The Wisconsin Assembly recently approved rule changes that seek to accommodate lawmakers with disabilities. But the new rules also contain provisions that have riled up Democrats, who call the tweaks a “power grab.”
Some of the language that’s drawn the most attention involves the chamber’s ability to take repeated veto override votes, a move Republican leadership argues “doesn’t change the power at all.”
But Democrats point to other provisions they say weaken the minority party's standing by limiting debate — though Republicans argue they're looking to streamline sessions and prevent lengthy floor dates.
The changes — 10 in all — were approved last Thursday over unified Democratic opposition after the language was first unveiled on Tuesday.
In addition to the other provisions, the revised rules allow lawmakers with a permanent disability to call in to committee meetings.
The change was sought by Rep. Jimmy Anderson, a Fitchburg Democrat who is paralyzed from the chest down. He has also pushed to hold hearings and sessions during "reasonable hours" and set limits on the amount of time lawmakers are on the floor for nearly a year.
Republicans and Democrats in the Assembly initially talked about making the accommodations in the rules as well as in the memorandum of understanding, a process that began in the 2013-14 session and consisted of informal agreements over the conduct of legislative business. They established negotiated time frames for debate and aimed to prevent overnight floor sessions.
While conversations for a 2019-20 MOU began last winter, communications between the two sides broke down and a new agreement hasn't yet been signed.
As talks stalled, Anderson over the summer went to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and said Assembly GOP leadership, including Speaker Robin Vos, was declining to provide the accommodations he needed to do his job as a lawmaker.
Vos, R-Rochester, later slammed Anderson for “political grandstanding” on the issue and declined via a letter his request to call in. But Vos said he would seek to make a videographer available for public committee hearings and consider letting members vote via paper ballot rather than in person.
Anderson then hired a lawyer at Disability Rights Wisconsin, who sent Vos a letter in mid-September reiterating accommodations requests he previously made. The letter set an Oct. 1 deadline for a response.
That prompted GOP leaders to reconsider the issue and take action via a rule change, Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna, said in a floor speech last Thursday, though Republicans wanted to ensure the tweaks wouldn't "completely change the culture of the Assembly."
Before the rule changes were unveiled Tuesday, Anderson wasn't consulted. The accommodations, Steineke said, are unique to Wisconsin and other surrounding states don't have similar allowances for their legislators, from what Republicans found.
Under the call-in option, a lawmaker with a permanent disability would need to present written documentation to the Legislature's human resources office. HR would then have to certify in writing the member has a permanent disability and isn't able to regularly attend committee meetings, a copy of which would be provided to the speaker and minority leader, who would need to sign off on the member's ability to participate in the meetings via telephone.
On the day of a committee hearing, a lawmaker who wants to call in would need to provide 30 minutes of notice to the committee chair and the sergeant at arms.
But the changes also seek to curb lengthy floor debates, Republicans say. Specifically, the majority and minority leader would need to meet and set debate time limits for each item on the calendar. If the pair can't agree, the full Assembly Rules Committee, which is controlled by Republicans, would then be directed to establish those limits.
Once the time limit on an item has expired, according to a memo from the nonpartisan Legislative Reference Bureau, debate can be ended by a motion from a legislator, no further amendments may be considered and lawmakers would need to immediately vote on the matter.
Setting time limits on each calendar item represents a break from current practice. Before this, the majority and minority leaders beginning in the 2013-14 session would meet to set debate times for a full floor session date, rather than individual items. If agreement couldn't be reached, no time limit would be set.
Additionally, the language looks to prevent delays in debating or passing legislation by specifying that a motion to recess for a partisan caucus can be dismissed.
The tactic, used by members of both parties to stall a floor session, is already dismissible under the previous version of the rules, per the Legislative Reference Bureau report. But the changes make it clear that a presiding officer, currently a GOP lawmaker, has the ability to do so.
Unlimited veto override attempts
The rule changes also give lawmakers the ability to repeatedly vote to override the governor's veto of a proposal.
Previously, those votes — which need the approval of two-thirds of the members present to pass — could only occur once, as they weren't subject to be reconsidered.
Democrats last week argued the change would let Wisconsin GOP lawmakers emulate "the same kind of gamesmanship" that occurred in North Carolina last month, in the words of Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh.
At the time, House Republicans in the state voted to override a budget veto from the Democratic governor while many of that party's lawmakers attended a Sept. 11 commemoration event.
“That was disgusting, it was antidemocratic and I think it was corrupt, and this is the same kind of behavior that the speaker is endorsing in this action,” Hintz told reporters last week.
But Steineke in comments on the floor Thursday noted that if Republicans "want to be nefarious with the process" and take a veto override vote without some Democratic members, they could have done that without changing the rules.
"A second vote on a veto override is about things that may change after the first vote," he said. "So you take the first vote, people back home might not like the way you voted, might start putting pressure on you to vote the other way. That’s why the second vote. (It) give(s) you an opportunity to change your mind."
The Legislative Reference Bureau memo calls the Assembly's ability to reconsider a veto override vote "a novel legislative procedure, at least in Wisconsin."
Democrats last week didn't rule out the possibility of filing a lawsuit over the language, but they didn't elaborate.
Currently, there's a 63-36 Republican-Democratic split in the chamber. If all 99 members are present in the Assembly, 66 members would need to agree to override a veto.
The state Senate would also need to successfully vote to override a veto as well, an action that would require the approval of two-thirds of the members present.
Other rule changes
GOP lawmakers approved a series of other changes to the chamber's rules ranging from the order of the calendar to bringing members back to the floor.
The rule changes related to the calendar allow Assembly and Senate bills to be considered before resolutions, rather than after, a move that Steineke has said prioritizes the relative importance of bills over resolutions and means that members who leave early miss less.
But Anderson last week said changing the order would mean he isn't always able to vote on resolutions rather than bills, "and then it removes my constituents' voice from these proceedings."
The state Senate made a similar change to its calendar in May, according to the Legislative Reference Bureau memo.
Further, the new rules would put restrictions on lawmakers' abilities to withdraw proposals from committee and only let legislators do so during a certain order of business on a certain day in any week.
After legislation is written and introduced, it's referred to a committee, where the chair can hold a public hearing and executive session on the item, then making it available to be taken up on the floor, a process further detailed in the Wheeler Report's summary of the rule changes. Withdrawing a bill from committee would allow it to skip some of the committee steps and be immediately considered by the full chamber.
Additionally, the changes allow a presiding officer in the Assembly to order a call, forcing members that have left their seats to return to the floor. Before the tweak was adopted, any member could request the presiding officer to issue a call, though it would need to be seconded by 15 members in order to compel him or her to do so.
The remaining changes would redefine the Assembly chamber to exclude the Assembly majority leader's office, which was relocated from the second floor in 2013; tweak how proposals are referred to the calendar; and more easily allow members to return a bill to its amendable stage.