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.
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.
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