By James Rowen Special to Published Dec 21, 2009 at 1:04 PM

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The political axiom is that the legislative process is like making sausage, and because that is often true, last week was a good time to become a vegetarian.

For example, Democrats in the U.S. Senate have had to resort to old-fashioned pork for hold-out swing vote Sen. Ben Nelson, (D-Nebraska) to gather 60 votes to close in on passing a healthcare reform bill.

One day there is an announced deal, the next day it collapses, over and over again.

This is happening in part because liberal and conservative Democrats -- despite being the majority -- cannot agree on a package; in part because Democratic leaders are unwilling to use parliamentary procedures to push through a package with a simple majority; and in part because Republicans have decided that "no" to everything is a reasonable way to participate (sic) in a major national policy debate.

As a result, the bill gets watered down, the process looses credibility and the institution looks ridiculous.

Which is about the way the State Legislature looked when it passed a modest set of changes to the Wisconsin OWI statutes, yet chose to pose for holy pictures in an orgy of self-congratulation.

Suffice it to say that despite all the claims of making real changes, most first-time offenders in Wisconsin will get a break not enjoyed in any other state -- a mere ticket instead of a criminal, misdemeanor charge.

And Wisconsin will remain in the weak-enforcement category by making a fourth offense a felony -- but only if the four offenses occur within a five-year period -- so for many multiple and irresponsible offenders it will still take five arrests to get their correct label: Felon.

Which means legislators parsed and spun the penalties in favor of the repeat offender, not the repeatedly-endangered public.

Doing next to nothing in the face of a serious, life-and-death issue and calling it doing something important is intellectually dishonest and politically misleading.

To make matters worse, the special legislative session at which the OWI changes were approved was closed without consideration of the other issue that was supposed be on the table: a mayoral takeover of the Milwaukee Public Schools.

So, the Legislature went from doing next to nothing, and mischaracterizing it, to actually doing nothing with the promise of doing something substantial next year -- an election year.

I won't hold my breath, and when the server comes to the table, I'll pass on the sausage: my appetite is gone. 

James Rowen Special to
James Rowen is a Milwaukee writer and consultant who blogs at He worked as a reporter and assistant metro editor at The Milwaukee Journal and Journal Sentinel, and held several positions with Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist, including Chief of Staff. Rowen is on the board of the Institute for One Wisconsin Now, and receives funding from The Brico Fund; neither organization has control over his writing and blogging.