MICHIGAN — A big story is unfolding here in Michigan, and MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow last week professed to have the “scoop”—but she has gotten plenty of pushback for how she presented it, from Republican lawmakers, liberal bloggers, and folks in-between. In exploring that dissent and tracing the anatomy of the “scoop,” I’ve seen that many of the criticisms were valid: Maddow and her team botched the story in important ways, and that mishandling made it easy for detractors to dismiss her claims outright.
At the same time, she was on to something—and her attention to the story highlights the different approaches of national and local media, and the importance of both insider and outsider eyes on state government.
Here’s a recap, as brief as it can be given the wonkiness of the material: Maddow’s April 5 show closed with a 16-minute segment about the controversy over the “immediate effect” rule in the Michigan legislature. As she explained, Michigan’s constitution holds that newly-passed laws do not take effect until 90 days after the legislative session ends—but that, with a two-thirds supermajority in each house of the legislature, new laws can be put into “immediate effect.”
And, with Republicans dominating Michigan government since landslide wins in the 2010 elections, bills are going into “immediate effect” at a quick clip. The GOP-controlled legislature has passed 556 bills since January 2011, Maddow reported (citing the Michigan Democratic Caucus), and 546 were passed under “immediate effect.” She spotlighted contentious measures made into law under this process, like the one that gives emergency managers unprecedented powers over financially struggling cities and school districts (which Maddow has reported on many times before) and suggested that, with new voter-registration laws being considered, the practice could “become a factor in 2012 race.”
But the real fireworks in Maddow’s report came when she showed video of a law being granted “immediate effect” in the Michigan House. Though Republicans have a large majority, they don’t control the two-thirds they need if Democrats unite to oppose “immediate effect.” And the footage makes it plain that there is no way any serious count of votes is happening: rather, “immediate effect” is gaveled through, despite Democrats’ audible requests for a roll call vote. It is for this practice—not recognizing requests for a recorded roll call vote on “immediate effect” motions—that House Democrats recently sued the Republican majority. Maddow Show producer Laura Conaway told me in an email that she was tipped to the story in the first place when a “blog I follow called Eclectablog.com wrote about the Democrats asking for record roll call votes.” (This may be the post she’s referring to.)
Maddow interpreted this corner-cutting as a radical—even revolutionary—diminution of voting rights in Michigan. “This is new in Michigan governance,” she declared, later adding that, “Michigan Republicans are using what’s supposed to be an emergency provision for everything.”
The problem is that widespread use of “immediate effect” is hardly “new in Michigan governance.” As Republicans were quick to point out, and the Detroit News’s Chad Livengood reported the day after Maddow’s initial segment, it is “a maneuver the Dems regularly used when they were in power.” More from the News:
Maddow implied that Republicans have been trampling on the constitution by using immediate effect so frequently, without noting the Democrats’ regular use of the procedure during Gov. Granholm’s tenure.
On Friday, Republican House staff members totaled up Democrats’ use of the procedure in the last legislative session and released the numbers to the media.
Those numbers? Of the 761 bills passed when the Democrats had control of the House, 744 had “immediate effect.” Ari B. Adler, press secretary for Michigan’s GOP Speaker of the House, confirmed these numbers for me, and added that only two of those bills had recorded roll call votes.