Playing the Game of “Gotcha”

In the waning days of the 98th Legislative Session there seems to be much activity related to the coming election cycle and little real legislative achievement.

Far too many games are being played. The effect is that important legislative proposals are not being enacted into law because of election year politics.

One game is to pass poor legislation that is guaranteed to fail in the other house.

An Assembly Republican once told me that he was grateful the Senate was controlled by Democrats because he had the opportunity for ‘free’ votes – votes that were taken on issues that were guaranteed to fail in the Democratic controlled Senate. The vote is ‘free’ because he could vote ‘yes’ on a bill that would make bad policy but sounded good politically.  Both sides play the game.

Another game both sides play is the game of ‘gotcha’.

We all hate the slick mail that comes around election time with ridiculous statements like “Senator Frank hates puppies.”  “When did they vote on that?” you wonder.

I am learning that legislation designed for political purposes surfaces far more than it ought to. It becomes a game of “gotcha.”

The game forces an opponent to take a bad vote everyone knows is not real – not real in the sense that nothing real happens as a result of the vote.

One way to force a vote on legislation is to call for a ‘pulling motion’ - pulling the bill from committee and forcing a vote by the full body. The vote is always a procedural vote and is almost always a party line vote. Both parties play the game of ‘gotcha’. And who among the electorate is going to know what really happened?  Recently, I and another freshman colleague voted against our leaders on a procedural vote and that was enough to throw the Senate into chaos. A caucus was called and we were both sternly lectured.

In the final days of my first session in the Senate, far too much was done for political reasons. Legislation that had absolutely no chance of passing the other house was passed. And good legislation was not passed for political reasons.  There was frequently no effort to find a bipartisan solution to a problem – only to take a political vote for the next campaign.

Two examples of a good bill that suffered for political reasons: one was a simple bill I and others authored to change the label on money spent by the UW La Crosse. The bill would give students more financial aid without costing the state any more money. Another bill created a youth hunting mentoring program. Neither bill was political, but both bills failed to pass after they were caught in political crossfire.

On other bills, some that address serious problems, there was little effort to find a solution. Both sides would rather create issues for the next election than solve problems and put the problems behind us. The times I tried to change a bill to improve its chances of actually being enacted into law, I met resistance from my own party.

I understand that politics is part of everything we do, but it should not be all that we do. Passing good legislation regardless of who gets credit should be a goal we all share. And wasting time on bills intended only to become campaign issues is not a wise use of taxpayers’ dollars.

Have ideas on how we can get more accomplished in the legislature? Let me know! Write me at P.O. Box 7882 Madison, WI 53707-7882 or email Sen.Vinehout@legis.wisconsin.gov .