Saturday, September 27, 2014

Door Number Four

Americans clearly are sour on politics. According the latest Gallup public opinion polling, the number one problem in the U.S. is “dissatisfaction with government, Congress and politicians” along with “poor leadership, corruption and abuse of power.”

New Associated Press polling shows slightly more than a quarter of Americans say they trust Republicans to manage the government, while just under a quarter trust the Democrats. The biggest bloc of citizens say they don’t trust either major party. And the AP survey showed that public confidence in the government’s ability to make progress on the important problems and issues facing the country continues to slip, with 74% now saying they have little or no confidence, compared with 70% who said the same last December.

Both parties are failing our country, leaving most Americans feeling betrayed and politically homeless. But the citizenry’s response to these circumstances leaves the most to be desired.

We’ve all been conditioned to believe we have only three options. Behind door number one is whatever the two major parties offer up. A few partisans on either side are more or less satisfied with what’s behind this door, but most Americans aren’t. Most feel they are forced to hold their noses and choose between the lesser of evils. Most look for another door.

Behind door number two is an occasional third-party or independent candidate. But whether it’s Ross Perot one time or Ralph Nader another, this door leads to a dead end. The U.S. is not a parliamentary democracy. Ours is a two-party system. Supporting a third party invariably ends in disappointment.

That leaves door number three. Behind it is resignation. Sadly, a great many of us are choosing this route, throwing up our hands in disgust and hightailing it for the sidelines. This withdrawal from civic life is now endemic to American politics.

Three doors. No happy ending to be found behind any of them.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that there is a fourth door. We’ve been trained not to recognize it or even acknowledge its existence, much less open it. But it is there all the same. It hasn’t been opened in our lifetimes, but when it was found and opened by past generations, what it led to was transformational and landscape altering.

Door number four is what I call a first-party movement. Third-party movements operate on the political fringes, to the left of the Democrats and to the right of the Republicans. Put another way, they seek to clip the wings of the major parties. First-party insurgencies go for the heart. They compete for the affections of the entire electorate. The goal of third-party movements is to have three or more parties. The goal of first-party organizing is to have at least one that is worth a damn. At least one that truly owes its allegiance to the people.

Conditions are growing ripe for an extensive renovation of the nation’s political landscape. The telltale signs of an impending political implosion are visible. The percentage of Americans who refuse to identify with either major parties is at its highest level in three-quarters of a century. The biggest swath of the electorate — by far — is not the Republican loyalists or the Democratic faithful. Nor is it centrist or moderate. It is politically homeless.

If door number four is opened, the two parties will either adapt or perish. The odds that at least one of the parties will cease to exist in its current form are getting shorter by the day.

We have it in our power to put citizens back in the driver’s seat of our government. The two major parties are repellent. We have it in our power to build a political household that people actually want to live in. It can be done. Our great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents did it. On more than one occasion they opened door number four and freed themselves from the same kinds of traps that ensnare us again today.

We don’t have to make history. We only have to repeat it.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Decriminalizing Bribery And Money Laundering

On what planet does anyone think there is not enough money in politics, not enough special interest influence, and too much public awareness of the buying and selling of our government?

Well, on Earth there is Rudolph Randa and the Five Supremes. It's been the better part of a half century since a rock and roll band could get away with a name so lame, so they must be judges.

In 2010 the five-member majority on the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that corporations and other interest groups can spend as much as they want to influence American elections. And then earlier this year the court doubled down on its infamous Citizens United decision and struck down a key federal limit on campaign contributions made by individuals.

In a country of well over 300 million people, just over 1,200 individuals reached the $123,000 limit on overall donations to federal campaigns in the 2012 elections. The ruling majority on the high court found intolerable the way the law cramped the style of 0.000003% of the nation's population and invalidated that law.

A month later Wisconsin's $10,000 annual limit on overall donations from individuals for state and local elections experienced the same fate. Fewer than 300 individuals had managed to bump up against the state limit in 2010 and 2012 elections combined, including 173 living outside Wisconsin. Just like that, five one-thousandths of 1% of the state's population had their ability to legally bribe state lawmakers increased exponentially, and they are taking full advantage.

Now this week Randa orders Wisconsin election officials to stop enforcing a law limiting how much candidates can collect from political committees run by special interest groups, parties and legislative campaigns.

Randa is the judge who also ordered a halt to the latest John Doe investigation into political corruption in Wisconsin. He ruled that there is nothing illegal about candidates and interest groups coordinating their election activities.

"Coordination" sounds abstract and mundane and benign. What Randa actually blessed is money laundering. What is under investigation is apparent conspiracy to get around legal limits on political donations as well as disclosure requirements by steering money intended to aid a candidate for state office to a tax-exempt "social welfare" group that does not have to publicly report the origins of its money.

If the skewed judgment of Randa and the Five Supremes stands up over the long haul, Americans will be left with a right to free speech that is proportionate to the size of their bank accounts, two parties joined at the billfold, and a tiny fraction of 1% of the population fully empowered to lord over the rest of us.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Muzzling Democracy

Beer, billboards, sick days, soda, shooting at stuff, mining and manure.

These were some of the subjects the Republican-led legislature and Governor Scott Walker have told communities they can’t properly handle and imposed state laws that slashed local control – usually with the support of powerful special interests that contributed about $47 million since 2010 to partisan candidates for statewide office and the legislature.

A Legislative Fiscal Bureau report in June identified 64 measures the legislature and the governor have approved since 2011 that force communities to pay for state mandates or seize their authority to make decisions about public health, environmental, land use, transportation and other matters.

In addition to stripping locals of their policymaking autonomy, more than half of the proposals were barely aired in public. Thirty-six measures were tucked into two massive state budget bills in 2011 and 2013 that aren’t meant to include non-spending policy items and often got little or no attention.

Here are some of the proposals that took away local government control and the campaign contributions from the special interests behind them:

 The 2013-15 state budget contained dozens of non-spending policy items that didn’t belong in it, including 16 proposals that removed the authority of communities to enact local laws. Some of these budget provisions prohibited communities from enforcing public employee residency requirements, siting cell phone and radio towers; limiting the sale of certain foods and beverages; and enacting commercial erosion controls measures tougher than state law. More than a dozen special interests supported the budget because generous tax breaks and exemptions, environmental deregulation and the hijacking of local control make it cheaper and easier for them to conduct business. Those interests included manufacturers, business, real estate, construction, transportation and agriculture concerns which contributed $4.6 million in 2012 and 2013 to majority Republicans in the legislature, and $15.7 million to the governor;

 Exempt iron mining companies from meeting local zoning ordinances dealing with public health, environment and land use. The measure was passed in 2013 to deregulate iron mining in Wisconsin for an out-of-state mining company that wants to build a large open-pit mine in Ashland and Iron counties. The proposal was supported by more than a dozen special interests including business, manufacturing, construction, transportation and natural resources that contributed $7 million between 2011 and 2013 to majority Republicans in the legislature, and $37 million to Walker;

 Prevent communities from enacting or enforcing ordinances stricter than state law involving the construction and remodeling of public buildings. The measure was approved in 2014 with the support of the construction industry and the state carpenters union which contributed $733,365 between 2011 and 2013 to legislators and nearly $4 million to the governor;

 Restrict the ability of communities to regulate sport shooting ranges and bow-and-arrow and crossbow hunting, and provide shooting ranges with greater legal immunity for negligence. Legislative approval for the three laws that accomplished these changes was led by majority Republicans with support from pro-gun and hunting groups who contributed $10,325 to GOP legislators and $17,175 to Walker between 2011 and 2013. But direct contributions from pro-gun interests is minute compared to their spending on outside electioneering activities. For instance the National Rifle Association, the nation’s preeminent pro-gun lobby, doled out $863,500 in reported outside electioneering spending to support Republican legislators and Walker between 2011 and 2013;

 Prevent local communities from prohibiting repairs to nonconforming structures, like docks and boathouses, subject to shoreland zoning based on the cost of the repairs and also prevent local ordinances from being stricter than state shoreland regulations. Legislative approval for the 2012 law was led by majority Republicans and drew support from construction and real estate interests which contributed $1.4 million to GOP legislators and about $5.6 million to the governor between 2010 and 2012;

 Establish requirements for communities to make it more difficult to impose development moratoriums, and limit moratoriums to one year plus a six-month extension if necessary. The 2012 law requires communities to have an engineer certify that a proposed development would overburden public facilities and pose a significant threat to public health and safety. Legislative approval was led by majority Republicans and the measure was supported by construction and real estate interests which contributed $1.4 million to GOP legislators and $5.6 million to the governor between 2010 and 2012;

 Prohibit local governments from enacting family and medical leave ordinances on local businesses. The proposal was enacted in 2011 with the backing of construction, tourism, manufacturing, business and other interests which contributed nearly $5.1 million to the legislature between 2010 and 2011, including $4.2 million to Republicans who controlled the Assembly and Senate, and $11.4 million to Walker;

 Prohibit local governments from enacting ordinances that limit the ability of landlords to obtain or use certain information about tenants or prospective tenants, such as income, credit history, court records, and social security numbers; handle security deposits, tenant property and inspections; show the premises to prospective tenants; and impose moratoriums on evicting tenants. These restrictions were in three measures that became law in 2011 and 2013 with support from the construction and real estate industries which contributed about $1.9 million to legislators between 2010 and 2013, including nearly $1.7 million to majority Republicans, and $6.4 million to Walker;

 The 2011-13 state budget was a Trojan horse for 20 provisions that restricted the authority of communities to govern themselves. One controversial item replaced locally issued brewer’s permits with a broader state permit that critics say limits the ability of local brewers to get wholesale licenses as well as where and how they can sell their products. Other budget provisions prohibited regional transit authorities, local regulation of bird hunting preserves, revamped bidding requirements for local, highway and public works projects, and placed strict levy limits on county and municipal governments. It’s nearly impossible to determine which special interests supported any given proposal due to the lack of specific state disclosure requirements. The dozen-plus special interest groups that supported the 2011-13 state budget contributed $5.8 million in 2010 and 2011 to majority Republicans in the legislature, and nearly $9.1 million to Walker.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Grassroots My Ass

Governor Scott Walker’s campaign finance report shows 56,530 itemized individual contributions totaling $7.83 million during the first six months of 2014 – a statistic his campaign claims is indicative of “overwhelming grassroots support for Governor Walker’s campaign to continue moving Wisconsin forward.”

Walker is among dozens of politicians over the years who use the number of campaign contributions to claim they’re really popular with ordinary citizens. But a closer look at the numbers reveals little proof of “overwhelming grassroots support.”

First, the number of itemized contributions came from slightly more than 41,500 donors who represent only seven-tenths of 1 percent of the state’s estimated 5.8 million residents.

Second, most of Walker contributions and donors were from outside Wisconsin. The governor received $4.39 million or 56 percent of his contributions from nearly 22,000 donors outside the state who can’t vote for him, and $3.43 million or 44 percent from slightly more than 19,500 Wisconsin residents – about three-tenths of 1 percent of Wisconsin’s 5.8 million residents. About $9,700 worth of the governor’s itemized contributions listed no state or zip code.

Third, Walker’s campaign statement claims 76 percent of the contributions it received were for $75 or less – another statistic meant to show grassroots support – but that’s not where the governor raised most of his money.

A review of his individual contributions shows he received $4.53 million in contributions of $1,000 or more which represents 57 percent of his total individual contributions for the six-month period.

Walker’s Democratic opponent, Mary Burke, hasn’t made the same claim of grassroots support based on her 2014 fundraising – nor should she. Burke’s campaign report showed she accepted 50,518 itemized contributions totaling $3.29 million from slightly more than 35,500 donors who represent only sixth-tenths of 1 percent of the state’s population.

Burke accepted $1.11 million or 34 percent of her total individual contributions from slightly more than 17,600 out-of-state donors who can’t vote for her, and $2.18 million from slightly more than 17,900 Wisconsin residents – about three-tenths of 1 percent of state residents.

And Burke’s take from contributions of $1,000 or more totals $1.02 million or 31 percent of her individual contributions.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Big Donor Seeks OK For Golf Course Project In State Park

The company led by a generous contributor to Republican Governor Scott Walker has proposed building a road and maintenance facility in a state park that would serve a new high-end golf course on company-owned land adjacent to the park.

The Kohler Company’s request for a conditional use permit to develop the new course on its land is scheduled for a July 16 hearing before the Town of Wilson Plan Commission.

In addition, the Department of Natural Resources must approve an easement before the golf course maintenance facility and road can be built on state property. The affected acreage includes forest and wetlands in the Kohler-Andrae State Park near Lake Michigan.

The Kohler project comes amid years of criticism the Walker administration has pushed to make the DNR a more business-friendly agency at the expense of safeguarding the environment.

Kohler Company employees contributed $51,304 between 2009 and 2013 to legislative and statewide candidates. Most of the contributions – $44,500 – were made by company president Herb Kohler Jr. Walker received $42,254 followed by GOP Senators Joe Leibham of Sheboygan at $3,950 and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald of Juneau at $2,000 from Kohler and his employees.

Kohler developed Whistling Straits golf course which will host the 2015 PGA Championship, one of professional golf’s four major tournaments. The course also hosted the 2004 and 2010 PGA Championships.

Companies Cited In Investigative Report Gave Generously To Governor

Three companies cited in a recent WKOW-TV investigative report that dealt with outsourcing jobs in Wisconsin to foreign countries after they accepted millions of dollars in tax breaks from the state contributed more than $6,500 to state and legislative candidates from 2011 through 2013.

Executives of Eaton Corporation, its subsidiary Cooper Power Systems, and Plexus Corporation made most of their contributions – $5,553 – to Republican Governor Scott Walker during the three-year period. Tax breaks were awarded to Eaton and Plexus beginning in 2011 by the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, a state agency created and chaired by the governor to foster business growth and job creation through tax credits, grants and other financial incentives.

Campaign finance records showed Cooper Power Systems executives contributed $4,305 from 2011 through 2013, including $4,080 to the governor. Plexus Corporation executives contributed $1,395 to state and legislative candidates during the period, including $640 to Walker, and Eaton Corporation executives gave $833 – all to the governor.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Sexed-Up Virgins

For the better part of 20 years, we've been told by shadowy interest groups and their spin doctors and hired guns that the campaign ads they run aren't political ads at all. They are merely discussing issues. Never mind that most of the groups never say a word about these issues when they are actually being debated at the Capitol. They only feel the urge to discuss in the weeks before elections. And never mind that the groups that are lobbying at the Capitol choose to discuss entirely different issues when election season rolls around.

Never minding all that, these groups insist that their ads aren't aimed at influencing voters. They insist they have nothing to do with the candidates and are not taking sides in elections. They are just bringing up issues. And because they are just discussing issues, they claim their ads technically have no political purpose. The technicality is the absence of words like "vote for," "vote against," "elect" or "defeat" in their messages (as if saying such words is the only way to make it plain as day in an advertisement what you want the viewer or listener to think and do). Exploiting this technicality, they do not have to obey campaign contribution limits and they do not have to publicly disclose where their money comes from.

This has always been a farce, but it is a farce that has been blessed by a generation of lawmakers, election officials and judges.

This farce has been very, very good to them. It has put them in the captain's seat of the ship of state. But they are not satisfied. Now they want to "discuss issues" in a way that enables them to evade contribution limits and disclosure requirements while also plotting strategy with candidates and coordinating their activities with the candidates' campaigns. The same candidates they've insisted they had nothing to do with for the past 15 or 20 years.

They want it both ways. They want to be legally regarded as virgins while getting laid at the same time.

And they are counting on the current batch of judges to grant their wish.

Friday, June 20, 2014

If We Follow John Doe

John Doe is the name given to unknown or anonymous targets of a criminal investigation or similarly unidentified defendants or plaintiffs in legal proceedings. Wisconsin has come to know John Doe well. A little more than a decade ago, "John Doe" was actually five of the state's most powerful legislators as well as several of their aides. Criminal charges for misconduct in public office were filed against all of them, and ultimately political careers were ended in what has come to be known as Wisconsin's "caucus scandal."

More recently, John Doe turned out to be six close associates of Governor Scott Walker who were convicted of a variety of crimes. What was unearthed during that investigation prompted another, and in this new drama John Doe is Walker himself, along with key political allies of the governor like R.J. Johnson, Deb Jordahl and Eric O'Keefe, and groups like O'Keefe's Wisconsin Club for Growth.

While the fascination with who John Doe is and what he has been up to is entirely understandable, more attention should be paid to where Mr. Doe is trying to lead us.

Previously sealed documents made public this week by court order show that prosecutors accuse Walker of overseeing a "criminal scheme" to illegally coordinate election campaign activities with supposedly independent groups. Longstanding Wisconsin law requires groups wishing to intervene in elections by making "independent disbursements" to swear an oath that they do not "act in cooperation or consultation with any candidate or agent or authorized committee of a candidate...."

It has been settled law in Wisconsin that this prohibition on coordination between candidates and interest groups applies to organizations doing election-related "issue advocacy." Application of the coordination ban to so-called "issue ad" groups was challenged in the late 1990s in the case involving a group that was found to be coordinating with Justice Jon Wilcox’s 1997 campaign for reelection to the state Supreme Court.

State election authorities heavily fined both Wilcox’s campaign as well as political operative Mark Block, who ran the issue ad-sponsoring Wisconsin Coalition for Voter Participation. At the time, the fines were the largest in state history for campaign finance violations. Block also was banned from involvement in Wisconsin elections for three years. The state's enforcement actions were contested in court, and ultimately were upheld in a 1999 ruling.

John Doe's aim in this current matter is to unsettle that settled law. Federal judge Rudolph Randa recently obliged, putting the investigation on hold for the time being. Judge Randa threw that settled law out the window. He bought Doe's contention that coordination should be allowed, ruling that the ban on coordination applies only to groups engaged in "express advocacy" — messages that explicitly urge people to vote for or against a candidate — not "issue advocacy" that promotes or opposes candidates without coming right out and saying how people should vote.

Randa does not have the final say on this. But if his ruling stands up on appeal and such coordination becomes legal, we will enter a new world of shadow campaigns where all of the money will be dark money. Candidates will be able to orchestrate campaigns carried out by surrogates who do not have to abide by campaign contribution limits or disclosure requirements. Voters will be kept totally in the dark about who is paying to put candidates in office. Elected officials will be spared the discomfort of journalists and others connecting the dots between who gives them political donations and who benefits from their policy decisions. There will be no more visible conflicts of interest. Public ignorance will be the politicians' bliss.

John Doe does not want a settlement in this case. He wants a test case, one that goes all the way to the Supreme Court. Five of the nine justices have shown ample disrespect for precedents and a willingness to write new law from the bench in other recent campaign finance cases. In Citizens United the court overturned more than a century of settled law to allow unlimited spending on elections by corporations and other interest groups. In McCutcheon the five-member majority invalidated the decades-old federal aggregate limit on campaign contributions to candidates. John Doe is counting on more such judicial activism to sweep away the prohibition on coordination.

If John Doe gets what he wants, the result will be shadow campaigns overseen by candidates but carried out by anonymous proxies. Unlimited donations. No disclosure. An electoral black hole preventing any light from escaping and causing anything remotely resembling democracy to implode.