The Wyoming Legislature has long been loath to publicly discipline its members. Preferring to tout itself as a bastion of civility, the body has traditionally opted for discreet, closed-door conversations when addressing the occasional dust-up.
So it was a dramatic departure when Senate leadership punished Sen. Anthony Bouchard (R-Cheyenne) at the end of last session for his bad behavior. Many saw the move as a drastic but necessary first step on the long journey back to proper legislative decorum.
Hah! It’s adorable, but wholly unrealistic, to imagine such a quaint parliamentary response could stem the tide of Trumpian boorishness flooding the statehouse. Just look at the returning cast of characters and how they’ve interacted in the past. It would be nice to see them all join hands and skip down the yellow brick road to civility, but zero chance it happens.
The Senate voted 19-10 in March to strip Bouchard of his four committee assignments pending a possible investigation of his conduct. A lobbyist’s formal complaint against him for allegedly using “intimidation tactics” was the spark, but just one example in a long line of Bouchard’s bullying behavior against the public and fellow lawmakers.
When the Senate Judiciary Committee rejected Bouchard’s bill to ban COVID-19 mandates last year, a Park County Republican official sent Chair Tara Nethercott (R-Cheyenne) a threatening, profane email. Bouchard responded by joining the attack, calling Nethercott “an absolute tyrant.”
During his failed campaign for Congress, Bouchard used his Facebook page to call Senate Majority Floor Leader Ogden Driskill (R-Devils Tower) a “flat-out liar” and “swamp monster.” He blasted Senate Vice President Larry Hicks (R-Baggs) as a “slime ball.”
Senate President Dan Dockstader (R-Afton) charged that Bouchard showed “open support for vulgar and threatening attacks on a member of the Senate, [and] continued support of such statements even during the session.”
So how did the first attempt to discipline the volatile Bouchard go?
Last week Dockstader notified Bouchard that a Legislative Management Council subcommittee determined there was probable cause to believe he committed misconduct, but declined to launch an official investigation.
Dockstader explained even if an internal probe found Bouchard guilty of misconduct, not allowing him to serve on interim joint committees would be the likely outcome, and he’s already served that sentence.
“We hope this punishment served its purpose and you have learned to treat the public, lobbyists and your fellow senators with more civility and respect,” the Senate president wrote in a letter to Bouchard.
Bouchard responded by going on Facebook, claiming to be the victim of a “political hit job.”
Driskill, who will be formally confirmed as Senate president next month after being elected by the upper chamber’s Republican caucus, put Bouchard back on the Senate Labor, Health and Social Services Committee. He couldn’t have possibly expected Bouchard to be grateful for another chance to redeem himself.
“Where is my decorum bad?” Bouchard defiantly asked Cowboy State Daily. “I’m going to be who I am. I represent the people who elected me. I’m not going to kiss anybody’s ring.”
Driskill’s other pre-session maneuvers to improve decorum have been baffling.
I remember last year watching Driskill chastise freshman Rep. Chip Neiman (R-Hulett) for asking lawmakers to pledge to support a bill to establish a run-off system if no one receives at least 50% of the vote in a primary election.
Driskill and others told Neiman that his pledge effort was unethical. Neiman said people don’t trust a legislator’s word alone and want lawmakers to make signed promises they can be held to.
“You are one of us,” Driskill told Neiman. “You’re not an outside group, you’re not part of a different group, you are a representative.”
It was surprising, then, when the Senate president-elect announced he’d developed a code of conduct and expected potential Senate committee chairs to pledge in writing to follow the rules. The agreement Driskill asked each chair to sign included a pre-written resignation letter that would go into effect if they failed to properly control their panels.
Sounds like a pledge with a sharp edge, doesn’t it? If Driskill thinks it’s necessary for his “team” to agree to step down if anyone is out of line, how much confidence does he have in them to do any part of the job?
It was an unnecessary, heavy-handed move, and it backfired. Driskill later admitted only one of the 10 chairs he appointed agreed to sign the pact, though most made a verbal commitment to do so. Given the lackluster response to his goofy demand, I can’t believe Driskill made it public.
Driskill asked Bouchard to sign an advance resignation letter, even though he wasn’t making him a chairman. That request was rejected, and it’s difficult to believe Driskill expected any other answer.
There was another strange aspect to Driskill’s committee appointments: All of his chairs will serve on a second panel, and several other senators received multiple assignments. One new senator, meanwhile, four-term Rep. Dan Laursen (R-Powell), was excluded from all 10 standing committees.
“I don’t see any reason to enable him in any way unless he wants to sit down and honestly talk about being a team member and working with us instead of against us,” Driskill told the CSD.
Laursen speculated that the icy reception he’s receiving in the Senate is fallout from winning his GOP primary against former Sen. Ray Peterson, a close friend of Driskill and Hicks.
Laursen leans far to the right politically, and I rarely agree with him about any issue. Still, there are more contentious legislators than Laursen, so why is he the only lawmaker — besides House Speaker Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale), Neiman and Driskill — who isn’t assigned to at least one of the 10 joint standing committees?
Last session, Sen. Tom James (R-Rock Springs) showed more disrespect for his colleagues than anyone I’ve ever seen at the Capitol. He frequently interrupted meetings by yelling at people. Yet James — who lost the August GOP primary — was never removed from the Senate Revenue Committee.
James is done with the Legislature, but Bouchard has two more years to go in his second term. He appears to enjoy the chaos that continually surrounds him, like being removed from committees, because he’s perfected playing a victim who won’t back down to anyone.
Laursen may have a right to be upset by Driskill’s snub, but there’s nothing he can do about it. Meanwhile, Driskill has a fine line to walk as he tries to assert his authority as the Senate’s new leader.
He’s as conservative as they come, but Driskill’s far-right enemies call him a RINO, a liberal “Republican in name only.” Two extreme-right candidates split the primary vote, allowing Driskill to easily win a fourth term.
Driskill may have examined the challenges he faces restoring decorum to the Senate and realized Bouchard is a wild mustang who can’t be tamed, but his self-destructive nature means his bills will keep failing. Keeping Laursen locked in the corral will make him an ineffective legislator as well. But neither scenario is a win for the public, which is understandably cynical about the games politicians play.
Driskill has made a few missteps before he’s even spent one day as Senate president, but he has time to rectify them and do better. Leaders don’t need to demand their committee chairs sign letters of resignation to get the job; it’s a sure sign that the person at the top of the legislative food chain is insecure. Codes of conduct are an excellent idea, but they won’t ever supplant leading by example and treating everyone fairly.