Democrats rant about the unfairness of the Republican political "coup" of 2018 in Madison, as though what the Wisconsin legislature enacted at the end of Gov. Scott Walker's term was unprecedented. Democrats would never stoop so low. Wrong. Politicians on right and left have always used lame duck opportunities to push their agendas.
These final legislative sessions don't exist to give outgoing legislators weeks of paid vacation in the state house. They're legitimate times for lawmakers and administrators to clean up what was left of their to do lists; and, to protect important legislation and policies that the opposition might scuttle.
Government isn't set up to play tit for tat every four to eight years. But when partisan politics is radically divided, each side wants to undo whichever actions the other side took. And if necessary, the party still in power will legislate against it until the close of its final session. That might seem like dirty tricks, but it's usually legal and constitutional. New administrations have to target what they don't like and hope to succeed in reversing direction. Republican legislators in Michigan's recent lame duck session used the same tactics as Wisconsin's legislature and garnered the same criticism. But such actions are not new nor exclusive to Republicans.
Hyperbole aside (Republicans pose the greatest threat to the American republic since the end of the Civil War), efforts to rein in the opposing party's power have occurred throughout history. Noah Rothman of Commentary magazine dug up more than a few examples.
North Carolina Democrats tried to handcuff incoming Republican governors in 1972, 1984, and 1988. In 1990, Democrat governor Mike Dukakis approved a Massachusetts sales tax increase before Republican Bill Weld could move into the governor's mansion. In 1991, New Jersey's Democrat legislators used their lame-duck session to head off redistricting favorable to Republicans by granting authority to an independent commission.
The Democrat legislature in Massachusetts stripped then Gov. Mitt Romney of his power to appoint an interim U.S. senator in case John Kerry was elected president in 2004. But because that law would prevent Democrat governor Deval Patrick from appointing a replacement to deceased Sen. Edward Kennedy's seat in 2009, Democrats repealed the law.
New Jersey Democrats legalized medical marijuana and tried to repeal property owner tax rebates before Chris Christie took over the governorship in 2009. And here in Wisconsin, Gov. Jim Doyle tried to negotiate a bevy of public sector contracts in the 2010 lame duck session, knowing incoming governor Scott Walker objected to them.
Democrats in Illinois, unhappy about a gubernatorial upset in 2014, spent their final session changing an administrative election to every two years instead of four in order to turn over the position sooner. And Gov. Pat Quinn, knowing his Republican successor opposed a pension overhaul bill, tried to jam it through in the final hours of the same lame duck session.
All of these legal actions were not the spawn of modern politics. In 1801, outgoing president John Adams enraged incoming president Thomas Jefferson by pushing through changes to the established court system, changes that Jefferson opposed.
Adams reduced the number of Supreme Court Justices and created a new circuit court system, appointing judges and administrators from his own Federalist party in order to prevent Jefferson from appointing Republicans. But commission letters that Adams signed for 11 of the appointees arrived after his term ended. Jefferson then refused to appoint them, leading to new judicial legislation in 1802 and a famous Supreme Court decision, Marbury v. Madison in 1803.
Dirty politics? Maybe, but inevitable when both sides on an issue assert their positions as righteous and unworthy of compromise. It's the result of having a representative republic, a system far superior to the socialist democracy some on the far left prefer.