but you don’t play it out in the dark of night. You don’t make the changes after an election without hearings, without having the public involved, without having a vetting process.”
The Journal Sentinel also reported on comments from Sheldon Lubar, “longtime prominent Wisconsin Republican and former supporter of Gov. Scott Walker,” who was critical of the GOP attempt to limit the incoming Democratic governor’s powers. Lubar called the Republican legislators pushing the effort “a few petty, mean politicians” and said that if Walker signs their bills, Wisconsin voters “can look on him as somebody who ignores the will of the people and creeps into the house at midnight to steal away the result of their vote."
Additionally, PolitiFact has explained that the actions of Walker and the Wisconsin GOP legislature are at odds with their previous positions. In November 2010, Walker sent a list of requests to the outgoing Democratic governor asking him not to take several permanent actions during his lame-duck period, in contrast with the vastly expanded actions Walker is taking now. In fact, PolitiFact also detailed a move by Republican legislators in 2011 giving the governor power to approve or reject the adoption of administrative rules -- power that they’re now trying to take away from the incoming Democratic governor.
Meanwhile, GOP lawmakers in Michigan quickly followed in Wisconsin Republicans’ footsteps by pushing a bill to strip campaign finance oversight powers from the incoming Democratic secretary of state after also approving a separate bill to bypass the incoming Democratic attorney general on lawsuits involving the state.
This is all symptomatic of a larger problem: The mainstream media, and Meet The Press in particular, are ignoring growing GOP contempt for democracy itself. As Eric Levitz noted in the New York magazine, the root cause of what is happening in Wisconsin is not one party passing a law, but rather GOP fearing that the party that received the most votes in an election would actually have a chance to govern. In that sense, Todd declaring this power grab normal is no different than Meet The Press inviting an oil-industry funded guest who pushed climate change denial or a conspiracy theorist who talked about the need for civility.