JACK SPENCER: A ghost or two from Christmas Past

Being a political reporter has its perks. At times they have experiences the average person wouldn't guess was part of the job. For instance; viewing the sun rising over Michigan Avenue in Lansing from an eastern window of State Capitol. But that is no once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. The Michigan legislature has had so many all-night sessions in just the past 15 years that the novelty of seeing those sunrises wore off long ago.

Another memorable experience is watching a spring storm moving in at nighttime from a northern balcony of the Capitol. Again, this is the sort of opportunity that only happens when the legislature is working into the wee hours of the morning.

Then there are the December sessions. Picture a cold white moon above a frozen city. Imagine the State Christmas tree as sighted from above, through a window on the floor of the House of Representatives. There is always a lot of time to kill at such sessions. While deals are being cut and votes are being counted, reporters, lawmakers and staff wait, wander and converse for several minutes – even hours.

In every even-numbered year the December session is a lame duck session. The term lame duck comes from the fact that some lawmakers – and sometimes some governors – won't be returning after the New Year.

How strange it has been over the past two weeks to hear that passing major legislation in a lame duck session is something new or unusual. It's one thing to oppose Right To Work; but whenever one side or the other resorts to complaints about the process, it's pathetic. Knowingly playing on the ignorance of the electorate in this way is basically admitting the arguments supporting one's position are bankrupt.

Most voters have only the faintest knowledge of how the legislative process works. Part of the reason for this is because decades ago the news media stopped covering process. This was a decision made because of two factors. First, there was fact that those in the news business faced budget pinches. The second reason was the reality that – at the end of the day – as long as constitutional rules are observed, few people care how something gets passed. If they oppose a measure, they'll complain. If they like a measure, they'll cheer.

Opponents of Right To Work are now crying foul because Gov. Rick Snyder and the GOP-controlled legislature skipped the usual hearings and brought the legislation directly up for votes. This is disingenuous. It's a cheap shot and a blatant effort to mislead. In the end, it won't work.

There is no requirement that hearings be held on legislation. Bypassing hearings has often been 'standard operating procedure' on issues that defy compromise. A calculator would be needed to add up all of the times it has been done since the state constitution was ratified in the early 1960s. It probably hasn't been done just thousands of times – more likely it's been done tens of thousands of times.

Under Right To Work, employees don't have to financially support a union. It's left up to them. It's their choice.

Right To Work has been around for decades. Former President John F. Kennedy used an executive order to give Right-To-Work to workers at the federal level in 1962. Even then it wasn't a new idea.

Union officials hate Right To Work. But many union members like it. In fact, the very reason union officials hate it is because they fear that many of their members will take advantage of it. Come to think of it - one wonders how many of those who were bused-in to protest Right To Work at the Capitol will end up using the Right To Work measure once it goes into effect.

Neither the union bosses nor the Democrats, who depend on union campaign dollars, were ever going to change their views on Right To Work. So what's all this talk about hearings being needed to discuss the issue?

Virtually everyone in the ten-block radius of the Capitol knows the truth. Union leaders wanted hearings because that would give them more days to send in their protesters. They didn't want a serious conversation. The unions wanted to fill the Capitol lawn and the Capitol hallways with paid activists, yelling and screaming.

That's the main reason the Republicans moved the bills so quickly. It wasn't a refusal of legitimate debate. The public interest would not have been served by allowing the issue to be turned into an emotion-based spectacle that went on for weeks. As it turned out, the protests were limited to just two days.

It was the kind of maneuver former Gov. John Engler was known for executing. His ability to use the legislative process better than anyone else was legendary. Engler learned all the tricks of the process during the years he served as a legislator while the Democrats controlled both the House and Senate. Just think of stories he could tell of past December sessions.

More than once while Engler was governor a Democrat would whisper to a reporter: “I don't like what he's doing, but damn, you have to admire how he uses the process.” Of course they said this knowing full well that Engler had learned the ropes by studying how the Democrats operated when they had been in control.

This Christmas we're seeing something occur that, unfortunately, is becoming a tradition. It's taken place repeatedly the past couple of years. A reform is passed that liberals don't like and a news media storm follows. This took place in Wisconsin and even in Michigan after Snyder's first budget presentation.

While the initial rhetoric and propaganda is still hot, someone does a poll. These kinds of polls always focus on the knee-jerk reactions of voters, many of whom haven't even had time to understand the issue.

According to these polls, suddenly after Snyder announced that he wanted Right-To-Work, Michigan voters decided they didn't like it.

None of these sort of polls bother to describe what Right-To-Work is to those being surveyed. And that's no accident. Polling of this type is aimed at measuring the effects of short-term new media coverage of the story. They tell us nothing else.

If anyone believes Snyder and the Republicans didn't anticipate seeing these kinds of polling results - they better think again. If anyone thinks there's anything permanent about the current poll numbers - they ought to have their head examined.

Snyder and the Republican lawmakers know the poll numbers are strictly short-term. So do the Democrats and the unions. The pollsters probably know it as well.

When a person is involved with politics long enough he or she discovers that it is a hardball sport. It's not for the faint of heart.

Let's go back just to Christmas 2010. Rick Snyder had just been elected Governor and was preparing the reforms he wanted for his first year. Snyder didn't want to deal with Right To Work. He said it would be too divisive.

As his term of office started, the unions played their first card. The union-controlled Civil Service Commission passed the live-in rule. This meant that taxpayers would have to provide health insurance for those who live with a state employee whether they were married or not. Most of the news media covered this as a gay rights issue – but the serious potential cost impact would involve heterosexual couples.

Imagine going to your employer and saying: “This lady I met just moved in with me. If she sticks around a while I want you to provide health insurance for her.” What's more, the commission could have required that an employee provide proof that the “live-in” had lived with the employee for at least a year. It didn't even bother to do that.

Then, after Snyder presented his first budget, the unions battled virtually every cost-saving reform he proposed. In the summer and early autumn of 2011, the state's largest union - the Michigan Education Association (MEA) -was in an open war with the Republicans. They attempted recalls and ran attack ads on TV.

Considering what has happened since, union bosses might cringe now when they look back at the relatively modest reforms they made such a fuss about a year and a half ago. But probably not. The union mantra seems to be “don't ever give an inch.”

As of Christmas 2011, Snyder still wanted to avoid a battle over Right To Work. Then, last spring, the unions came up with Proposal 2 – and both sides spent more than $20 million in the fight that followed. In other words, the unions have been playing hardball with Snyder all along.

Now, as of Christmas 2012, we've learned something about Snyder. He knows how to play hardball, too.

Jack Spencer is Capitol Affairs Specialist for Capitol Confidential, an online newsletter associated with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy (MCPP). MCPP provides policy analysis. The political analysis represented in this column does not necessarily reflect the views of the Mackinac Center.