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Wisconsin’s state Senate has probably generated more headlines in the past four months than any time in state history.
Democratic senators skipping town for weeks, warrants issued for their arrest, recall elections for up to nine senators and the disintegration of decorum for even routine business. And this is in the Legislature’s more formal, "deliberative" body.
Take, for instance, the May 19, 2011 vote on a bill to require voters to present photo ID at the polls. Long-sought by Republicans, bitterly fought by Democrats, the measure was certain to stir an emotional debate.
And it did.
The vote ended with a shouting match about the rules of the Senate between the state’s two most veteran lawmakers: Sen. Fred Risser, D-Madison, vs. Sen. Michael Ellis, R-Neenah. Between the two of them, they have a more than 90 years experience in the Capitol.
But only one of the two -- Ellis -- held the gavel.
And that meant the upper hand.
In the heat of the debate, Risser became angry when Ellis, the Senate president, started a roll call vote while Risser was speaking on the Senate floor.
"You’re not following the rules, Mister President," Risser yelled.
Ellis shouted back: "Read the book!"
He hammered the gavel and the roll call vote was taken, over shouts of foul play from Democrats. The bill passed 19-5 and was signed by Republican Gov. Scott Walker.
But what of Risser’s claim that Ellis violated the Senate rules? Let’s open up that book Ellis was talking about.
Senate rules govern "such things as committee activities, bill introductions, order and conduct in debate," according the Senate chief clerk’s website. But they are not permanent. Senators meet at the beginning of the two-year legislative session and set the rules for their body. What’s more, the rules allow some things, such as terms of the debate, to be set along the way.
"The rules are extremely important to preserve the decorum and the dignity of the Senate," said former Senate President Alan Lasee, R-De Pere, who retired last year after 36 years in the Legislature.
"It’s the difference between anarchy and order," said former Sen. Mordecai Lee, D-Milwaukee, now a professor of governmental affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
On May 17, 2011, the Senate opened 13 hours of debate on the bill -- largely Democrats speaking against the bill. It ended in the early morning of May 18. The next day, May 19, the measure was up for a final vote. On that morning, Republicans changed the rules for that single bill, about an hour before debate began. They voted to end debate after one hour. Senators were aware of that rule change before the debate began.
The Senate convened and Democrats took turns speaking against the bill, with the clock running and being carefully watched by Republicans. Shortly before the hour was up, Risser was recognized and took the floor. He was reminded by Sen. Neal Kedzie, R-Elkhorn -- who was temporarily serving in the chair -- that he had four minutes left.
Risser gave a meandering talk, discussing a change of address issue with his own driver’s license and appeared to be killing time. With 15 seconds to go Ellis, back in the chair, gave the warning: Time is almost up.
At the stroke of 11, Ellis ordered the roll call be taken, even though Risser was still speaking.
"You’re out of order. Take your seat," Ellis told Risser. "Continue the roll call."
After the vote, Risser declared in a news conference: "Never in the 55 years that I have served have I seen the type of procedure, or lack of procedure, that has been followed in this house."
"In the middle of someone’s talk, they decided to shut me off," he said.
So, that’s what happened. Now lets get back to the rules.
Debate has been limited only two other times in recent Senate history. It last happened in 2003 on the state budget and 1995 on welfare reform, according to Senate officials. Republicans were in charge both times -- but both parties agreed to limit debate.
"It’s incredibly unusual to amend the rules for one day," Lee said.
He also said it’s rare that a senator is cut off when he is speaking from the floor.
"He did have the floor legally," Lee said. "I think what Mike (Ellis) did was unusual and arguably wrong."
But the fact something is unusual does not necessarily mean any rules were broken.
"He knows the rules," said Lasee of Risser. "Everything I learned about being Senate president, I learned from Fred."
In an interview, Risser backed away from his claim that Ellis violated the Senate rules.
Rather, he said, Ellis violated a less-precise set of rules -- the rules of common decency.
Said Risser: "I can’t remember any time when there was an arbitrary time limit to stop discussion and to stop a person from discussing."
But that’s not what Risser claimed at the time -- and Emily Post was not available for a consult on manners.
Indeed, if she were, there would be plenty more to look at:
Risser said Ellis also broke the rules by ignoring a motion to adjourn shouted out by Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton. Under the Senate rules, that motion takes precedence over all others. There was one problem with that tactic: Ellis never "recognized" Erpenbach to give him the floor and the motion was not formally made.
"You had nine guys yelling at me and no one got recognized. How do you recognize nine guys?" Ellis said.
He had his own list of violations committed by the Democrats: shouting during a roll call, refusing to vote and leaving the Senate floor during a vote.
For his part, Ellis said it was no accident that Risser, the longest-serving lawmaker in the nation, was speaking when the hour was up: "They wanted the 40-year veteran in the chair -- me -- versus the 50-year veteran. How dare you cut him off?"
What’s the bottom line?
Risser’s claim that Ellis broke the rules made for some drama after the voter ID bill passed, but the vote result itself was a foregone conclusion. When he was asked later, Risser pointed to the unwritten rules of common decency.
But his claim focused on the written rules of the Senate, which allow for the parameters of debate to be set by a majority vote. It’s rare, but permissible. And that’s what happened here.
We rate Risser’s claim False.
Sen. Fred Risser, D-Madison, news conference, May 19, 2011, interview, May 31, 2011
Interview, Sen. Michael Ellis, R-Neenah, May 25, 2011
Interview, Alan Lasee, former state senator, May 25, 2011
Interview, Mordecai Lee, professor of governmental affairs, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, School of Continuing Education, May 25, 2011
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Senate passes photo ID bill; some Democrats refuse to vote," May 19, 2011
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Walker signs photo ID measure; legal challenge possible," May 25, 2011
Wisconsin Eye video archive
Wisconsin State Senate rules
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