Thursday, March 17, 2011

Pettifoggers, Blatherskites, Gasbags and Blowhards

I could not settle on just the right word to describe the subject, so I selected a number of them, hoping that, taken together, the reader gets my point exactly.

The subject is the state of political discourse, the rhetoric of elected officials, and the language of bureaucrats. It is my belief that not only are we suffering a nationwide financial deficit in running our government, we are also very much in the hole in regard to our public speech, both written and spoken. We risk our pubic discourse being overtaken by pettifoggers, blatherskites, gasbags and blowhards.

A few years ago, a very admirable movement took place in the American legal community to transform the language of contracts and other legal agreements into plain, understandable English. If only such a movement would arise in our political discourse, and in our public policy communities!

I am going to illustrate my point with only one example.

We are coming to the conclusion of the story involving the state of Wisconsin. Like most states, but perhaps more acutely than some others, the state of Wisconsin is facing a financial crisis involving the cost of its government, particularly the cost of its public employees. In the recent election, the Republican nominee for governor said he would, if he were elected, act decisively to rein in these costs and change the relationship of the state with its public employees. The Democratic nominee, supported by the unions which represent the public employees predictably disagreed. Democrats have long controlled the capitol in Madison, and the outgoing governor was a Democrat supported by the unions. Over time, the wages and benefits of most public employees have soared since, after all, the very persons they collectively bargained with were the same persons whose campaigns they had largely financed and staffed. The public negotiators, it also must be pointed out, had no equity ownership in the enterprise they represented, and thus any concessions they might offer to the unions and the employees they represent used no money out of their own pockets. (I am not suggesting that in the case of industrial and service unions with two truly adversarial sides, each of which has a material interest in negotiations, that collective bargaining is not appropriate.)

Mr. Scott Walker, the Republican nominee, went on to win the general election in Wisconsin by a wide margin. So did majorities of Republicans running for the state house and senate. So did the GOP nominee for the U.S. senate seat held by a long-time Democratic incumbent. So did a number of Republican candidates for U.S. Congress, defeating or replacing Democratic incumbents.

I think you could say that the voters of Wisconsin spoke their mind in a clear way.

To keep their promises to the voters, the new GOP officeholders prepared legislation to cut back the salaries and benefits of public employees, and to take away the collective bargaining of their unions.

A media-piercing hue and cry arose from the public employee unions and their Democratic minions in the state legislature. Employing a technicality, the entire Democratic membership of the state senate hastily, and under the cover of night, beat it out of Madison and crossed the border into neighboring Illinois where they holed up in self-righteous and self-congratulatory seclusion in a motel . Denying a quorum, they did stop temporarily the GOP-controlled senate’s ability to pass the legislation.

This soon became a sensational national story, and union members across the country rallied to their brethren’s cause. Union members and their supporters camped out in the state capitol while a fawning national media reported their every declamation and threat as if the public employees were the victims in this matter. Nothing could be further from the truth. The unions had lost the last election and could only postpone the inevitable. A few days ago, the Republicans figured out a technical way to overcome the lack of a quorum caused by the runaway Democratic state senators. A bogus national poll was contrived which made it seem that the public was on the union’s side, but none of this fol-de-rol could hide the fact that the Wisconsin public employees unions and their Democratic clients were acting illegally, irresponsibly, and ultimately anti-democratically.

Finally, the “refugee” senators came home to Madison, and were greeted as heroes. Many reporters and editorial page writers from around the nation, most of whom are newspaper union members, continued to report about them sympathetically.

But the legislation was passed, and Governor Walker signed it into law. A number of other state legislatures in the country began to take up similar laws. Yet, having acted illegally to prevent the passage of the legislation which the Republican legislators told voters they would do if they were elected, having thwarted the democratic process in Wisconsin, and having lost everywhere they turned, the Democrats now initiated recall elections of Republican senators! Their crime? Doing their duty. Fulfilling their campaign promises. Following the law.

As if they were trying to re-make the movie “Animal Farm” by George Orwell, the union’s discourse of this dispute saw every concept being turned into its opposite. Those who were following the law, and doing their duty, were cast as the victimizers, and those who ignored the election results, broke the rules, and failed in their duties, cast themselves as the victims.

Fortunately, the public saw through this nonsense, and the majority in the legislature accomplished what they set out to do. Common sense, the rules, the state constitution were observed, and the right outcome achieved.

Union members and their union organizations can now freely prepare for the next elections, and thus try to overturn this legislation. If they can rally and gain majority voter support, they can properly achieve their goals two years from now. Acting as a threatening, bullying mob did not work. In fact, it set them back. Union support had been declining, and now it has lost much good will among many independent voters who were appalled by thuggish tactics.

As for the Democratic state senators, they are exactly the opposite of heroes. They took an oath to follow the state constitution when sworn in, and they now have broken their oath.

The true losers in this matter were the union rank and file. In New Jersey, where Governor Chris Christie also confronted the public employees unions, the unions similarly yelled and screamed about the governor’s actions. Mr. Christie went directly to them and said, “Don’t blame me for the actions I have taken. Blame the union leaders and your own elected officials who told you that you could have all these benefits without consequences on the state budget.”

That is clarity of discourse. The days of careless government are now over. Salaries, pensions, and health care benefits must be reasonable, justifiable, and paid for. This is clarity of action.

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