Big Government Can be Small

By GEORGE LIGHTBOURN | June 11, 2013

You just never know … Tucked away in the very last motion passed by the Joint Finance Committee was an item in which the Legislature evicted the Center for Investigative Journalism from University buildings.  This move was a real head-scratcher since no legislator had ever publicly said they were unhappy with the Center.

The action was odd in so many ways, but what made it newsworthy was its tiny scope.   The legislative eviction freed up exactly two small offices that were home to a Center that few had ever heard of.  We still do not know what was behind the eviction so we have to surmise that at least one of the Institute’s investigations tilted a bit too far to the left.   The eviction was the only payback the Legislature could muster, an action that struck most people as small, in so many ways.

Meanwhile, a few weeks earlier, while the Legislature wrestled with the budget, the Mayor of Madison announced his support for a new ordinance that would require the disclosure of political contributions for anyone doing business with the City of Madison.  This ordinance must have felt right to Mayor Paul Soglin.  After all, a few years ago, he was the one who spearheaded a move to hamstring WMC, the business lobby that Soglin sees as the root of all that is wrong with Wisconsin politics. 

No matter how the Madison ordinance is rationalized, the public understands that it is intended to send a message; if you want to do business with Madison, you had better not be found to have written checks to conservative candidates or conservative causes.  Legal types call this prior restraint. 

Both the eviction of the Center for Investigative Journalism and the City of Madison’s prior restraint ordinance are an overreach.   The Legislature and the Mayor of Madison are doing what they are doing simply because they can and to them their actions seem, well, normal.  Why do they see it as normal?  Because there is no viable opposing voice to keep them from exercising their worst instincts. 

Like an obese child, they don’t have an off-switch to tell them when enough is enough.  So they waddled back to the kitchen for the second and maybe a third piece of cake.  There is no one to put the cake away.   

Each of the actions evoke a wince from the public.  Each represents government at its smallest and most vindictive.  And yet, this is probably the new normal for our public institutions.  As we increasingly see a single political philosophy dominate at the state or local level, we will increasingly see evidence of this type of overreach.  And while this doesn’t signal the demise of democracy, it does say a good deal about the quality of our government.