The Wisconsin Congressional Delegation's Unwritten Rule: Protect the Fiefdom

During the 2010 election cycle, Wisconsinites received a revelation: The members of our state’s congressional delegation, we learned, had an “Unwritten Rule.” According to Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R, 5th CD), members of said congressional delegation, Republicans and Democrats together, turned out to be colluding by not endorsing candidates of their own party who were running in the districts of opposition incumbents.

Let that information sink in for a moment…

Wisconsin Republicans, such as Paul Ryan (1st CD) and Jim Sensenbrenner, were refusing to endorse Republican candidates running in districts held by Gwen Moore (4th CD), Tammy Baldwin (2nd CD), and other über-lefties—that is, in territory where Republican candidates needed more help, not less, to get elected. Instead, Republican incumbents said, “Sorry. You’re on your own.”


Because if Ryan and Sensenbrenner, for example, endorsed Republican candidates in Moore’s and Baldwin’s districts, Moore and Baldwin would endorse Democratic candidates in theirs. Well, now, that would get downright un-neighborly, wouldn’t it…?

So, Wisconsin’s Republican and Democratic legislators work hand in hand to ensure that none of them has to face any stiff or unpleasant competition. Evidently, for Ryan and Sensenbrenner, protecting their own seats in Washington comes first, while standing on principle faithfully to advance a true conservative platform in an election cycle comes a very distant last.

Not a Myth

There are some who will claim that the Unwritten Rule is all still just hearsay. In fact, I’ve heard a number of people make that claim.

It’s not.

Jim Sensenbrenner frankly acknowledged the Unwritten Rule last year in explaining why he would not be endorsing Dan Sebring, a solid, conservative candidate working to defeat Gwen Moore in the 4th District. The explanation was made to Sebring personally, though others were around to hear Sensenbrenner’s spiel, including Sebring’s campaign manager, Jessica Strautmann. Sensenbrenner stated that both he and Paul Ryan had agreements with Moore not to endorse in each others’ districts.

One wonders whether Sensenbrenner made this admission because the political ruling class of which he’s a confirmed member is just so bold now that they don’t care at this point whether us poor schlubs in the party rank-and-file know they’re colluding or if it was sheer stupidity on his part. It’s a serious toss up in my mind, though in Sensenbrenner’s case I lean toward door #2.

At least one other candidate, Chad Lee (2nd CD), was clued in to similar reasons for Ryan’s refusal to endorse his campaign against Tammy “Rah-Rah for Socialism” Baldwin.

More evidence…?

Of all the Wisconsin Republican congressional candidates running in multiple districts in the 2010 election cycle, only one, Sean Duffy (7th CD), received endorsements from Republican members of the congressional delegation. Democrat David Obey had already announced he would retire at the end of his term. There was no incumbent to offend in District 7.

Not a Help

Ultimately, only Duffy in District 7 and Reid Ribble in District 8 succeeded in their bids for congressional office. Sebring and Lee both lost mightily. Dan Kapanke, a Wisconsin Assemblyman, came very close to removing Ron Kind in the 3rd CD but couldn’t close the deal.

Now, you can argue that the candidates who lost would have done so regardless of endorsements from Ryan or Sensenbrenner. They were running in districts that have been royally gerrymandered. But elections have succeeded on hard ground before. But it may well have helped Republican candidates to build greater visibility and weight in the public eye had those candidates had key endorsements from current congressional representatives. Additional assistance might at least have resulted in a better Republican showing in several districts where races were ultimately lost. I guess we’ll never know, will we…?

You can also argue that at least one candidate was weak to begin with. Lee had a beautiful smile, but not much more than that when you scratched the surface. Candidates like Kapanke, Ribble, and Sebring, though, were definitely nothing to sneeze at and should have had the help of those already holding higher office. Of course, that would have required principle on the part of the individuals holding those higher offices. In that regard, as became abundantly clear, the candidates were already entirely out of luck.

And incidentally, the argument that the candidates might have been harmed by endorsements from Ryan and Sensenbrenner is a pile of dung. Wisconsin candidates came looking for endorsements from the congressional delegation because THEY KNEW those endorsements would help them to gain the profile and weight they would need to compete successfully in difficult territory. If the candidates had NOT asked for the endorsements, that would be another matter. But they did ask and were refused.

Not Principled

I want to be very clear here. protecting yourself and letting good candidates founder so that you can avoid taking any heat in your own district?  So that you can reinforce the safety of your own sorry seat? …That’s cowardly, self-interested, unprincipled sleaze. And as it turns out, I am far from the only one in this state who thinks so.

Enter Wisconsin’s Republican Liberty Caucus (RLC)…

The RLC is a 527 PAC that focuses on keeping the Republican Party honest. When they found out about the Unwritten Rule, they publicly called the Wisconsin congressional delegation’s agreement exactly what it was and is: DEEPLY WRONG.

Now, I know some of you out there reading this are thinking to yourselves, “Hey, if it ain’t broke, why fix it?! Paul Ryan and Jim Sensenbrenner are at least Rs. You rock the boat, you risk losing Wisconsin’s Republican majority in Congress. If this deal works for the congressional delegation, then we probably oughta leave it alone.”

But let’s walk this whole thing back a little, shall we?  Let’s see what we’re really talking about here instead of being immediately sucked under by the undertow of fear-based reasoning.

The Unwritten Rule, as we’re now learning, dates back a number of decades before people were quite as aware of the dangers of bad progressive policy as they are now. Wisconsin Republicans and Democrats shook hands on leaving each other alone at election time so that they could work more effectively together in our nation’s Capitol…TO BRING HOME AS MUCH PORK AS POSSIBLE. If that history alone isn’t enough to convince you that this agreement was a bad idea from the start and should go the way of the dodo immediately, I’ve got other reasons.

Not Healthy

Incumbency has become a widespread disease in this nation.

I offer you Exhibit A, a graphic from an American Majority training I’ve attended twice in the past year.

[I highly recommend the presentation, The System, should you decide to look at the whole thing. Be patient; it’s a heavy file and can take a few moments to load.]

Note in the graphic that between 2000 and 2008, an incumbent in the U.S. House of Representatives had, on average, at least a 98.3 percent chance of reelection. In most election cycles represented, an incumbent had a 99 or 99.5 percent shot at staying in office. That unfortunate certainty on the part of incumbents is a huge problem.

I hear you protesting again: “But aren’t some incumbents worth keeping around?  If someone’s doing a good job, why SHOULDN’T they stay?  Aren’t we better off keeping them there rather than risking a loss to a liberal?”

It’s instructive to examine briefly the mechanics of incumbency. How it works. What it yields as it becomes more and more entrenched.

I give you Exhibit B: from the same American Majority presentation, a symbol representing the concept of reinforcement. In the actual presentation, the introduction of this symbol is accompanied by the following question: “If you could continue to fold a standard piece of paper in half 30 times, how thick would it be?” The answer, as demonstrated in this handy little table, Exhibit C, is that it would reach into the earth’s atmosphere.

The point?

Every time we repeat an action, we exponentially strengthen its result. Translation: Every time we re-elect an incumbent, we make it that much harder to un-elect them when we decide that might be a good idea. They get comfortable, and our authority over them wanes. Why?  Because they increasingly know that no matter what we do, we probably won’t be able to get rid of them.

Exhibit D, an American Majority illustration of the incumbency cycle, helps us understand what’s REALLY going on here, whatever excuses Mssrs. Ryan and Sensenbrenner might attempt to employ to sweep the truth under the carpet.

This particular graphic is a little hard to read, so allow me to list out the phases that feed one into another…again and again and again:

  1. Win primary election
  2. Win general election
  3. Gain more seniority
  4. Gain more influence
  5. Participate more in the system of tax, spend, and regulate
  6. Gain more campaign contributions
  7. Gain more ability to pay for media
  8. Reduce the viability of any competition
  9. Win primary election…

There it is.  What we already knew in our hearts, laid out plainly for everyone to see: The longer a politician is in Washington, the more compromised by the system they become. It’s what frustrates us all: The minute they get elected, most of them stop worrying about actual principles and start worrying about staying in office.

And then there’s this charming little outcome of the disease called incumbency…

In a redistricting year, congressional leadership, both Republican and Democrat, get to help redraw district lines. And guess how they draw them?  To make seats safer and safer and safer and safer for themselves. So, Paul Ryan’s seat and Jim Sensenbrenner’s seat and Gwen Moore’s seat and Tammy Baldwin’s seat are going to get even harder to challenge. When Paul “Too Big to Fail” Ryan and Jim “REAL ID” Sensenbrenner vote for big-government nonsense—which they do on a fairly regular basis—good luck running another Republican successfully against them. And in districts like the 2nd and the 4th where it’s already a challenge to beat Democrats, it will only become more so. That, too, is a result of Wisconsin’s congressional delegation “working together.” How about we call that what it is, too:


Unless politicians are forced to contend with a real fear of the ballot box in every primary election, they start dictating to us, rather than the other way around.

Let’s be crystal clear:

Anyone who gives the nod to the Wisconsin congressional delegation’s Unwritten Rule is not only allowing but FOSTERING collusion and egregiously strengthening an elite political class.

No More!

In Milwaukee County this year, a resolution was introduced that called on Wisconsin’s congressional delegation finally to disavow the Unwritten Rule.

The resolution is titled and reads as follows:

Eliminate the Wisconsin Delegation’s “Unwritten Role” on Endorsements

WHEREAS the Wisconsin delegation’s “Unwritten Rule,” in which all members of the Wisconsin congressional delegation agree not to support congressional candidates running against incumbents in districts other than their own, has been identified and brought to public attention, and

WHEREAS some members of the Wisconsin congressional delegation have publicly acknowledged the existence of the “Unwritten Rule,” “Gentlemen’s Agreement,” or “Unspoken Rule,” and

WHEREAS the “Unwritten Rule” does not assist in the advancement of Republicans to the House of Representatives, be it now therefore

RESOLVED that the Republican Party of Milwaukee County calls on members of Wisconsin’s congressional delegation to disregard any “Unwritten Rule,” “Gentlemen’s Agreement,” or “Unspoken Rule,” but instead publicly support, endorse, and champion Republican candidates for Congress who are running against Democrat Congressional incumbents, with the intent to help further Republican control within the U.S. House of Representatives.

The resolution passed overwhelmingly. It then went on to the 4th CD caucus where, once again, delegates passed it with much enthusiasm.

At the close of that caucus, the resolution’s author, Michael S. Murphy, Chair of the South Branch of the Milwaukee County party and also Chair of the above-mentioned RLC, was approached by a fellow county chair. He told Mr. Murphy that the resolution would not see the light of day at state convention in May, and that if Mr. Murphy attempted to introduce the resolution from the floor, no one would recognize him. It was not a warning. It was a promise.

Unfortunately, the resolution failed in State Resolutions Committee by a vote of 10-5. Word has it that several members of the committee valiantly defended it, but the majority did not see its value. Some uninformed members, despite all the evidence in the world, claimed that the Unwritten Rule existed only as a figment of Mr. Murphy’s imagination. Others felt it would be “opening up a can of worms” to get rid of it, failing to understand the cycle they were reinforcing.

The resolution must now be introduced from the floor at state convention in order to be brought to the attention of this year’s delegates.

Except, Mr. Murphy has already been informed that he will not be recognized to introduce it.

Someone else will have to carry that torch.

This establishment effort to prevent the party’s rank-and-file from an opportunity to hear a resolution introduced properly from the floor should raise a battle cry from the lips of every grassroots delegate to this year’s State Convention of the Republican Party of Wisconsin. This resolution MUST be introduced, if for no other reason because the establishment is so dead set on burying it and thuggishly attempting to silence its author and supersede the prerogative of delegates to decide for themselves.

Wisconsin’s congressional leadership is run amok.

Wisconsin’s party leadership is run amok (and I’ve got even more to say on this score another day).

Take a stand, principled Wisconsin Republicans!

Be in that convention hall in Wisconsin Dells for the morning session on May 21st.

Make your voices heard.


Join the conversation as a VIP Member

Trending on RedState Video