Wisconsin Assembly's all-nighters targeted
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — To young people, pulling an all-nighter usually involves lots of caffeine and staying up to study.
To the Wisconsin state Assembly, it's an all-too-familiar method of doing the state's business.
The new Republican speaker of the Assembly has some ideas for ending the all-night sessions, but he refused to announce what any of them were after a private meeting Tuesday with Democratic leaders. Talks were to resume Wednesday, but Democratic Minority Leader Peter Barca said "we're worlds apart."
If Democrats don't go along with what Republicans want, the Assembly's debate Thursday on approving the new rules could — wait for it — go all night.
"It's not hard to get people to agree it's not good to be working at 3 in the morning," said former Wisconsin state Rep. Bob Ziegelbauer. "It's another thing to create the conditions where that doesn't happen."
Going past midnight happens elsewhere, especially at the end of sessions or as other deadlines loom. But the Wisconsin Assembly routinely pushes debates and votes on contentious bills into the wee hours, when only lobbyists and the cleaning crew are left in the building.
"Those overnight sessions are just killers," said former Democratic state Rep. Mordecai Lee. "After a while you just zonk out. I remember being in overnight sessions and I couldn't think straight."
Some other states have taken steps to rein in the late-night sessions, such as the 11 p.m. in curfew in Pennsylvania or the midnight one in Oklahoma. In Minnesota, lawmakers require a vote to work past midnight, although they still routinely do it. The New York Senate has an unofficial but strict rule against marathon sessions. But there's no such rule in the New York Assembly, where the final session days have all gone into the early morning in recent years.
The Wisconsin Assembly's late-night sessions have produced some dramatic moments. Passage of Republican Gov. Scott Walker's plan effectively ending collective bargaining for public workers in 2011 came at 1 a.m. after a 61-hour filibuster. Republicans hustled off the floor to a barrage of insults from the gallery and yells of "Shame!" from Democrats.
Other times, lawmakers have burst into song, imitated one other or just become unusually candid.
Take Rep. Gary Sherman's tirade around 4 a.m. in 2008.
"This is unprofessional. This is stupid. We have no business to be here," Sherman yelled. "There's people in this room with cancer. There's people in this room with heart disease. A third of the room has high blood pressure. There's elderly people. There's pregnant people. What the hell are we doing?"
Ziegelbauer, who served 20 years in the Assembly before retiring last year, said the late nights can be frustrating.
"I drove home between 3 and 6 in the morning more times than I'd like to think," said Ziegelbauer, who lives about 2 1/2 hours from the Capitol. "It used to drive me crazy. The first couple sessions I would sit there and grind my teeth when the guy who lives 15 minutes away picks a fight that's going keep us there until 2 in the morning."
Lawmakers aren't alone in their dislike of the late nights.
"It's a huge impediment to citizen oversight of the Legislature," said Mike McCabe, director of the nonpartisan government watchdog group the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. "It leads to fewer eyes watching the Legislature, and that's never healthy."
Any solution requires cooperation from both parties and a willingness to make the change, Ziegelbauer said. It could also mean being in session more than just a day or two a week, as is typical in Wisconsin, he said.
Previous attempts to make the Assembly act more like the Senate, which is normally done by 5 p.m., have failed.
Fresh off knocking Democrats out of control of the Assembly in 1995, Republicans instituted a rule ending debate at 8 p.m. But Democrats used that to their advantage, and Republicans repealed the rule two years later.
Democrats routinely stalled debate until 8 p.m., making it more difficult for bills they opposed to be taken up, said state Sen. Luther Olsen, a Republican who was in the Assembly the two years of the curfew. Olsen said Democrats would "just talk and talk and talk" until the deadline, then start the fight anew the next morning.
David Prosser, now a Wisconsin Supreme Court justice, was speaker of the Assembly at the time. He said such rules can work.
"It seems to me a rule that ends debate at a reasonable hour, except in extreme circumstances, is a very sensible rule," Prosser said. "On the other hand, there's practical difficulty in making that rule work if everybody in the body doesn't appreciate the value of the rule."
Walker has found himself on both sides of the issue.
As a member of the Assembly in 1997, he voted with Republicans to eliminate the 8 p.m. curfew. But in his run for governor in 2010, after the Assembly pulled two all-nighters, Walker promised to sign legislation that would bar voting after 10 p.m. or before 9 a.m.
"I have two teenagers and I tell them that nothing good happens after midnight. That's even more true in politics," Walker said then. "The people of Wisconsin deserve to know what their elected leaders are voting on."