Every year the news media across the nation, as it should, celebrates open records, open meetings and open government as essential parts of the stage upon which our democratic drama is acted out.
Every year the media calls out the bad actors and the good ones, and that's not a awful thing. Then Sunshine Week ends, and (almost) all the politicians go back to their hypocritical ways.
We have talked in these pages for years about that hypocrisy, of course, and this past year was no different than any other. Every year the parade of politicians running for office passes through our conference room, and the carnival barkers yelp about the party in power, and how they decide policy in secret and in all sorts of clandestine ways, and about how all that is going to change when their party is in power.
When we're elected, they say, there will be no more budget-writing behind closed doors, no more late-night votes. When we are elected, they say, we will make the Legislature live by the same rules as we make everybody else live by.
Then they are elected, and they don't. We heard those very things from Republicans when Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle and legislative Democrats controlled state government. Of course, last year Republicans controlled the government, and we still had a budget written in secret; we still had late-night votes.
We had Republicans pledge to end the exemption of lawmakers from the state's records retention law and loudly proclaim how open their own records were, but, when push came to shove, and they had a chance to do it, the Republicans balked. I'm not trying to pick on the Republicans. The Democrats are no better. It's just that, as of this writing, they are the ones in power. We had the same valid complaints about the Democrats when they were in power, and we just don't believe any of them anymore when they pledge to change such things.
But as bad as the serial hypocrisy is, the increasingly ideological theft of the open government issue itself is even worse. Open records and open meetings issues should provide fertile ground for left-right cooperation, and has done so in the past; in this arena it shouldn't be statists versus constitutionalists, it should be voices for freedom against the doctrinaires of silence. Open government shouldn't be bundled around partisan politics as a pleasant package designed to hide the putrefaction inside, like a delicate parchment wrapped around a rotten potato.
After all, open government is open government. You're either for it or you are against it.
These days leftist partisans are manipulating the banner of openness for their own agenda, and they did so in Wisconsin last year in a disturbingly high number of situations.
First there was the issue of collective bargaining, and the active pursuit of an open meetings violation against the Legislature. The two issues were repeatedly linked, rhetorical twins attached to activist vocal chords. When one song was sung, the other followed right along.
And so supporting the collective bargaining law and open meetings violations became part of a collective refrain: The collective bargaining bill passed only because the process was corrupted, open government thwarted. If you supported the collective bargaining law, you opposed open government.
But nothing could be further from the truth. They are two separate issues and the unions had no right to hijack the open meetings claim as a collective bargaining prop. Certainly I do not believe the Legislature violated the constitution when it passed the law based on its own rules of procedure, and the Supreme Course thought that way as well.
But just because lawmakers acted within legal bounds doesn't mean the legal bounds should have been so set. The open meetings law should apply to the Legislature, and that body should adopt rules of procedure to effectively accomplish that.
But guess what? If those rules of procedure had been in place, I'm betting the collective bargaining law would have still passed; the senators would simply have used the rules at their disposal. So once can be both for the collective bargaining law and for applying open meetings laws to the Legislature. Supporting the former does not equate with opposing the latter, but it was made to look that way.
Or take the way some open government advocates are using the privacy of concealed-carry permits as an open government issue. They believe open government demands allowing the public, as well as the police, to see who has the permits.
But it is not an open government issue. Open meetings and open records laws are about how political officials act and what they with do with already well-defined public documents.
The issue of the concealed carry permits is instead a privacy issue. It's about the private information of citizens, not about the clearly public information of public officials. After all, it is argued, revealing who has a concealed carry permit defeats one of the main reasons for obtaining one in the first place: the safety of the public is increased by posing to would-be criminals the possibility that everybody has a concealed weapon.
But if they have the list, they know who does and who doesn't.
Now one can assert the limits of that argument, or stand it on its head, but either way it's an issue of privacy at its core: Proper discourse should seek to resolve whether the permit information should be public or private, not start from the assumption that it is already public and just being withheld, as some open-records advocates are doing.
It's a ruse by the left to use "open records" to weaken the concealed carry law.
Last year, too, we had Blowhard-in-Chief, Supreme Court chief justice Shirley Abrahamson, propose to open up to the public the court's deliberations - which cases they take, how they decide them - something no other state does and certainly the U.S. Supreme Court does not do.
This was simply a ploy by Abrahamson to transform serious legal deliberation into partisan political policymaking from the bench. Frank legal discussion would be aborted in such a system, replaced by spin for the nightly news. It was an attempt to use the rightly popular mantle of open government to create a third branch of lawmaking (the executive branch is the second, with its rulemaking powers).
Finally, protesters who flocked to Madison to beat drums for their cause also attempted to use open government as a proxy for their cause.
Their cries to be able to crowd and sully the Capitol as much as they wanted, without restriction, and without consideration of the greater public or of safety or of cost, was rife with the odor of the Occupy movements. As with all occupations, the movement is about intimidation and employing force to control the people and places you occupy, in this case the public square of Wisconsin.
Too many times over the past generation this crowd has been allowed to appropriate broad and virtuous sounding labels for their own narrow and not-so-virtuous agendas. They preach tolerance, when they themselves are not; they claim diversity of thought, when they actually march in rigid lockstep; they proclaim freedom of speech, often with language laced with hate and with calls to silence the voices of those who oppose them.
Let's not let them take the claim of open government, too.