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Republican Calvinball Comes to Michigan

Kudos to Rachel Maddow and her team for almost making me want to watch cable news again with this story about how Michigan Republicans are subverting the legislature to put laws into effect immediately rather than waiting until the next calendar year.

The short version is this: the Michigan Constitution explicitly states that all laws passed by the legislature and signed by the Governor will go into effect 90 days into the next calendar year. The only way you can speed that process is through passing an “emergency measure” by a two-thirds vote that puts the law into effect immediately. Over 95% of Michigan laws have been passed that way, through “immediate effect,” since Republicans came into the majority in the legislature in 2011.

But the twist comes at around the 9 minute mark: in fact, practically none of those laws which got “immediate effect” received a two-thirds vote. House Republicans are just holding a separate “immediate effect” vote on these bills, with no roll call, and graveling in passage by eyeball of the chair three seconds after the vote gets called. They’re just lying to accelerate the process, violating the state Constitution.

Maddow noticed this because she has been closely following the state’s emergency financial manager law, which strips democracy from localities and installs a dictator to govern at the local level. That democracy-subverting measure went into immediate effect with, apparently, another democracy-subverting measure.

Rachel calls this “the worst of the worst” in terms of Republican overreach. I’m not so sure. Since the Tea Party majority in state legislatures in 2011, I’ve noticed several instances like this. I’ve called it Republican Calvinball. The most celebrated, in my mind, was the circumstances around passing Scott Walker’s anti-union law.

Let’s remember what happened here. The state Assembly passed the bill, but Democrats fled the state denying the quorum in the state Senate needed to bring up fiscal measures over there. Then the Republican Leader in the Senate called for a conference committee. How? The Senate hadn’t passed anything with that particular anti-union language. The theory was that they split the bill into two parts, a “fiscal” one and a “non-fiscal” one. The anti-union measures, according to this, were “non-fiscal,” so they could be allowed to pass them without the need for a quorum. Of course, by that point, Republicans had spent months upon months saying that the anti-union measures were a pressing fiscal need for the state.

Furthermore, the Republicans in the Senate never actually passed a bill. They just called for a conference committee. Then they passed the bill the same night, after holding a 2-minute conference committee, without ever having passed the initial bill to get into conference in the first place. It was a total sleight-of-hand.

Furthermore, they called for that conference committee in violation of state public meetings laws, which require 24 hours notice. They gave less than 2 hours notice, which violated even emergency rules. Democrats protested and successfully got an injunction against the law going into effect in a county court. But the state Supreme Court, packed with Republican loyalists, overturned the injunction, basically saying that “if the legislature does it, then it’s not illegal.”

And there are countless other examples. In Wisconsin, Scott Walker passed a voter ID law (not on hold in the courts) and then shut down DMV offices in Democratic areas, making it impossible for Democrats who had no ID to get them. In the initiative battle over SB 5, an anti-union bill in Ohio, Republicans tried to get the initiative split into five different parts to salvage as much of the law as possible, which would have made a completely different initiative from what supporters gathered signatures for.

What’s depressing about the Michigan issue is not just the repeal of democracy. It’s how depressingly normal it is for conservative Republicans to just throw out norms and laws that disrupt them from getting what they want.

UPDATE: Good point from Electablog: Michigan Democrats eventually sued to put a stop to a bunch of laws, but it took them more than a YEAR to figure this one out?

UPDATE II: Maybe one reason Democrats have waited so long to raise this issue is that they have engaged in it in the past when they were in power, passing “immediate effect” rules for legislation without a roll call vote. But they didn’t do it to this degree, an a violation of the Constitution is a violation of the Constitution.

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David Dayen

David Dayen