Monday, June 25, 2007

Consistently Inconsistent

On the same day the U.S. Supreme Court issued its ruling putting new limits on enforcement of the federal McCain-Feingold campaign reform law, the court ruled that schools may censor the speech of students, even when the speech occurs off school property.

Writing for the narrow majority of a split U.S. Supreme Court, Chief Justice John Roberts leaned heavily on free speech arguments to carve out an exception to disclosure requirements and restrictions on campaign money. While not striking down McCain-Feingold as unconstitutional, the majority opinion invites special interests to play word games in their advertisements to get around the law.

The court ruled that advertisements targeting candidates for federal office and run in the days before an election may be funded with unlimited corporate or union funds unless the ads are the "functional equivalent of express advocacy" and only if the ads are "susceptible of no reasonable interpretation other than as an appeal to vote for or against a specific candidate."

By shielding ad sponsors from disclosure requirements and campaign contribution limitations if an ad has "content . . . consistent with that of a genuine issue ad" and "lacks indicia of express advocacy," the Court essentially revived the so-called magic words test that it found "functionally meaningless" less than four years ago in McConnell v. FEC. And made the nation's campaign finance laws prone to easy manipulation.

Roberts justified this result by saying the First Amendment "requires us to err on the side of protecting . . . speech rather than suppressing it." His majority opinion goes on to say: "We give the benefit to speech, not censorship."

Roberts saw things differently on the student speech case. Again writing for the majority, Roberts ruled that schools may prohibit student expression that can be interpreted as advocating drug use, even though Roberts acknowledged that the message at issue in the case – a banner saying "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" unfurled by a student outside of school – was "cryptic."

Cryptic? Hell, it was inane . . . even by the student's estimation. But no more inane than most of the campaign ads we are doomed to watch.

The irony is that, contrary to popular mischaracterization, the McCain-Feingold law does not prevent any group from airing a political ad at any time, all the way up to Election Day. It merely prevents groups from using corporate or labor union treasury funds to pay for ads run within 60 days of an election. And groups have to disclose their funding sources to the public. But there is no censorship. Yet disclosure and campaign money restrictions ran afoul of the First Amendment's free speech protections in the collective mind of the Roberts court, while outright censorship of student speech did not.

This may seem wildly inconsistent. But if you look closely at the trends in recent Supreme Court rulings, the powerful are served time and again. Weaker elements of our society are not. When you look at who's winning and who's losing in recent cases, this court is scrupulously consistent.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Couldn't They Just Join Softball Leagues?

James Buchen, vice president of government relations at Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, was quoted recently defending state lawmakers' habit of campaign fundraising during the state budget process. He said fundraisers help break the tension that builds during a legislative session. Sort of like a spa.

"More than anything it's a social outlet that this process sorely needs," Buchen said.

He went on to say fundraisers are a "setting where you can get to know people." And buy a tax break or two.

Monday, June 11, 2007

No Cable Subscriber Left Behind

If Wisconsin's experience is anything like what is happening in other states, the so-called Video Competition Act being pushed by AT&T and put on a fast track to passage by eager-to-please state lawmakers will end up deserving a place right next to No Child Left Behind and the federal Clear Skies and Healthy Forests initiatives in the Doublespeak Hall of Fame.

Legislative sponsors, AT&T's lobbyists and its PR machine all are chirping about how the legislation will lower cable TV rates in Wisconsin. Sounds a lot like the hype for No Child Left Behind before it became evident how many children are being left behind. For starters, only one in five students eligible for the tutoring the law promised are getting it.

As sure as Clear Skies allowed more air pollution and Healthy Forests gave timber companies the green light to more aggressively harvest trees on public lands, it's a safe bet that cable bills will go up under the Video Competition Act. Just look at Texas, where legislation virtually identical to AT&T's bill in Wisconsin has done the opposite of what was promised.

George Orwell's got to be doing double axels and triple toe loops in his grave.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Lincoln's Warning

On the surface, the commentary of mine that was posted today on our Web site deals with the upcoming U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Wisconsin Right to Life's legal challenge to the federal McCain-Feingold campaign finance law. Just beneath the surface is anxiety about corporate immortality and plutocracy.

The piece quotes Thomas Jefferson warning of the growing threat to the infant republic posed by the "aristocracy of our monied corporations." The better part of a century later, President Abraham Lincoln echoed Jefferson's fear.

In a November 21, 1864 letter to Colonel William F. Elkins, Lincoln wrote: "I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. . . . corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed."

The warnings of both Jefferson and Lincoln ring truer than ever today.

Monday, June 04, 2007

A Queen Bee In A Dying Hive

Most mainstream news coverage of election campaigns is based on the widely accepted assumption that business and labor are political equals. They are not in the same league. Not even close.

A recently released Democracy Campaign study shows that over the last 12 years business interests have made $12 in campaign contributions for every $1 labor unions have given to candidates for state office in Wisconsin.

The old political orthodoxy that business bankrolls Republicans while unions fund the Democrats is a myth. Corporate interests are indeed the GOP’s major benefactors, but the Democrats have changed teams. They get five times more campaign money from business than labor is giving them.

If you wonder why Jim Doyle agreed to a business tax break – so-called single factor taxation – that even Tommy Thompson wouldn’t support, or if you wonder why Joe Wineke works as a lobbyist for AT&T when he’s not tending to his duties as chair of the state Democratic Party, all you have to do is follow the money.

And it’s not just campaign donations to candidates where the rise of corporate influence within the Democratic Party is plainly visible. The Democrats’ leading “issue advocacy” group in Wisconsin is being sustained by a feeding tube through which major corporate donations flow.

The bottom line is that the labor unions are getting their heads handed to them. Corporate interests have a firm financial grip on both major parties. Labor is losing political clout by the day.

So why is organized labor reticent at best and at times even openly hostile toward campaign finance reform? Since unions have people and corporations have capital, why does organized labor seem content competing on a money playing field . . . even when they are so hopelessly outgunned? Why do they actively and sometimes even openly work to thwart efforts to change that playing field?

The head of the biggest of the big labor players – Wisconsin Education Association Council – recently told the lobbying trade publication Capitol Report Wisconsin that “WEAC has never lobbied to kill campaign finance reform.”

It’s true that WEAC usually takes great care to disclose nothing about its position on campaign reform legislation, registering neither in favor of nor in opposition to reform bills, so as to maintain plausible deniability about their efforts to undermine reform efforts.

But I personally saw a WEAC lawyer appear numerous times before the state Elections Board in opposition to full disclosure and regulation of so-called “issue ads” – campaign advertisements masquerading as issue advocacy that plainly support the election or defeat of a candidate. In other words, WEAC was lobbying to keep a loophole open that is allowing millions of dollars in corporate donations to flow into Wisconsin election campaigns.

If you won’t take my word for it, clear evidence of WEAC’s lobbying against this campaign reform can be found on page one of the official minutes of the state Elections Board’s September 1, 2004 meeting and also on page three of the minutes of the board’s March 10, 2004 meeting. This is rare documentation of WEAC’s activities in opposition to campaign finance reform. Like I said, most times the teachers union has carefully maintained plausible deniability.

Why is WEAC working to keep open a loophole that its presumed nemesis, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, is exploiting to buy elections? An especially good question considering that WEAC has rarely if ever taken advantage of this loophole, preferring instead to fund its campaign ads with regulated PAC funds.

One is tempted to conclude that unions like WEAC and organized labor generally are dumb as shovels. At the risk of giving an undeserved benefit of the doubt, I don’t think stupidity is the answer, or even lack of imagination. I suspect it’s that most of the unions would rather be a queen bee in a dying hive than a drone in a thriving one.

When unions were in their heyday, Democrats controlled government and organized labor controlled the Democrats. Today, if not for the Iraq War, Republicans would be the clear majority party in America. Before public opinion about the war started turning sour, the Republicans controlled the White House and both houses of Congress, not to mention most statehouses. Not only has labor’s party been largely out of power, it’s not even labor’s party anymore. Even in a comparatively strong union state like Wisconsin, Democrats are getting five times more campaign money from business than from labor.

So the unions’ money is only enough for them to retain a controlling stake in an ever-shrinking contingent of a minority political coalition. And they lose on issue after issue.

Despite declining membership and waning influence, labor’s aging leadership clings to old practices that put the working class at a profound disadvantage in the modern public arena. Whether it’s done out of stupidity, or lack of imagination, or out of a misguided belief that it’s better to wholly own a few powerless politicians than be one of many stakeholders in a thriving political enterprise, it can’t get much worse for working people.