Michigan Republicans Blowing Up Yet Another Norm of Politics

| Sat Apr. 7, 2012 12:05 PM EDT

A couple of days ago Rachel Maddow highlighted an outrageous abuse of power from Michigan Republicans. Normally, it takes several months for new state laws to take effect, but a two-thirds "immediate effect" vote can cause laws to take effect right away. Lately, however, Republicans have been jamming through every law this way without bothering to actually get a two-thirds majority. They pass the bill, then do a voice vote on immediate effect and quickly announce that it's been approved. Voila. The bill is law as soon as the governor signs it.

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?

Well, Democrats are yelling about it. They've filed suit to halt the practice and demand roll call votes on immediate effect. But that was just recently, and Republicans have been doing this for over a year. Why weren't Democrats screaming about this a year ago?

I'm not sure what's really going on here, and what we really need is for some longtime Michigan reporter to weigh in. None of them seem to have done that yet, though, so here's a crack at figuring this out. It's not definitive by any stretch, and it's long. Sorry about that. But here goes.

First off, here's a paragraph from a Detroit Free Press article on Thursday:

Over the years, as majority control shifted back and forth, both political parties in the state House have ordered immediate effect for legislation without recording a roll call vote. Because immediate effect requires a two-thirds vote majority the practice has often frustrated efforts by the minority party to slow down legislation they oppose.

Hmmm. Let's keep going back in time. Here's the Michigan Citizen last May, back when Michigan Republicans passed a controversial emergency manager bill. It suggests that Democrats opposed immediate effect, but didn't really oppose it all that hard:

“When their own rules say they have a chance, they didn’t try hard enough,” said Henry Teusch, a member of Hood Research....House Democrats say, however, they didn’t have a chance against the Republican-led House and Senate.

....According to House legislators, there is no written rule mandating a roll call vote on immediate effect of bills. The Speaker chairing the session can “gavel through” immediate effect, ignoring a roll call vote. “We yelled against immediate effect and the Republicans put it through,” said Rep. Harvey Santana, District 10. “House rule is the decision of the Speaker to grant or give the vote ... if you control the gavel you control the outcome.”

Let's keep going. This is from an editorial in the Michigan Citizen a few months after the vote:

It is time to kick the donkey.

....Earlier this year, Rep. [John] Olumba recorded his vote against Public Act 4, the Emergency Manager law, in the House Journal. He also opposed the immediate effect of the EM law and requested a roll call vote. Although Democrats voted "no" on PA4, they did not at that time support Olumba's roll call request nor his suggestion to place their "no" vote in the House Journal. They were saving their lack of political might to oppose an issue that would, so far, affect Black cities and school districts.

This makes it sound increasingly like this really is a tradition and Democrats simply didn't object to it very strongly. But wait! Here are a couple of articles from 2007. (From ProQuest, so no links.) The first is a Detroit News piece about a difficult tax bill that passed only because of a deal that required several Democrats and Republicans in swing districts to vote for it:

And then there's Sen. Glenn Anderson of Westland, one of two Senate Democrats voting against both tax proposals — the other was Dennis Olshove of Warren. Republicans insisted he vote to give the service tax immediate effect — a motion separate from the actual tax increase itself. That took 90 extra minutes early Monday. 

Anderson, who said he genuinely opposes tax increases because his constituents loath them, finally voted immediate effect for the tax, but only after Republican Sen. Roger Kahn of Saginaw had done the same. Both are in Senate districts where the split between political parties is narrow and an unpopular vote on a big issue could be costly — "vulnerable for vulnerable," he said Tuesday of his vote strategy.

In this case there was no quick gaveling of the question. Several legislators had to be arm-twisted into voting for immediate effect. Here's another Detroit News piece about Democratic efforts to move up their primary date:

With a dozen members absent on an unusual Monday session day — the first work day after the Thanksgiving holiday and deer-hunting break — the House could muster just 61 votes to give the bill immediate effect. That's 13 votes shy of the two-thirds majority needed...."I think we'll get that (immediate effect) when the bill comes back to us again from the Senate," said House Speaker Andy Dillon, D-Redford Township, who decided over the weekend to hold Monday's vote.

Again, no quick gaveling of the immediate effect vote.

So what's the story here? If I had to guess, I'd say that gaveling through immediate effect is hardly unprecedented, and Democrats obviously didn't scream very loudly about this when the emergency manager law was passed last year. At the same time, it's also not automatic. Big, controversial bills often require a roll call vote for immediate effect, but Michigan Republicans, imbued with tea party spirit, have decided to ignore this and use it for every bill they pass.

So in some sense this is similar to Republican abuse of the filibuster in the U.S. Senate. It's not outrageous in the sense that Republicans are doing something unprecedented and anti-democratic. It's outrageous in the sense that they're playing Calvinball: breaking a norm of governance by taking a tradition that was used occasionally in the past and turning it into a routine part of party politics. That's something they're pretty good at.

UPDATE: Here's another take from Eric Baerren of Michigan Liberal, a blog about politics "from a vaguely leftish point of view." If I'm reading him correctly, he says that (a) "immediate effect" is nothing new; (b) Democrats used it a lot in the previous session; (c) but that was because they negotiated compromise bills with Republicans and actually had two-thirds majorities to gavel them through. Also this:

There isn't much that can be done about the laws passed last year, when the House Democrats should have complained loudly and bitterly about the misuse of Immediate Effect. They didn't, and there's not much to be done about it since the official record makes it look like a proper tally was taken. Now, however, they're doing the right thing and pressing for actual vote tallies, which is what I frankly thought this was all about in the first place (Democrats denied the right to roll call votes, not some new and breathless conspiracy).

If this is correct, then gaveling through approval of immediate effect is no new thing, but roll call votes have always been taken if the minority party demands it. That's not happening this time, and that's what Democrats are complaining about.

UPDATE 2: Jeff Irwin, a Democratic representative from Michigan's 53rd district, responds to a question about whether Democrats did this back when they controlled the legislature:

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.

Today, Michigan Republicans have a 2/3rds majority in the Senate as well as a simple majority in the House. Therefore, House procedure has a real impact on important issues.

Hmmm.