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Monday, March 14, 2011

MARCH MADNESS

March Madness, the annual NCAA basketball tournament has been described as the best athletic event(s) in the year long array of college and NFL football, the NBA tournament and of course the major league baseball playoffs culminating in the World Series. But this year's basketball tournament is also a welcome relief from the alternate version of "march madness" currently playing out in Madison, Wisconsin and in Washington D.C.

A profound and disturbing change to the way the legislative process is employed to carry out the people's business in under way. In Wisconsin, the fourteen Democrat state senators who fled the capitol and the state to deny the Senate a quorum and thus the ability to vote on legislation with financial content, have returned to adoring crowds of organized labor activists. Declared heroes for avoiding their legislative duties and effectively shutting down the Wisconsin Senate for weeks, they arrived to chants of "This is how democracy works" from demonstrators who apparently feel democracy no longer is based on majority rule. In fact the democratic process which distinguishes the U.S. from those nations now in the throes of revolutions in the Middle East, and from authoritarian governments world wide, was the victim in this lamentable process.

But the "madness" in Wisconsin is unabated. The losers in the "battle" which was nothing more than a vote in both houses of the state legislature, are taking their assault on the democratic procedures of government one step further by organizing recall efforts for those Republican senators that dared to vote their consciences and the preferences of their constituents. The message is simple and clear: if you vote against the wishes of an organized interest group or opposing political party you are no longer fit to serve and should be subject to another campaign and election.

 Recall petitions are extremely rare because traditionally they are reserved for instances of moral turpitude or egregious disservice. They are not intended as a group punishment for specific votes which result in successful legislation. In retaliation, Republicans intend to seek recall of the fourteen Democrats who fled to out of state locations. Both efforts should be dropped. However, these petitions themselves, because of a relatively low threshold of voter participation necessary for implementation will probably be successful. The new elections to determine if the Republican senators who dared to vote against the public employee unions and their Democrat supporters, will be replaced, as well as the Democrat Senators who fled, will face a much higher challenge. But the precedent will be set. The costs will be incurred. A pall of political and economic uncertainty will fall over the state of Wisconsin and the possibility of an endless series of elections, recalls and new elections will make effective governance difficult if not impossible.

Events leading up to the final vote in the Wisconsin legislature put an ugly face on what should be an orderly function of representative government. The raucous occupation of the state capitol building and the threats and intimidation should cause the state’s opinion leaders in the media to ask the citizens if mob action thinly disguised as “freedom of assembly” is really the way they want their state to be governed. The question is unlikely to be seriously addressed however and the Third World tactics employed are likely to be copied in other states.

Public protests are indeed constitutionally protected but not all protected protests are equal in terms of moral standards and social value, as the recent Supreme Court decision protecting the rights of the Westboro Church lunatics to protest at the funerals of fallen American soldiers demonstrates. The major flaw of political protests and demonstrations is their tendency to be taken over by demagogues and the willingness of participants to allow these self important individuals to do their thinking for them and to frame their concerns in simplistic and often extremist rhetoric. Thus in Wisconsin, the protestors and capitol occupiers were incited by the traveling “provocateur -in -chief” Jesse Jackson and then by the , walking, talking absurdity, Michael Moore who makes millions in the free market with his anti-capitalism films and then travels the country to spread his socialist rantings.

The issue in Wisconsin was simple: do the economic interests of the general public take precedence over the economic interests of government employees? The issue should have been peacefully debated and voted on in the state legislature. Voters who disagreed with the resulting policies could attempt to remedy the situation in the next scheduled election. That’s how a functioning democracy works.
Unfortunately the federal government in Washington, D.C. is suffering from serious dysfunction also as their version of “March madness” continues to infect the legislative process. Six months into the current fiscal year the federal government is still without a budget. Unlike Wisconsin, neither party controls both houses of the legislature. The resulting stalemate has required a series of “continuing resolutions” with two week life spans to keep government running. Since it is clear that neither side has the votes to impose their will on the budgetary process, the situation cries out for statesmanship and common sense compromise. President Obama has demonstrated little leadership preferring to watch from the sidelines. Eventually the Republicans will get cuts to current expenditures and Democrats will avoid cuts on the scale proposed by the Republicans. The time has come for such a compromise. Further budget cuts can be debated for the upcoming fiscal year which starts in October.

While protests and demonstrations have yet to develop, demagoguery has begun. From Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s lamenting the dire consequences of the loss of federal funding for Nevada’s Cowboy Poetry Festival to images of Big Bird and Cookie Monster falling victim to conservative “meanness”, the battle for the public’s emotions is underway. When the cuts come, Jesse Jackson and Michael Moore can’t be far behind.

Fortunately not all March Madness is craziness. Anticipating the Sweet Sixteen and the Elite Eight is a much more pleasant prospect.

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