Lame Coverage: Michigan and the Lame-Duck Power Play
There is a tendency for the media to get so focused on covering a news event that they avoid the big questions.
The successful effort by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder to pass so-called “right to work” legislation was considered a major attack on organized labor and started to finally receive significant press coverage as tens of thousands of protestors descended upon the State Capitol in Lansing. There were television visuals galore of angry workers waving signs and even a former congressman being teargassed. Now it’s a national story.
It has spurred pieces on important issues, like the role of labor in 21st-century America and the influence of shadowy mega-donors like the Koch brothers. However, in doing so, the prime cause of the situation has been almost entirely neglected by the media: the very existence of lame duck sessions.
Snyder is taking advantage of the fact that a lame-duck Michigan legislature continues to meet for two months after an election. This is a body that is not at all responsible to voters (after all, they just voted and, in many cases, for other people) and enables him to short-circuit the democratic process.
Lame ducks are a residue of a time of a horse-and-buggy era in politics when election results took days, if not weeks to compile and travel was difficult. Their continued existence is a historical anachronism that has no reason left to justify it. Most parliamentary countries have newly elected members take office the day after the election. For example, if a British prime minister loses office, the moving vans are at 10 Downing Street the next day.
Now, there may be reasons not to have newly elected legislators take office instantaneously . Ballots may take a few days to count and there are understandable reasons for some sort of transition but two months is far too long. It allows plenty of time for legislative mischief, like right to work to be enacted and it makes easier for politicians to take unpopular actions.
The press tends to ignore these sorts of process stories—after all, the concept of adjusting the date when newly-elected officials are sworn into the office is not terribly exciting or newsy—especially compared to tear-gassed ex-congressmen. But, without this ancient bit of legislative procedure, Snyder would never have had the opportunity to cram through this change to Michigan law in the first place.
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