- Associated Press - Monday, February 29, 2016

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Feb. 25

Sen. Ron Johnson should break ranks on court nominee

As Senate Republicans stand in an unbroken line of opposition to even the thought of considering a nominee to replace Justice Antonin Scalia on the U.S. Supreme Court, Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin is standing right there with them.

The senator and his colleagues, led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, have vowed to obstruct President Barack Obama’s wishes no matter what.

Recently, Republican Senate leaders confirmed that they will not hold confirmation hearings, will not vote, will not even meet with Obama’s nominee. Johnson confirmed Wednesday that he’s going to hold that line as well.

The hubris of Johnson and his colleagues is stunning. The political game they are playing is cynical. Their strategy is to take their chances after the new administration takes office, fearing that any Obama nominee will tip the balance of the 5-4 conservative majority on the high court the other way.

We acknowledge their concerns. But they should still hold hearings and give Obama’s nominee a fair shake.

Their refusal to do even the bare minimum shows the party fears the very public it claims to serve. If Obama nominates a well-qualified moderate jurist, Republicans know they will look bad in the eyes of many voters - particularly independents - if they don’t confirm the nominee after hearings.

So there can be no hearings. And no vote.

For Johnson and McConnell and the others, this is a new brand of cynicism in a city wallowing in it. It shows little respect for the office of president or the Supreme Court.

And little faith in the Constitution.

A president is elected to a four-year term, not a three-year term. That president is not a “lame duck,” by all normal definitions, until after the November election in his last year in office. The Constitution prescribes a process: The president nominates. The Senate offers advice and consent.

Republicans continue to say: Let the voters decide, but the voters already have decided. They twice elected Obama to the presidency. To not even consider a nominee is dereliction of duty.

In the early stages of his re-election bid, Johnson is trailing badly behind former Sen. Russ Feingold. The latest Marquette University Law School Poll, released Thursday afternoon, showed 49 percent favoring Feingold and 37 percent favoring Johnson.

Overall, 57 percent said they would be willing to see their senator vote for a well-qualified nominee rather than “vote against any nominee you disagree with.” About 63 percent of independents felt that way, the poll found. As might be expected, there were stark differences between the views of Republicans and Democrats.

The Johnson-Feingold race is in its early stages, and much will happen between now and November. But Johnson might improve his chances with independents by showing that he’s his own man. He should break ranks with the other obstructionists in the GOP-controlled Senate and come out in favor of Senate hearings and a vote.

This also has the advantage of being the right thing to do.

___

Wisconsin State Journal, Feb. 26

Partisan pals will go easy on politicians

The Politician Protection Boards are being filled, with Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald announcing his first appointment.

That’s not the actual name of Wisconsin’s new commissions overseeing government ethics and elections.

After all, the politicians are assigning their partisan pals to control the two commissions that will replace the nonpartisan Government Accountability Board on July 1. That means state leaders won’t have to worry about serious investigations into their conduct at the Capitol or on the campaign trail.

What a relief for the politicians. But what a disappointment for citizens of all political persuasions who want to encourage good government practices in Wisconsin.

Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, just picked Katie McCallum of Middleton to serve on a new commission overseeing ethics, campaign finance and lobbying. She doesn’t have a law degree, unlike the retired judges who have served on the GAB. Nor is she in any way insulated by partisan influence, as the GAB has carefully strived to be.

Since graduating from college in 2005, McCallum has dutifully helped Republicans promote their interests and campaigns. McCallum is the state GOP’s secretary and former spokeswoman. She’s been an aide to a Republican state senator and worked on GOP election races. McCallum’s last name should sound familiar because she’s the daughter-in-law of former GOP Gov. Scott McCallum.

It’s a fine resume - for conservative advocacy. What it doesn’t represent is a history of settling complicated disputes in a fair and neutral way that respects the interests of the public over those of the politicians.

Gov. Scott Walker signed legislation in December dismantling the nonpartisan GAB as of June 30. The Republican-controlled Legislature pushed the unfortunate change, which returns Wisconsin to the bad old days of weak enforcement of ethical standards.

Though Democrats wisely resisted the GAB’s elimination, Democratic leaders now get to share power over the new commissions. The Legislature’s top lawmakers - two Republicans and two Democrats - will control a majority of the six-member ethics and elections commissions replacing the GAB.

So Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, on Wednesday just announced - surprise! - she’s appointing a loyal Democrat (former trial lawyers president Ann S. Jacobs of Milwaukee) to the new elections committee.

The governor will still appoint two retired judges to the ethics panel, and two retired clerks to the elections commission. But even those picks will be selected from lists the politicians create.

The integrity of Wisconsin government is being harmed.

___

Leader-Telegram, Feb. 26

Forget ‘ethics’ panel and just flip a coin

The revamped “state ethics commission” set up by the Republican majority running the show in Madison seems like a waste of time and money.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, last week announced the first appointee to the new group to oversee ethics issues involving public officials in Wisconsin: Katie McCallum of Middleton, who also just happens to be the secretary of the state Republican Party.

Republicans are still sore about what they felt was unfair treatment of Gov. Scott Walker by the former Government Accountability Board. The soon-to-be-defunct GAB, which consisted of six retired judges, including Eau Claire’s highly respected Tom Barland, signed off on two John Doe investigations Republicans felt were partisan witch hunts. The first, begun in 2010, led to six convictions, including a former Walker deputy chief of staff when Walker was Milwaukee County executive sent to prison for embezzling funds intended for families of veterans.

The second John Doe investigation that began in 2012 looked into whether Walker illegally coordinated with conservative political groups during his recall election campaign. The state Supreme Court, which has a conservative majority, later ended that investigation and essentially gave a green light to coordination between candidates and such partisan groups.

To further eliminate the possibility of pesky efforts to keep campaigns and politicians honest - already a nearly futile ideal - Walker signed a separate bill last year barring prosecutors from using the John Doe process to investigate political misconduct. Such investigations are similar to a grand jury investigation, where information is tightly controlled and prosecutors can force witnesses to testify.

So politicians are now free of an independent GAB, free of John Doe investigations, free to coordinate openly with groups that can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money from people hidden from the public, and the new watchdog group is made up mostly of partisan lieutenants. That’s the same “ethics” panel we had before 2007 when elected officials from both parties were caught using taxpayers’ money to run partisan campaigns and sent to jail.

So why not just scrap the “ethics” committee altogether? We already know what’s going to happen. All of the Republican rubber-stampers will go after Democrats facing ethics complaints with great zeal while giving all Republicans facing such accusations a free pass. And the Democratic rubber-stampers on the committee will do the opposite. The ethics committee also will have two retired judges on the panel - one each from lists submitted by the two major political parties.

And that brings us to why this is a waste of money. The legislation calls for at least six committee members. The way it is set up virtually guarantees consistent 3-3 partisan tie votes on whether to investigate or sanction a public official.

So why not just scrap the committee entirely and decide whether to investigate by the flip of a coin? True, this puts the fate of investigations into whether the coin lands heads of tails, but at least there’s a 50 percent chance that some potential wrongdoing will at least be looked into.

The way this new “ethics” committee is set up pretty much guarantees that barring behavior so outrageous it can’t be swept under the rug, all votes will end in ties and the politicians can operate pretty much free of concern that any sleazy behavior will actually be checked out.

And that’s just the way they want it.

What a joke.

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