Democracy in Michigan: What Rachel Got Right and Wrong

Thursday, Rachel Maddow devoted 15 minutes to a very important story that no other national news source was covering, so I made it the Link of the Day on Saturday. Unfortunately, she only got it mostly right. So rather than just link you to her video, I need to write a whole article.

Briefly, democracy in Michigan is in trouble for two reasons, one that Rachel has been covering for about a year, and one she just noticed Thursday.

Local Dictators. The year-old problem is the Emergency Manager law. As the Nation summarizes it:

Signed into law in March 2011, it granted unprecedented new powers to the state’s emergency managers (EMs), including breaking union contracts, taking over pension systems, setting school curriculums and even dissolving or disincorporating municipalities. Under PA 4, EMs, who are appointed by the governor, can “exercise any power or authority of any officer, employee, department, board, commission or other similar entity of the local government whether elected or appointed.”

Basically, when a city or town gets into bad enough financial trouble, the state appoints a dictator who replaces the entire local government.

In addition to the taxation-without-representation aspect of the law (local people continue to pay local taxes, but have lost the ability to elect the officials who spend their money), there’s an unfortunate racial outcome: The communities most likely to suffer the dire economic conditions that trigger the law — Pontiac, Benton Harbor, Detroit — are those where white flight has left behind a black underclass.

I doubt this represents a conspiracy to disenfranchise blacks, but a similarly large group of disenfranchised whites could probably get more public sympathy. So, Rachel points out,

If you are an African-American living in Michigan, there is a 50-50 chance that this year, the state of Michigan has considered scrapping … your right to elect local officials to represent you.

(I haven’t figured out yet what “considered” means in this context. It may refer to concessions Detroit’s local government made to the state in order to avoid being replaced.)

Fake supermajorities. Here’s the newly-revealed part: The Michigan Constitution delays laws going into effect until 90 days after the legislative sessions ends — which could be a year or more after they pass. But there’s an “emergency” provision that allows a 2/3 super-majority to give a law “immediate effect”.

But then something funny happens. Since Republicans took control of the state legislature and the governorship at the beginning of 2011, 546 of 566 bills — including the Emergency Manager law — have been passed with immediate effect. The funny business isn’t just that there haven’t been 546 authentic emergencies, but that Republicans don’t have a 2/3 majority in the House.

How did they do that? Well, you see an example beginning around the 12:30 mark of Rachel’s segment: The Republicans pass a bill, the floor leader asks for immediate effect, the chair ignores Democrats calling for a roll call, asks all those in favor to rise, and within four seconds gavels that it has passed. The House journal records a 2/3 super-majority that probably never existed.

Wait a minute. Rachel is incensed, and so was I when I first watched. But then I had the same reaction as Kevin Drum:

When I first heard this, my BS meter tingled pretty hard. Maddow characterized her story as a scoop, but that made no sense. I mean, Michigan still has a Democratic Party. If this were a huge abuse of power, they’d be yelling about it, right? So what’s really going on?

OK, this is outrageous stuff, but it’s outrageous stuff that’s been happening since January, 2011 and the Michigan Democrats only sued at the end of March. (Monday they got an injunction, which the Republicans are appealing on the grounds that courts have no right to interfere in the workings of the legislature.) What’s up with that?

The Detroit News reports that the Democrats had similar percentages of immediate-effect bills when they were in power in 2009-2010, even though they also were short of a 2/3 majority. Democratic legislator Jeff Irwin was asked about this and responded:

Has this been done before? Yes. Violating the clear terms of the Constitution has become commonplace in the Michigan House of Representatives. The big difference now is that since the Senate follows the Constitution, there was always one chamber where immediate effect votes would be counted and extremely divisive bills would not earn immediate effect in the Senate.

But the Republicans really do have 2/3s of the Senate, so miscounting in the House makes a real difference now. Anyway, Irwin says:

I’m new to the Michigan House and I’ve always thought this practice of declaring votes successful without any actual voting is bogus.

What I think it means. Anybody who looks at the numbers and the video has to conclude that the Michigan House is violating the Constitution. That’s a bad practice no matter who is doing it, so it has to be stopped.

But it isn’t a sudden Republican coup. The House let itself get into the habit of miscounting supermajorities and so violating the Michigan Constitution — probably because the delayed effect the Constitution calls for was viewed by both parties as a procedural nuisance. So the House has been operating illegally for a while, even when Democrats controlled it.

Republicans should have protested this when Democrats did it, but it was easier just to block stuff in the Senate, or to wrangle extra concessions there in exchange for allowing bills to take effect immediately.

After the 2010 Republican sweep, though, they haven’t had to negotiate with anybody or concede anything. (The Emergency Manager law is evidence of that.) So Democrats have started refusing to cooperate in the illegal procedures, and the Republicans have been illegally running over their non-cooperation.

So anyway: It’s bad and it needs to stop, so Rachel was right to call attention to it. But she should have done a little more homework before she went public with it.

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  • By Things Better Left Unsaid « The Weekly Sift on April 9, 2012 at 12:18 pm

    […] Democracy in Michigan: What Rachel Got Right and Wrong. Thursday, Rachel Maddow did a long segment on the abuses of democracy happening in Michigan. It’s a huge story that more people should be covering, but she also screwed it up a little. As the Daily Show used to say: “When news breaks, we fix it.” […]

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