Wisconsin Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitgerald (left) and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (right) are seeking to build their Republican resumes.
One old saw about the Wisconsin Legislature is that the Assembly is apt to charge ahead -- its members are up for election every two years, so they are desperate to pick up policy wins quickly. Their relatively compact districts also make it easier for an extremist to get elected. Meanwhile, the state Senate moves at a slower pace. Senators serve four-year terms and represent larger districts that may be tilted less to one party or the other.
But that wisdom doesn't seem to apply anymore. It is Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) that wants to move quickly on "right-to-work" legislation, while Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Burlington) is the one urging a slower pace.
Is this some sort of strategic campaign they've agreed upon? Probably not. As shocking as it may seem, the Republicans in this state are not locked in on a shared agenda. Just like how many conservatives imagine Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid share a hive mind, liberals in this state often think Wisconsin Republicans are far more unified than they actually are.
The combination of a wave election, gerrymandering, and the party's purging of moderates has given the Republicans a once-in-a-generation majority. The legislative leaders all want to get major policy wins, and each among them wants to be the person who gets credit for these changes. While Vos would prefer to focus on his higher-education witch hunt, Fitzgerald doesn't want it to look like he is following the Speaker's lead.
Vos, Fitzgerald and others all want to build their resumes for higher office, as they are looking ahead to 2018. In that year, Tammy Baldwin's U.S. Senate seat will be on the ballot in a Republican-friendly midterm election, and there's the distinct possibility that Scott Walker won't be running for governor again.
The current Republican bench has a lot of people fighting to be the next statewide leader of the party. (Meanwhile, the Democrats' bench of promising new leaders consists of state Sen. Jen Shilling and um... Jen Shilling.) This means we will see policy pushes not just from Vos and Fitzgerald, but likewise from young members of the legislature eager to make a name for themselves.
Unfortunately, this could lead to something like policy brinkmanship. Sure, Vos might not want to press for "right-to-work," but if the Senate passes it, he's not going to kill the measure. That would kill him in a future gubernatorial primary. Once it passes both houses of the Legislature, Walker will sign it, as a veto would mean kissing his presidential ambitions goodbye.
Without more moderate members like outgoing Republican Senators Dale Schultz and Mike Ellis to take the hit, no one in that caucus will want to be the person who stops extreme policies aimed at pandering to the conservative base. From anti-choice legislation to voucher expansion to draconian anti-UW measures, votes will be based not on what is best for Wisconsin, but for what makes the best campaign ad the next time a new statewide or national office is up for grabs.
Wisconsinites should be ready for a session with lots of Republicans in leadership positions, but few who display any actual leadership qualities.