Scott Walker’s Real Legacy

Source: Donald F. Kettl, Washington Monthly, Vol. 47 nos. 6/7/8, June/July/August 2015

What did the Wisconsin governor’s union busting actually accomplish for the “hardworking taxpayers” of his state? And what do his actions tell us about how he might govern as president? …..

….But let’s presume he does become the nominee. Walker’s triumph over the unions could continue to be a useful tool for him, not only in firing up the GOP base but also in reaching out to independents, 47 percent of whom take a dim view of unions, according to the same Pew poll, and even to persuadable Democrats. The 2016 elections will be a battle over the role of government in failing to spur a too-weak economy and boost stagnant incomes. The Democratic nominee will likely present herself (or, less likely, himself) as a champion of the middle class who will wrest control of government away from the big banks and other powerful corporate interests and use it to benefit average Americans. Walker will be armed with an equivalent reform narrative. The problem with government, he can say, is not just that it is too big, holds back private-sector growth, and robs us of our freedoms—the standard Republican view, which he tirelessly proclaims—but that it has been captured by its own employees, who run it for their own benefit, not the public’s. Just as he took on the unions in Wisconsin, he can say, so will he take on the bureaucrats in Washington, returning power back to “the hardworking taxpayers.”

So it’s worth looking carefully at Walker’s arguments for why he busted the state’s public employee unions. To what extent were those unions the obstacle to getting the state’s fiscal house in order—a key argument Walker made during the 2011 standoff? To what degree do state and local government employee unions drive government’s costs up and push its performance down?

Even more important is the question of how Walker’s experiences and management choices at the state level might translate at the federal level. Is a governor whose greatest accomplishment is the crushing of state and local government unions the right person to lead the government in Washington?….

….To what extent, then, did Walker’s crushing of the unions help Wisconsin’s “hardworking taxpayers”? The $3 billion he saved in his first term was certainly something. But that amounted to less than 1 percent of overall state and local government spending over that time period. Those savings came from the pockets of teachers and other public servants who are also taxpayers and whose compensation, by most measures, was not out of line. The law Walker signed didn’t contribute to the fiscal health of the state’s public pension fund. It provided management flexibilities that could ease school reforms down the road but that the governor himself hasn’t taken much advantage of. And, as we’ve seen, Walker could have won most or all of that $3 billion through tough negotiating without going for the jugular and virtually eliminating collective bargaining. Why, then, did he do it?

It’s tempting to portray the struggle over Wisconsin’s unions as a matter of high policy. In reality, however, it was the culmination of decades of increasingly fierce partisan wrangling that pitched the state’s Democrats, along with their union supporters, against resurgent Republicans and their allies in the business community…..