What a Prehn

It has become a clear Republican strategy: burn down the house.

So, I suppose we shouldn’t have been surprised when Fred Prehn refused to do the honorable — and usual — thing and step down. Prehn is the chair of the state’s Natural Resources Board. He’s been there since 2015 when he was appointed by former Gov. Scott Walker. His six-year term expired in May, but he has refused to vacate his seat to a replacement appointed by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers. Never mind that Gov. Jim Doyle’s appointee graciously and properly stepped down as soon as Prehn was appointed. In previous years two other Walker appointees did the same thing.

The legal reed they cling to is a 1964 court ruling that says that, under certain circumstances, an appointee can hold a seat until a successor is confirmed by the state Senate. But the 1967 law that set up the NRB made no mention of the ability for a board member to stay until officially replaced. Now, according to a story written by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Paul Smith, an attorney representing two nonprofit groups is calling on Attorney General Josh Kaul to remove Prehn under an obscure provision in state law.

Let’s hope Kaul will act.

NRB Chair Fred Prehn is following the Republican playbook.

In the bigger picture, Prehn is just following what has become the standard GOP playbook: fight for every advantage as if you will never find the tables turned. (I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Prehn consulted with Speaker Robin Vos before he started down this road.)

More examples of the playbook in action include: Mitch McConnell’s refusal to so much as grant a hearing to Merrick Garland, then speeding Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court nomination through under the same circumstances; Robin Vos’ drafting of heavily gerrymandered legislative districts in a secret process at an expensive law firm paid for by taxpayers; Vos’ lame duck session to take away powers from Evers and Kaul before they took office, simply because they were Democrats. The result of that last one was that Republicans hold on to a seat on the PSC and they held onto control of the Board Regents longer than they should have.

The damage done by these things is that they undermine democracy. Voters choose their leaders and then the minority undercuts the will of the people.

It may turn out that Prehn’s action is, in fact, illegal. But even if it isn’t, there is the letter of the law and then there are the rules of fair play. Those rules have always been in a certain amount of flux. I’ll concede that Democrats made a big mistake when they refused to confirm Robert Bork to the Supreme Court back in 1987. Bork was eminently qualified and conservative President Ronald Reagan had every right to appoint a conservative justice. Democrats killed his nomination simply because of his conservative views. They had the legal right to do that, but it poisoned the waters and it puts them in an awkward position when they try to argue today that liberal justices appointed by a liberal president should be approved so long as they’re qualified.

So neither party is blameless in this, but today’s Republicans are taking the knife fight analogy to a whole new level. It’s hard to imagine that Democrats won’t return those favors when the tables are turned. When that happens, I won’t be able to blame them, but for the sake of reestablishing the norms of American democracy, I hope they’ll act with some restraint.

Welcome to the 159th consecutive day of posts here at YSDA. Thanks for reading!


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

5 thoughts on “What a Prehn

  1. A small point: The courts in 1977 affirmed the 1964 decision when they reviewed my resignation from the Wisconsin Board of Veterans Affairs. They said at that time, despite my resignation, I remained on the Board until my successor was nominated and confirmed by the Senate. If Prehn’s situation were before the court today I think they would focus on the fact that my term has not expired whereas Prehn’s term has expired. To argue that Prehn retains the seat even though his term has since expired turns a term appointment into a potential lifetime appointment as long as the Senate refuses to confirm his successor


  2. “for the sake of reestablishing the norms of American democracy, I hope they’ll act with some restraint.”

    That’s the problem: “norms” are not laws. I have zero faith that moderation can arise from our current state. The 2 party structure we have gives absolutely no reason to moderate positions or compromise, especially factoring in modern internet communication and the effects that has on our populace. Even beyond internet, obviously there has been a media landscape shift happening since cable came to our homes and that has strongly impacted our politics. We’re only becoming more polarized, not less. There’s no way I can imagine that our current voters in our current system would reward politicians who compromise. That norm is no longer living. I hope I’m wrong…

    My current best thought that would work towards incentivizing moderation and a more accurate reflection of the democratic will of voters is some path towards establishing a multi party democracy. We would need many more parties such that no single party would often hold a majority outright.

    If not that, is there a better way to incentivize moderation? Does anyone here think that we can keep the 2 party system yet achieve more moderate outcomes?


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