FOXCONN DEBATE-15-08172017154528 (copy)

The Wisconsin Assembly chambers, photographed during debates over the Foxconn deal in August, 2017.


A newly published report found that an ongoing, informal agreement between Republicans and Democrats in the Wisconsin Assembly has struck a balance between the two parties' goals and made floor sessions in the chamber "less chaotic."

The bipartisan agreements, in place since 2013, govern the Assembly's approach to floor debates and scheduling.

The study, authored by Legislative Reference Bureau chief and general counsel Rick Champagne and legislative analysts Emma Gradian and Madeline Kasper, appeared in the fall 2017 edition of the Journal of the American Society of Legislative Clerks and Secretaries. 

"Our goal was to have a more robust debate that was easier to follow," Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said in a statement. "We wanted to have a more transparent process that allows for greater public participation in the legislative process."

Vos was elected Assembly Speaker in 2013. He and Rep. Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, who served as Assembly Minority Leader from 2011 until this fall, negotiated an agreement at the beginning of the 2013-15 legislative session on how the chamber would conduct legislative business, with stated goals to "provide greater transparency of the legislative process," "establish the structure for a more productive debate" and "provide for greater public participation in the legislative process."

In each session that has followed, the two parties have crafted similar agreements. In a statement, Vos issued special thanks to Barca and to Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna, who negotiates the parameters for each session day with the minority party. 

Vos said during a panel discussion last week that he tried to "hit the reset button" after the hyperpartisan debate surrounding Gov. Scott Walker's contentious Act 10 legislation, which effectively eliminated collective bargaining for most public employees. According to the LRB study, the floor sessions during that period were the longest in state history. 

All-night floor sessions were "frequent" even before that, with debates that often didn't begin until the evening.

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The first memorandum of understanding dealt mostly with time limits for floor debates. The second expanded to offer guidelines for committee hearings.

The study looked at the 2013-14 and 2015-16 legislative sessions and compared them to the 2009-10 session, when Democrats held the Assembly and Senate majority, and the 2011-12 session, when Republicans held the majorities. 

The 2011-12 session had the most floor days with adjournments after 9 p.m.: 14, followed by the 2009-10 session, which had nine. The first year the memorandum of understanding was in place, that went down to seven. In the second year of the MOU, it was down to five.

"To the extent that a basic tenet of parliamentary procedure is that the majority of a deliberative body must be able to achieve its goals, while the minority of that body must have the opportunity to be heard, the MOUs struck a balance between these two goals, which are often in tension," the report found.

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Jessie Opoien covers state government and politics for the Capital Times. She joined the Cap Times in 2013 and has also covered Madison life, race relations, culture and music. She has also covered education and politics for the Oshkosh Northwestern.