Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Why Hell Froze

The Democracy Campaign issued a most unusual report today, showing that campaign fundraising by Wisconsin legislators in the first half of the year fell to its lowest level since 1999. In fact, after scouring our archives it appears it was utterly unique. I could find no other report documenting a drop in fundraising. I found this, this, this, this, this, this, this, this, this, this, this, this, this and this, but nothing showing the spigot closing.

In our report we attribute the decline in donations to the Assembly's rule banning fundraising during the state budget process. This wasn't mere conjecture on our part. The numbers told a convincing story. Overall fundraising was down, but it was down most sharply in the Assembly.

Nevertheless, since releasing our analysis this morning we've heard from a few who wonder if the economy had more to do with it than the Assembly rule.

Could be. But if the recession was the cause, then fundraising should have been in a tailspin in 2008 because the economy was already in a freefall. That wasn't the case. On the contrary, all kinds of records were broken in last year's legislative elections.

And back in 2001 in the aftermath of 9/11, the economy sputtered and both charitable contributions and tax collections fell. But the political money kept flowing. In fact, donations to candidates for governor went up six fold over pre-9/11 levels.

What we've seen over the years is a steep and steady upward arc to political giving, regardless of the condition of the economy. It is one of the few things that is truly recession-proof.

Which is why we are convinced that the drop in legislative fundraising in the first six months of 2009 had everything to do with the Assembly ban on budget-season fundraising.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Supremes Ponder Plutocracy

Not many have noticed, but the U.S. Supreme Court is contemplating the mother of all acts of judicial activism. What started as a narrow case dealing with whether federal election laws should apply to a pay-per-view cable TV production called "Hillary: The Movie" has mushroomed into something much bigger, with profound implications for democracy and longstanding federal and state laws guarding against the buying of elections.

After hearing oral arguments in March on the case, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the court's majority decided in late June to expand the scope of issues it will consider, and ordered new arguments in September over whether the court should consider overturning two key precedents involving corporate campaign spending established in a 1990 case, Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, and 2003's McConnell v. FEC.

The potential consequences are huge. At stake is the future of the 100-year-old wall separating corporation and state that offers at least some protection against the selling of our government. That wall was erected in the form of a 1907 federal law prohibiting corporations from using the capital amassed in their vast treasuries to influence elections as well as Wisconsin's century-old ban on corporate spending in state elections. (A similar federal law applying to labor unions was later enacted and Wisconsin's law is broad and applies to more than just business corporations, as we've noted before.) Also at risk are the new electioneering disclosure rules approved by the state Government Accountability Board but now on hold pending the outcome of the Citizens United case.

If the Supreme Court indeed tears down the old walls and forbids the building of any new ones, it will unleash a new torrent of special interest money into both federal and state elections. Swept away will be laws passed over a century ago by representatives of the people both in Congress and in our state Legislature here in Wisconsin, laws upheld not once but twice by the U.S. Supreme Court itself.

Talk about legislating from the bench.