Monday, December 19, 2011

True Conservatives Should Demand Campaign Finance Reform

I can't be the only one who has noticed that those who most vigorously defend and promote the dominance of the One Percent's money in elections also claim to want smaller government.

One of the more perplexing ironies in modern politics, if you ask me. I say that because the system of legal bribery they favor makes the limited government they profess to desire a pipe dream.

Politicians who are constantly in need of deposits into their campaign war chests have a powerful incentive to keep government as big and intrusive as possible. That way, they hold both a carrot and a stick that come in mighty handy for fundraising purposes.

The bigger the government, the more elected officials have at their disposal to reward the generosity of political benefactors. A subsidy here. A no-bid contract for government work there. A juicy slice of political pork today. A hefty tax break tomorrow. That's the carrot. No campaign donations, no political favors. That's the stick.

At the same time, politicians know that many if not most of the biggest campaign donors have an ideological preference for smaller government. Conspiring with their fellow lawmakers to keep government large gives them the ability to go to those donors election after election and promise to get government out of their hair . . . and their wallets. If they actually delivered a smaller government, the sense of urgency to pony up would dissipate and the politicians' leverage would be lost.

When it comes to getting wealthy interests to part company with some of their riches, politicians get 'em coming and going. Sitting at the controls of a big government, they have it in their power to provide donors with a return on investment you can't get on Wall Street in the best bull market. But if public largesse isn't enough of an inducement to cough up a campaign contribution, they can use the implied threat of heavy-handed government intervention to crack open checkbooks. High taxes and burdensome regulation are valuable commodities if you are in the business of shaking the political money tree. They make promises of tax cuts and less red tape possible.

This reality makes it illogical for advocates of limited government to tolerate a campaign finance system featuring privately sponsored candidates for office who inevitably become legally bribed elected officials. If you really believe that government which governs least governs best, you should want anything but the status quo. If you are a libertarian and not allergic to common sense, you should want to remove the irresistible temptation found in the current system for politicians to trade on the size and reach of government to advance their own personal political fortunes.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Blessing The 'Wink And Nod'

Yesterday a federal appeals court struck down a decades-old Wisconsin law limiting what individuals can give in a year to political action committees to $10,000. Reinforcing the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in the Citizens United case and extending the high court's money-is-speech doctrine, the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that the longstanding $10,000 limit violated the free speech rights of interest groups that sponsor their own political ads.

Writing for the three-judge panel, Judge Diane Sykes wrote that interest group ads "do not pose a threat of actual or apparent quid pro quo corruption, which is the only governmental interest strong enough to justify restrictions on political speech."

It is naive in the extreme to believe that elected officials won't notice several hundred thousand or a few million dollars spent on campaign ads singing their praises. It is even more naive to think they won't appreciate the support of the friendly interest group that sponsored the ads. And it is as certain as the sunrise that such groups will be rewarded for their kindness.

What the court did yesterday was bless wink-and-nod corruption. Limits remain on the donations politicians can directly solicit. But after wealthy donors max out their contributions to candidates, they can give unlimited sums to special interest surrogates who will sponsor additional advertising touting those candidates. The candidates don't even need to ask. Everyone knows how the game is played. With a wink followed by a nod, the money flows to the right places, it's turned into a winning message, the anointed politicians are installed in office, and once handed power they direct all manner of favors back to those who paid for them to be there.

This is what the money-is-speech logic gets us. To call it logic strains the word's true meaning well beyond the breaking point. If logic leads to the conclusion that money equals speech, then the greatest infringement on First Amendment rights is poverty. Logic would demand that the miserable excuses for judges who gave us the Citizens United decision must now outlaw poverty since it violates free speech rights based on their own tortured interpretation of the First Amendment.

They won't do that, of course. They will never acknowledge that by ensuring the rich have unlimited "free speech" they also guarantee that those without much money will be silenced. They can't allow themselves to follow their legal reasoning to its logical conclusion. That would require them to start acting like judges and stop being tools of the 1%.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Playing Games With Clean Government Laws

I was asked in recent weeks to write an assessment of Wisconsin's campaign finance disclosure laws and their enforcement for a six-state review being done by the Midwest Democracy Network. Here's what I had to say about the agency responsible for enforcing our state's election and campaign finance laws:

"The Government Accountability Board has distinguished itself with an even-handed and politically independent approach to election administration and enforcement of campaign finance, lobbying and ethics laws."

I went on to say that the agency's independence "is now coming under attack, however, with legislation enacted this year giving the governor veto power over any rules or regulations approved by the GAB." I also sympathized with the agency's budgetary plight, noting the financial pressures brought on by more or less continuous rounds of cuts have left the GAB "strapped for resources at a time when its workload has increased dramatically with a flurry of recall elections to administer and a new voter ID law to implement."

This is not the first time I have sung the GAB's praises or come to the agency's defense. I share this to show that I am no enemy of the Government Accountability Board.

But I am beginning to wonder if the GAB is intent on making me into one.

On October 11 the Democracy Campaign filed an open records request with the GAB seeking evidence of any enforcement action taken relating to the law requiring disclosure of the financial interests of campaign donors who give more than $100. More than seven weeks later, I received a letter dated November 29 from the GAB's director informing me that the agency "has no records responsive to your request."

The letter also claims the agency responded to our request more than three weeks earlier, on November 7 to be exact. Judge for yourself.

On October 12, Democracy Campaign research director Michael Buelow received an e-mail from GAB public information officer Reid Magney confirming that our open records request had been received and promising to "respond as soon as possible."

About a month later, on November 7, Mike e-mailed Magney to inquire about the status of the request.

Magney replied that same day, shortly before noon: "There is nothing we can report to you at this time." (This, evidently, passed for a formal response to our request in GAB director Kevin Kennedy's mind.)

Buelow, shortly after noon: "Can you tell me when you will have something?"

Magney, five minutes later: "At this point, there's nothing I'm able to tell you. And I can't tell you today when I'll be able to tell you. If/when we are able to say something, we'll be in contact. Sorry."

Just over three weeks later, Kevin Kennedy told us that they already told us, but were telling us again that they had no records to give us. Kennedy also asserts in his letter that the board had received just two complaints since 2008 alleging a failure on the part of candidates to provide required employer and occupation information about their donors. The Democracy Campaign alone filed three separate complaints in June of this year. And we know the advocacy group One Wisconsin Now also filed a complaint in September 2010 alleging more than 650 violations of this particular law.

Kennedy's letter concludes with the claim that the GAB "takes all campaign finance reporting requirements seriously" and tries to explain away the absence of any evidence of enforcement action by saying it is "unlikely that the Board could successfully obtain a forfeiture if a committee was, in fact, making good faith efforts to obtain information."

State law requires campaign committees to file complete reports providing information including, among other things, the occupation and employer of contributors who give over $100. The law does, indeed, require committees to "make a good faith effort to obtain all required information."

The GAB apparently has an odd way of defining good faith. Looking at just one report filed by Scott Walker's campaign more than two years ago covering contributions to Walker from January through June 2009, we found employer information required by law still has not been supplied for 176 of the governor’s contributions totaling $57,159.

Eyeballing that lengthy list of improperly reported donations and I see more than two dozen instances where the Walker campaign could have easily found the omitted information by looking either at our website (because we took it upon ourselves to research the financial interests of these donors) or campaign finance reports filed by other candidates who received contributions from the same donors and disclosed their occupations and places of employment.

So how good is Walker's faith? What kind of effort has been put forth when donations received over two years ago still have not been properly disclosed? It's not that hard to find the required information. I know. It's what we do. Doesn't the Walker campaign have Google?

With some of these donations, it's hard to believe Walker doesn't know the donors personally. For example, he got a $2,000 donation in March 2009 from Keith Burns of the accounting giant Ernst & Young. Walker's campaign still hasn't disclosed his employer. Even in the unlikely event the governor hasn't actually crossed paths with Burns, you'd think his people must be aware of LinkedIn.

Then there's a $500 donation Walker reported receiving in June 2009 from Oconomowoc auto dealer James Tessmer. To this day, Walker's campaign hasn't disclosed Tessmer's employer in its reporting of this contribution. The campaign must know Tessmer. The Better Business Bureau does.

With some of the donors, it's laughable to think Walker doesn't know them personally. Mary Kohler gave Walker $3,000 in March 2009, and yet as of today the Walker campaign still has not disclosed her financial interests. Terry and Mary Kohler are major Republican donors in Wisconsin and nationally and have been for years.

Has the GAB fined the Walker campaign for failing for over two years to comply with the disclosure law in good faith? No, it has not. Has the Walker campaign been required to return any of the improperly reported donations? No, it has not.

Is the GAB taking the open records law as seriously as it should and is the agency rigorously enforcing the law that upholds the public's right to know the financial interests of major campaign donors? No, it is not.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Paying For The First Amendment

The Walker Administration's new Capitol access policy is designed to make people pay to peaceably assemble, petition their government and exercise free speech.

In a word, unconstitutional.

This is the only permit you need to enter the Capitol.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

What's A Recallable Offense?

Without coming right out and saying so, Wisconsin State Journal columnist Chris Rickert's column in this morning's paper raises the question of whether restrictions should be placed on the constitutional right to recall public officials in Wisconsin.

Rickert laments that "a man who's done nothing worse than employ conservative principles to balance the state budget is facing recall." This echoes the familar refrain that state officials should not be removed from office over policy differences.

There is even a proposed constitutional amendment that would limit the grounds for recall in Wisconsin, establishing that office holders could be recalled only if they are charged with a serious crime or if there is a finding of probable cause that they violated the state ethics code.

It's worth noting that the presumption that the accused is innocent until proven guilty goes out the window. An official would need only to be criminally charged to be eligible for recall, not convicted. And what exactly constitutes a "serious crime?" The proposal defines it as one "punishable by imprisonment of one year or more."

OK, let's say a legislator is driving to a town hall meeting and crashes into another car and the other driver is killed. An eyewitness tells police that the legislator ran a red light and also appeared to be driving at least 10 miles an hour over the speed limit. The eyewitness also tells officers the legislator appeared to be texting on a cell phone when the crash occurred.

If the eyewitness account is true, the legislator is guilty of a terrible lapse of judgment and quite possibly manslaughter. In his defense, the legislator insists he was driving within the speed limit, entered the intersection when the light was still yellow and only reached for the cell phone to turn it off. Still, he is charged with negligent vehicular homicide. That is a Class G felony in Wisconsin and is punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Under the proposed constitutional amendment, he would be eligible to be recalled from office by voters regardless of the outcome of the criminal case.

On the other hand, an elected official who habitually lies could not be recalled. Such an offense does not fit the definition of a serious crime, nor is it a violation of the state ethics code.

Politicians who mislead voters by concealing their true intentions during election campaigns and then springing their plans on everyone only after taking office could not be recalled. Again, no serious crime, no ethics code breach.

Politicians who abuse power by creating laws making it harder to vote and drawing new districts favoring their party and kneecapping opposition groups by limiting their ability to raise campaign money and giving themselves control over a previously independent watchdog agency could not be recalled.

A politician whose actions are so divisive and polarizing that they rip the state in two and paralyze a legislature could not be recalled.

I understand the impulse to place limits on the constitutional right to recall public officials so that only those guilty of some high crime could be removed in such a manner. But where do you draw that line? How do you draw that line?

Which is the higher crime, a tragic traffic accident or abuse of power and violation of public trust?

I say leave it to the people to decide when to exercise this constitutional right. The only needed check on this power the people possess is the incredibly large number of petition signatures the recall law requires citizens to gather. Crossing that threshold is no easy feat, which is why recall elections have been so exceedingly rare over the course of our state's history and why they will remain exceedingly rare. It takes a highly unusual set of circumstances to make the recall of a public official a viable option for citizens to consider.

It just so happens such conditions exist in our state today.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

What One Person Can Do

In this age of political disillusionment, the greatest threat to the republic is not rampant corruption itself, but rather the widespread feelings of powerlessness in the face of that corruption.

You hear it time and again from citizens of every stripe. In one manner of speaking or another, they are saying the same thing. What can one person possibly do considering what we're up against? How can people overcome the power of all that money?

You can exercise all five rights granted to all of us by the First Amendment. Those rights aren't worth a thimble full of spit unless they are used. So you can speak up. Enemies of democracy are seeking to commercialize speech and make political participation prohibitively expensive for all but a few, making it more important than ever for us to be creative and find ways to make our voices heard. OK, you can’t afford to buy television air time, but you can text and you can tweet and you can blog.

At the same time, it’s important to remember the First Amendment doesn’t only guarantee the right to free speech. It guarantees freedom of the press. With newspapers dying and other traditional media increasingly falling under the control of a handful of plutocratic masters, it is essential that we create our own means of spreading the word and engaging each other in the conversation of democracy. The right to assemble and petition your government is guaranteed. You can do those things. We’ve seen a lot of that lately here in Wisconsin. Freedom of religion is guaranteed. You can worship as you see fit, or you can reject worship altogether. As the forces of theocracy assert themselves in our government, it is all the more important that we exercise freedom of religion, which includes fighting against any state establishment of religion.

More than anything, you can do what Cesar Chavez advised us all to do: Talk to one person. We’re all taught at a young age not to discuss two things in polite company – religion and politics. We need to talk politics with one another. It is often uncomfortable. So it takes courage. But it is where real change begins.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

And We Wait

Six weeks ago today the Democracy Campaign filed an open records request with the state Government Accountability Board seeking documentation of any enforcement action relating to the law requiring disclosure of the occupation and employer of campaign donors who give more than $100. We are still waiting for the information we seek.

The law requiring disclosure of contributors' employment information is the heart and soul of campaign finance disclosure in Wisconsin. It provides voters essential information about the financial interests of donors and some insight into their possible motives for seeking to influence state elected officials with campaign donations.

The Democracy Campaign has called attention many times over the years to the failure of numerous candidates to disclose this required information on the campaign finance reports they submit to the GAB. In fact, we filed a complaint with the board as recently as this June over missing occupational information on the reports of three senators who faced recall elections this summer. We have heard nothing from the GAB in response to our complaint, and there is nothing in the minutes of the board's meetings or other public records to indicate that any enforcement action has been taken.

With our current open records request, we are trying to answer a simple question: Is this key disclosure law being enforced? We suspect the answer is no, but we can't know for sure unless the agency obeys another pivotal law upholding every citizen's right to know what our government is up to.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Justice David Prosser, R - Beyond Wisconsin

Three of every four dollars in individual contributions raised by Supreme Court Justice David Prosser's reelection campaign and another committee created to pay for his recount expenses came from donors outside the state - much of it from a scant seven contributors, a Wisconsin Democracy Campaign review found.

Campaign finance reports show Prosser raised $692,597 from all sources for his 2011 spring reelection, including a $400,000 state public financing grant, $266,000 from the Prosser Victory Recount Fund and $21,588 from individual contributions excluding returned contributions and a $5,000 self contribution to his own campaign.

All told, the two committees raised $294,309 in individual contributions - $70,640, or 24 percent, from Wisconsin donors and $223,669, or 76 percent, from contributors outside Wisconsin.

In addition to the large proportion of out-of-state givers, 24 individual contributions to the recount committee lacked the donor's last name and 50 contributions of more than $100 lacked employer information required by law.

Seven contributors to Prosser's recount committee - all from outside Wisconsin - gave between $5,000 and $50,000 each for a total of $210,000 or 72 percent of the total individual contributions to both committees. State law allows candidates to raise unlimited amounts of money to pay for legal and other expenses involved in a recount. Here's who these big donors are:

  • Dr. John Templeton Jr. and his wife, Josephine, from Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania each contributed $50,000. Templeton runs the Templeton Foundation and is a heavyweight backer of conservative causes nationwide, including Freedom's Watch, the Cato Institute and numerous state efforts to ban same sex marriage.

  • Richard Uihlein of Lake Forest, Illinois and owner of Uline - a package, shipping, warehouse and janitorial products retailer - who gave $50,000. Uihlein is a longtime backer of conservative Republicans candidates and groups nationwide like Rand Paul, Eric Cantor, Michelle Bachmann and the Club for Growth.

  • Virginia James of Lambertville, New Jersey who contributed $25,000. James is a retired investor and longtime supporter of conservative political candidates and groups like the Club for Growth, as well as Republican causes like school voucher programs.

  • David Humphreys of Joplin, Missouri who contributed $25,000. Humphreys and his family own Tamko Building Products which is one of the nation's largest manufacturers of roofing materials, and he is a longtime backer of Republican political candidates and causes nationwide.

  • Stephen Mosling of Naples, Florida and Frank Baxter of Los Angeles, California who each gave $5,000. Mosling is a retired real estate developer who has contributed to Republican congressional candidates and party committees in Wisconsin and Florida. Baxter is a retired investment banker and former ambassador to Uruguay under President George W. Bush.
  • Friday, November 04, 2011

    The Only Answer

    On the cover of the latest edition of Foreign Affairs, the magazine asks "Is America Over?" That question is gnawing at nearly every American these days. The anxiety this pondering produces is what the Tea Party and Occupy movements have in common.

    It has dawned on most everyone that for the first time in our nation's history, we have a generation of parents who no longer can find reason to believe their children will be better off than they are. The belief in the next generation's reach exceeding the grasp of the previous generation always has been at the core of the American Dream. The core has rotted.

    The impulse of Tea Party types is to look for a rewind button that could return the country to an earlier time when parents could rest assured their kids were going to have it better than they did. Their search is doomed. What is past is past. Change is inevitable. Their yearning for a return to some nostalgized yesteryear is disfiguring the Republican Party and warping the country's future.

    Those drawn to the Occupy movement also are seething over the stolen dream. But their response to the anxiety they share with the tea partiers is totally different. They are putting their finger on what George Packer calls the "Broken Contract." Americans used to grow together. Now we are growing apart.

    The battle cry of the occupiers is "We are the 99%." This brilliantly reduces to bumper-sticker length the fundamental truth of the broken social contract in America. For the last 30 years, the top 1% has cleaned up and most of the rest of the population has been set adrift. The reason is simple. The top 1% has commandeered our democracy over the past three decades. They've bought the politicians and now own our government. Which permits them to rape and pillage the country while the masses are left with an unsteady present and an even more uncertain future. All 99ers instinctively understand that.

    There is only one answer. Recriminalize bribery.

    You have to go back more than a century, to the age of the robber barons, to find comparable social and economic conditions in America. The opulence of the Gilded Age led to the Panic of 1893 and a deep economic depression. It is no coincidence that bribing public officials was legal in places like Wisconsin at the time.

    Wisconsin became a state in 1848. Bribery was perfectly legal for the first half-century of statehood. It was not outlawed until 1897. That reform was followed in short order by another in 1905 banning corporate campaign contributions and election spending. Congress followed Wisconsin's lead in 1907 with the Tillman Act.

    The 1897 and 1905 political reforms in our state paved the way for the remarkable 1911 legislative session. The feature article in this year's Wisconsin Blue Book says this: "The year 2011 marks the centennial of what was almost certainly the greatest legislature in Wisconsin history, quite possibly in any state."

    Wisconsin's reputation for progressive policy innovation was established by that legislature. The actions of 1897, 1905 and 1911 made Wisconsin a beacon of clean, open and honest government. All of this was our inheritance. An inheritance we have squandered, largely because we have allowed bribery to become legal again.

    Oh, they aren't called bribes anymore. That's a big part of the reason why they are so accepted. Now they're called campaign contributions. Makes this grimy business sound philanthropic. Downright charitable. But the game's exactly the same as it was back in the days of the robber barons.

    If we are going to Occupy Democracy again, we have to do in our time the equivalent of what was done back then. Make legal bribery a crime.

    Tuesday, November 01, 2011

    The Symbol Of Fear And Loathing

    I return from a brief trip to Washington, D.C. with decidedly mixed emotions. The new monument to Martin Luther King Jr. is a beauty and it was a thrill to see it. My wife and I took my son there to visit friends and family, as well as show him around our nation's capital. Overall, we had a nice stay.

    Included on our to-do list was a tour of the Capitol building, courtesy of arrangements made by our congresswoman's office. How can I say this? The tour was lame. And as unsettling as it was unsatisfying.

    You used to be able to just walk in the Capitol from multiple points of entry. Now everyone is steered through a new visitor center, which has the look and feel of a fortified bunker. The doors must be blastproof because they are so heavy you have to plant your feet and pull with both hands to open them. No kind of vehicle can get close to the place thanks to the pop-up barricades that block every passageway. Armed guards dot the grounds outside, and a substantially larger security force form an imposing gauntlet inside the visitor center.

    Once we got through the scanners and then the additional screening done by uniformed officers, we were herded to an information desk to get our tickets for the guided tour. After waiting in line under the watchful eye of still more Capitol personnel, we were ushered into a small theater for a short movie. It was a standard-issue tour film, but one thing I remember. The narrator said Congress is the place "where common ground is found" in our nation. I tried muffling my laughter, with limited success.

    Then we filed out into a lobby where we were met by a tour guide, who introduced herself before emphasizing that we should not stray from the group. She took us to the rotunda and told a few stories about the artwork on the ceiling and the statues on the floor before leading us to Statuary Hall which was the original House chamber in the Capitol's early days. It later housed a farmer's market, which is unimaginable today. Now it's just an empty room lined with more statues.

    Our guide pointed to the doors to the current House chamber. She noted that's where the president – after the House sergeant at arms bellows "Mr. Speaker, the President of the United States" – enters on his way to deliver his annual State of the Union address. We weren't allowed to take the walk the president makes, though. Or even approach the doors to peek through the crack.

    Moments after it began, our tour was over. No visit to the Senate or House chambers. I'd seen them in years past, but my son's experience would be quite different. Not even a look at the ornately decorated Old Senate Chamber, which used to be a staple of the Capitol tours of yesteryear.

    We were led back through the rotunda and returned to the visitor center. I could not get Ben Franklin's famous quote out of my mind. You know, the one about those who sacrifice essential liberty for temporary safety deserving neither liberty nor safety.

    From the airport to many of its most recognizable sites, Washington is armed to the teeth as it greets visitors. The greeting conveys the impression of a police state. The U.S. Capitol, of all places, is a symbol of our nation. Security there proved to be tighter than at the Treasury Department's Bureau of Engraving, where the nation's currency is printed for crying out loud. That's some symbolism.

    I left the visitor center, moved nearly to tears. Not out of inspiration or gratitude. Out of sadness for what we've allowed our Capitol to become. A fortress.

    How did we become so hated around the world that it's come to this? Or how did we get so scared of the world around us that we started acting like this?

    I hope my son lives to see the day when our nation's capital and our Capitol building are once again symbols befitting a free society. I'm not sure I will.

    Friday, October 21, 2011

    Do We Have A Democracy?

    Among the letters to the editor in today's Milwaukee Journal Sentinel is one that caught my eye titled "Democracy is dead; the wealthy reign." Made me think back to a couple of weeks ago when I was on the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh campus giving a speech very much like the one I gave a few weeks earlier at Fighting Bob Fest.

    After finishing my remarks about the growing threats to democracy and the compromised health of our political process, a question came from the audience: "Do we even have a democracy?"

    The way I answered it at the time was to say there are degrees of democracy. American democracy is unquestionably in a weaker state and at greater risk than it has been at any time in living memory. But that is not to say it does not exist at all in our country. The fact that I could stand in a public place and harshly criticize our state government and condemn the social injustice inherent in today's politics and not be banned from campus or arrested is itself an indication of democracy's existence.

    Upon reflection, I wish I would have answered differently. It's not that I now think my answer was wrong. I just think there's a better one. And it is staring up at me from a postcard sitting on my desk that had been sent to me by Ruth Meyer, the faithful assistant to Doris "Granny D" Haddock, after Granny's passing.

    On the card is a photo of Doris standing on the steps of the New Hampshire Capitol with a quote at the bottom: "Democracy is not something we have, it's something we do."

    Doris Haddock taught me many things. And she was right about that. Democracy is more a verb than a noun. As long as we practice democracy, we will have a democracy. When we all stop acting as citizens in a democratic society, then and only then will democracy in America be truly dead.

    Tuesday, October 18, 2011

    A Bad Road Team

    Only eight Major League Baseball teams are good enough during the regular season to make the playoffs. And only one of those teams will win its last game. Every other team's season ends with bitter disappointment. But the fact that this ended up being the Brewers' fate doesn't diminish the team's accomplishments. The Brewers had a helluva year.

    The Crew was especially good at Miller Park. The Brewers' home record was 57-24, while they couldn't reach .500 on the road, finishing 39-42 away from home. Not bad actually when you consider the Brewers at one point in the season had the National League's worst road record at 16–29.

    Watching the Brewers sparkle at home and struggle mightily on the road got me to thinking about Democrats of all things.

    There are two sources of political power – organized people and organized money. When the U.S. Supreme Court declared that money is speech 35 years ago, organized money gained the upper hand. Big time. It is no coincidence that the nation's highest court so ruled just as television was becoming the dominant medium of political communication. It is also no coincidence that national policymakers made sure that the U.S. remained the only major democracy on the planet without some system for providing free television air time to those seeking public office.

    When money is speech, speech ceases to be free. And with the exorbitant price of television air time, political speech is prohibitively expensive speech. Getting a message out to voters via the primary means of political communication costs an arm and a leg. Which means that the few who have great wealth get to do most all of the talking in election campaigns, while the many effectively have no voice.

    For generations the Democrats have fancied themselves the party of the working class and have sought to brand the Republicans the party of the rich. If you buy their labeling, that makes the Democrats the party of organized people and the Republicans the party of organized money. Which makes it all the more curious that Democrats over the last three decades have so meekly acquiesced to and even enthusiastically embraced organized money's cornering of the political marketplace.

    It's as if the Democrats are a team that has willingly chosen to play all its game on the road. And they're willing to play the game by rules that decidedly favor their opponents. Like a National League team agreeing to allow an American League opponent to use a designated hitter while its own pitchers hit. Like an NBA team giving its opponents the three-point shot while all its own shots count for only two.

    Now that the rabble are rousing, the Democrats are not at all well-positioned to take advantage of the 99% movement. Author Michael Lind recently listed six reasons why Democrats can't (or won't) go populist in response to corporate greed and Wall Street malfeasance. You don't really need to read beyond the first reason to get the picture. "Reason No. 1: The Democrats depend on Wall Street for campaign donations."

    Democrats took up the tin cup three decades ago. Some of them – like Obama nationally and Jim Doyle here in Wisconsin – have flourished politically as corporate Democrats. That's not to say the president and former governor are exceptions to the rule among Democrats, only more electorally successful than many of their brethren. Wisconsin Democrats across the board have been getting six times as much campaign money from business interests as they get from organized labor. And that was before Scott Walker and his allies in the Legislature made it substantially harder for unions to collect dues and even to continue to exist.

    Democrats are on a playing field that requires them to forever run uphill while their opponents run downhill. Look, corporate executives and other filthy rich types are much more likely to consider themselves Republicans than Democrats. For every Warren Buffett or George Soros, there's a David Koch . . . and a Charles Koch . . . and the whole Walton family . . . and several dozen other titans of industry who pledge allegiance to the GOP.

    The bottom line is that in a system where organized money is king and organized people barely matter, the Republicans possess an enormous competitive advantage.

    And for three decades now, the Democrats have been more or less fine with it.

    How stupid is that?

    Wednesday, October 12, 2011

    'Hello David, Scott Walker Here. Just Wanted You To Know The Sky's The Limit....'

    It can't be easy to get Scott Walker to take your phone call. Unless you are David Koch. Or at least someone Walker believes is David Koch.

    A little under eight months ago, the idea of getting a personal call from a billionaire kingmaker was so exhilarating to the governor that he let himself get punked by some guy named Ian Murphy who runs an online news service called the Buffalo Beast.

    Now that a drive to recall him from office is a certainty, Walker won't very likely be waiting for the phone to ring. He will soon be dialing up his richest supporters and making a pitch he has never been able to make before. Donate, pretty please, and give as much as you want.

    Normally individuals can give no more than $10,000 to a candidate for governor. But a quirk in Wisconsin law lifts that limit for a period of time for targets of recall elections. Recall organizers will have 60 days to gather the more than 540,000 signatures needed to trigger an election. From the moment they file the necessary paperwork and begin gathering petition signatures to the time when an election is actually authorized, there will be no limit on what donors to the governor may give.

    What just happened during the run-up to this summer's senate recall elections provides some indication of what to expect when Walker becomes the target. Normally individual donations to state senate candidates are limited to $1,000. But thanks to that quirk in state law, targeted senators received 368 contributions of more than $1,000 while petition signatures were being collected. Those donations averaged nearly $2,900 and totaled almost $1.1 million. The donors gave nearly $700,000 more than they would have been allowed to contribute if the normal legal limits had applied.

    These above-the-limit donations went to senators in both parties. But because there were six Republican senators who ultimately had to stand before voters in a recall election and only three Democrats, more of the money went to the Republicans. Targeted GOP senators received 319 over-$1,000 donations totaling more than $981,000 while Democratic senators got 49 such contributions totaling just over $81,000.

    Some of the donations were substantially higher than the normal limit for senate races. For example, Tamarack Petroleum owner Daniel McKeithan and his wife gave Milwaukee-area Senator Alberta Darling $31,500 and McKeithan also made $1,250 donations to Ripon's Luther Olsen and Dan Kapanke of La Crosse. Oconomowoc businessman Jere Fabick gave Fond du Lac's Randy Hopper $20,000 and gave Darling and Kapanke $15,000 each. Johnsonville Foods CEO Ralph Stayer gave Hopper $15,000. Darling also got $24,500 from Michael and Billie Kubly of the Charles E. Kubly Foundation.

    You can bet Governor Walker will be getting a great many donations at least as large or even bigger during the holiday season.

    The law that lifts campaign contribution limits for targets of recall elections makes no sense. State law restricts the size of campaign donations in an attempt to limit special interest influence over our government and prevent political corruption. Those purposes are no less important in recall elections than they are in regular elections. Letting recall targets operate outside the law that normally applies to campaign fundraising leaves us with winners of recall elections who are even more beholden to wealthy special interests than other elected officials already are.

    The law allowing unlimited fundraising during recall petition drives can and should be changed. Legislation has been introduced as Assembly Bill 296 to do just that.

    I'd love to see what odds the bookmakers in Vegas would give on Walker's allies in the Legislature passing this bill and the governor signing it some time in the next month.

    Monday, October 03, 2011

    Punished For The Sins Of Others

    In a recent article for his newspaper's "PolitiFact" feature, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Tom Kertscher declared two claims to be untrue. One was made by the Walker administration. The other by the head of an association representing town governments.

    So did Kertscher put the governor on the PolitiFact hot seat? Nope. Did he shine his light on the town official? Nope. He took me to task for telling people what they said.

    Kertscher first e-mailed me and then telephoned to question me about four different comments I made in my speech at last month's Fighting Bob Fest. He ultimately determined a remark about government spending on road building was the only one needing scrutiny.

    I told him I was citing a statement made on page 14 of a budget document issued by the Walker administration in March that said the spending plan sunk "a total of $5.7 billion in Wisconsin's transportation system, including a $410.5 million (14.7 percent) increase in highway funding over base amounts."

    I also told him that another newspaper reported in early September that the Wisconsin Towns Association's executive director "says he knows of several townships with blacktop roads in need of repair that have opted to dig out the blacktop and go back to gravel."

    Curiously, neither Kertscher nor any of his colleagues at the Journal Sentinel had ever questioned the assertion made in the budget document. They gave the administration a pass and allowed the claim to go unchallenged for more than six months. It was not until a citizen activist brought it up in a speech that it was deemed worthy of examination. And then after judging it factually inaccurate, he assigned the blame to me.

    Kertscher concluded that the budget for highway spending didn't increase by 15 percent, it actually went down.

    He did not base his conclusion that the Walker road spending claim was untrue on the word of a private research group like the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance (which, by the way, issued a study this year showing that borrowing for road construction has been increasing at an annual rate averaging 17 percent) or reporting by an independent news organization like the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism run by former Wisconsin State Journal reporter Andy Hall (which reported that Walker's budget as amended by the Legislature ended up increasing state highway spending by 13 percent).

    Comically, he cited two administration sources who now insist there is a cut in the budget for road building. That's the very same administration that was responsible for making the original claim of a 15 percent increase. Did Kertscher turn his journalistic wrath on the Walker administration for talking out of both sides of its mouth? No, he did not.

    Perhaps now it's clear why he didn't challenge another statement I made in my speech, namely that when millions of Americans are looking for real news and some honest-to-goodness truth telling about what’s going on in the country, they tune in to Comedy Central.

    What Kertscher wrote struck me as juuuust a bit unfair. But hey, life's not fair. Serves me right for putting any stock in anything the Walker administration has ever put out there. And shame on me for repeating a direct quote from a local government official who was speaking on the record.

    Yes, I regard his reporting in this instance to be unfair. But he also crosses the line that separates unfair and hypocritical by faulting me for doing what he and other reporters do every single day. Reporters cite official government documents all the time and they quote public officials all the time. And then if someone says their reporting is factually incorrect, they say "hey, don't look at me, I'm just reporting matters of public record." But when I pointed out two matters of public record, Tom Kertscher effectively branded me a liar. That is a flagrant double standard.

    Kertscher's reporting in this case is either the byproduct of exceedingly sloppy journalism or some very troubling bias.

    In any case, this is the kind of thing that gives a noble profession a bad name.

    Friday, September 30, 2011

    The Will Of The People Vs. Lines On A Map

    Ten years ago new congressional and state legislative district lines were drawn to adjust for population changes reflected in the 2000 census. Those lines were very good for office holders and very bad for any voter who didn't feel well represented and longed for a fresh face.

    Despite the fact approval ratings for Congress have been steadily declining and this year reached an all-time low of 12 percent, the congressional district lines drawn in 2001 made it virtually impossible for voters to dislodge an incumbent House member. The boundaries were manipulated to make districts safer for both Democratic and Republican members. There were no competitive elections in any of Wisconsin's eight U.S. House districts in 2002, none in 2004, one in 2006, none in 2008 and three in 2010.

    Public approval of the Wisconsin Legislature's performance plunged in the aftermath of the political corruption scandal at the Capitol that erupted in 2001 before slightly recovering later in the decade. But public dissatisfaction remains high today, with 60 percent of Wisconsin residents saying they disapprove of the way the Legislature is handling its job. Yet incumbents running in the Assembly and Senate districts drawn in 2001 were reelected 93 percent of the time over the course of the decade, winning 454 elections and losing only 39.

    Considering all this, it is very difficult imagining the new political boundaries drawn this year following the 2010 census could make legislative districts any less competitive. But Republicans who currently control the Legislature managed to do just that. And there aren't just a few more uncompetitive districts, there are a lot more.

    The Democracy Campaign looked at the last election for the 132 state Assembly and Senate seats (which was held in 2010, except for 16 even-numbered Senate districts which was in 2008). We looked at how votes were cast in the old districts. Then we looked at where those same voters are now under the new boundaries established this year. The results of this analysis are striking, especially for the Assembly.

    The districts shown as either strongly Republican or strongly Democratic are those that were won by 20 percentage points or more (in other words, by a margin of 60 percent to 40 percent or greater). Districts are said to be either leaning Republican or Democratic if the elections were decided by between 10 and 20 percentage points. Toss-up districts are those where margins of victory were within 10 points (55 percent to 45 percent or less).

    Under the old map, 50 of the 99 Assembly districts were either leaning or strongly Republican. Twenty-seven were either leaning or strongly Democratic, and 21 others were toss ups. Under the new map, Republicans added 10 more districts to their column. But they didn't do it by reducing the number of safe Democratic districts. There were 20 strongly Democratic districts before, there are 20 now. They did it by reducing the number of toss-up districts by a third.

    Yes, this is clearly a Republican gerrymander. But the biggest losers are not Democratic office holders. The real losers are the voters. There were precious few districts in the past that produced competitive elections where voters had an authentic ability to change which party would represent them. There are significantly fewer such districts now.

    Because Senate districts are larger geographically, it is more difficult to create districts that are either bright red or bright blue. But legislative Republicans still managed to pull it off. Under the old map, 10 districts were strongly Republican and nine were strongly Democratic. Under the new map, 12 districts are strongly Republican and seven are strongly Democratic. The number of leaners and toss-up districts hasn't changed much.

    The bottom line is that the job security of current office holders from both parties has been protected. The Republicans' grip on power has been enhanced. The ability of the people to impose their will and get the kind of representation they want has been further eroded.

    Which means our democracy has been further weakened. All because of the way lines have been drawn on a map.

    Thursday, September 29, 2011

    A Supreme Version Of The Clean Campaign Pledge

    Here's hoping I'm wrong, but the one-sentence collegiality pledge approved by the Wisconsin Supreme Court strikes me as being about as valuable as the countless "clean campaign" pledges candidates for public office have made over the years. Which is to say roughly a thimble full of spit.

    Those candidate pledges have come in various forms and sizes, but they all basically boil down to this:

    I pledge to run a clean campaign (unless any opponent shows the slightest sign of doing otherwise, or I am running behind in the polls, in which case I will reduce the bastard to rubble).

    Wednesday, September 28, 2011

    How Did Political Class Get So Clueless?

    I'm looking through today's print edition of The Capital Times and I come to page 22. Something called the "WisPolitics Stock Report." A telling title, implying that political ideas and public policies are nothing but commodities traded in some marketplace.

    One of the things whose stock is said to be rising is the cost of recall elections. Cute.

    The article says this: "Insiders agree on one thing – there was a ton of money spent on this year's recall elections. Exactly how much is another question. The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign pegs overall spending at $43.9 million among the candidates, political committees and special interests. Some argue the numbers are inflated, particulary the $9 million estimate for spending by the conservative Wisconsin Club for Growth; conservatives don't trust the WDC numbers considering executive director Mike McCabe's advocacy at events like Fighting Bob Fest."

    Where to start.

    Let's begin with the numbers. As the recall campaigns were being waged, Republican spin doctors were repeatedly telling news reporters that their side was being grossly outspent. One Capitol reporter told me the claim was a 12 to 1 spending advantage for the Democrats. Another reporter said he was told it was 15 to 1. Some loose talk in Internet chat rooms put it as high as 20 to 1.

    After the elections were over, conservative bloggers and the right-wing echo chambers seemed to settle on 2 to 1.

    A gathering of the facts exposed all such claims to be untrue.

    Here's what we know. Looking at the campaign finance reports filed by groups that disclosed their recall election spending shows that most of the money – fully 55 percent – was spent on television advertising. Among those groups that disclosed their expenses, the leading spender was the labor coalition We Are Wisconsin which reported $10.7 million worth of campaigning for Democratic candidates.

    As for the groups that kept their spending a secret, the one that spent the most clearly was Wisconsin Club for Growth. According to TV ad invoices shared with us by stations across the state and in the Twin Cities market, Club for Growth outspent We Are Wisconsin on TV ads by more than 18 percent.

    So why did we estimate Club for Growth's spending at $9 million when this outfit spent considerably more on the single biggest campaign expense than another group that reported spending nearly $11 million? The answer is that we could only put a price tag on known activity. We Are Wisconsin reported spending substantial sums of money on things like direct mail, online advertising and automated telephone messages commonly called "robocalls." These kinds of expenses are next to impossible to track for the groups that don't disclose their spending. Club for Growth probably spent considerable amounts of money on such forms of campaigning, but we couldn't account for much of any of it.

    The known facts don't suggest our numbers are inflated. If anything, our estimate of Club for Growth's spending is likely too low. But there is one way to know for sure. Publicly disclose all the spending. Have every group that spent money to influence these recall elections open their books. Show the people of Wisconsin the money or shut the hell up.

    Club for Growth and its allies aren't happy that their bogus claim about being hopelessly outgunned by Democratic groups in the recall elections was exposed as a hoax. But they either can't or won't provide evidence disproving our findings. So if they can't find a hole in the message, they go after the messenger. Oldest trick in the political book.

    Here's where the political class puts its utter cluelessness on display. To them, the mere fact that someone gives a speech at an event like Fighting Bob Fest is proof that this someone must favor Democrats over Republicans, never minding that the event's namesake Fighting Bob La Follette was a Republican.

    They pore over every word of said speech and grow apoplectic and start yelling "SEE! SEE! He hates Republicans!"

    Well, I do hate Republicans. At least what passes for a Republican these days. I once worked for three Republicans in the Assembly. After that, I worked for that known liberal group the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance. I hate what the party of Lincoln has become.

    But what they can't comprehend is that I hate the Democrats too. This is the insiders' blind spot. Everyone in the political class thinks that if you hate them, you must love their opponent.

    They don't understand normal people. I have something in common with the vast majority of Americans. I am politically homeless. I hate both parties with a passion. Neither is worth a damn at the moment.

    Partisans can't fathom that. Which means they really can't fathom what most Americans are feeling.

    Thursday, September 22, 2011

    Why Bystander Candidates Are A Bad Thing

    Wisconsin just got a big dose of what the U.S. Supreme Court wrought by its ruling in the Citizens United case torturing the meaning of the First Amendment to allow unlimited election spending by corporations and other wealthy interests. In this summer's senate recall elections, we were treated to $44 million worth of "free" speech.

    Over three-quarters of that money was not spent by the candidates in the nine recall races, but rather by a vast array of interest groups that sponsored their own advertising and mounted their own campaigns to influence the elections. Candidates raised and spent record sums of money – indeed, three different candidates broke the previous record for spending by a state legislative candidate – and yet the candidates were outspent on the order of 4 to 1 by outside groups.

    As a result, the candidates in these races were barely heard from. The vast majority of campaign messages that voters saw and heard came not from those who were seeking to represent those voters, but rather from special interest surrogates. I call them "outside" groups because that's what they are. They have names that make them sound homegrown, but they are anything but.

    The biggest spender for the Democrats was We Are Wisconsin, which reported spending over $10.7 million on the recall elections. It also reported receiving $10.1 million to fuel that spending from just three national unions based in Washington, D.C. – $5.8 million from the AFL-CIO, $3 million from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, and $1.3 million from Service Employees International Union. Some Wisconsin-based unions also kicked in, as did some state residents, but the big money came from outside our borders.

    The biggest spender on the Republican side was Wisconsin Club for Growth, which did not disclose either its recall election spending or its sources of income. But we do know that Club for Growth outspent We Are Wisconsin on television advertising by more than 18 percent, according to ad invoices shared with us by TV stations across the state and in the Twin Cities market. And we were able to find two of the group's sources of income by scouring IRS records – a $250,000 donation from Texas oilman Trevor Rees-Jones and a $150,000 contribution from the global securities firm Citadel, which has offices in New York, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, London and Hong Kong.

    What we are left with are auctions rather than elections. The candidates are bystanders, barely able to get a word in edgewise, watching from the balcony with the rest of us as phony front groups doing the bidding of faraway business tycoons and union bosses command center stage, exercising rights bestowed on them by the highest court in the land under a radically redefined First Amendment to instruct us how to vote.

    One problem with the prohibitively expensive speech that passes for First Amendment expression in modern political campaigns is obvious. The end product is a bunch of elected officials who are seen as bought. Owned. Hopelessly beholden. Corrupt. With each passing election, fewer and fewer people have much hope that the representatives who are elected will actually represent them.

    That cancer alone is reason enough for major surgery on the way elections are financed. But there is another malignancy that is more difficult to see but is deadly to democracy just the same. In real elections, voters need to hear directly from those seeking to represent them. In the auctions we have now, candidates are rarely heard from. Shadowy surrogates tell us what to think of these people we are expected to elect.

    Voters do not get to know the people who will become elected officials. They only know caricatures of those people, caricatures created by anonymous manipulators who have a great deal to gain by distorting the images presented to the electorate.

    This political carcinoma inevitably metastasizes. One of the ways the spreading disease manifests itself is in campaigning that is akin to a drive-by shooting. When candidates are speaking in their own voices, they run the risk of voter backlash if they take the low road and smear their opponents. But when outside groups do most all of the talking, there is no way for voters to hold anyone accountable for dragging campaigns down in the gutter. They are not on the ballot, so they can spin and twist the truth with impunity. They can lie outright. They can engage in character assassination. And they face no prospect of punishment from voters.

    This is what you get when you have special interest telethons and bystander candidates at election time. Vomit-inducing political discourse. Public officials who are almost universally despised. An anything-but-United States of America.

    Friday, September 09, 2011

    How Buying The World A Coke Fuels Political Revolt Here At Home

    John Nichols had it right. Obama's jobs speech needed to be a doozy. I'm afraid it wasn't. Now we'll see how Congress responds. Or if Congress responds at all.

    The alternative to some decisive leadership from Washington on the economy is frightening. It is a vacuum. A vacuum that ends up getting filled with the kind of hokum being peddled here in Wisconsin.

    The governor who famously promised to create 250,000 new jobs and 10,000 new businesses in Wisconsin by the end of 2014 laid out a simple plan for delivering on that promise. Cut the hell out of business taxes and reduce or eliminate government regulations, and we'll be swimming in jobs in no time.

    Scott Walker is either a complete fool or a total tool. Or maybe he's both, but in any case the problems with his recipe for economic growth are coming into sharper focus with each passing day. Walker's approach means starving education. It means weaker consumer protection. And fewer environmental safeguards as well as a wholesale abandonment of green energy initiatives.

    Even at this cost, if lower taxes and less regulation for business could ignite the state's economy, more than a few Wisconsinites undoubtedly would regard it an acceptable trade-off. But therein lies the other main problem with the just-get-government-out-of-the-way method of job creation. You can cut state business taxes to zero – which is where they already are for a good many companies – and you create hardly any detectable added incentive to create jobs here in Wisconsin. You can let corporations take advantage of consumers, rape the landscape and poison the air and water with impunity, and not make it one bit more logical for them to employ more people here in our state.

    Two articles of economic faith used to bind us together – employers and workers, consumers and merchants. The first was that businesses needed investment in things like education because they needed a capable workforce. The second was that companies needed to look out for the general welfare because they needed a middle class. Without one, there would be no one to sell to. Technology and globalization have laid waste to both of those articles of faith.

    With roboticized means of production, the sheer number of workers manufacturers need is not nearly as great. And in a global economy, they certainly aren't reliant on Wisconsin to supply them with the few workers they need. They can easily locate their production facilities elsewhere. Terms like offshoring and outsourcing and downsizing weren't part of our parents' or grandparents' vocabulary, but they are part of ours. So starving education in a place like Wisconsin is not as big a deal for today's capitalists as it used to be. An abundant supply of highly-trained workers in a particular place just isn't as valuable to them as it used to be. To the extent they need workers at all, they can go anywhere in the world to find them. And wherever they go, the workers they find will invariably be cheaper than those they left behind.

    Likewise, having people to sell to in a little corner of the world like ours isn't essential to them anymore. In this global economy, the real sales growth opportunities lie outside our borders. Look at Coca-Cola. The average American consumed 394 coke products in 2010. In China, the average was 34. In India, 11. There are over 1.3 billion people in China and nearly 1.2 billion in India. Just over 300 million in the United States. How many more cokes is your typical American going to drink in a year? Coke has pretty much maximized its exploitation of the U.S. market, but has vast growth potential in countries like China and India.

    Coca-Cola and so many other companies don't need to sell to us as much as they used to. And they don't need to employ us as much as they used to. Which brings our jobless recovery into much sharper focus. For working people, economic recovery happens when the jobs come back. But for the corporatists, economic recovery is when the profits come back. And they can be spectacularly profitable without selling to or employing people in places like Wisconsin. They'll gladly take another tax cut from the likes of Scott Walker and they'll be delighted if consumer protections and environmental safeguards go by the wayside. Makes their profit margin just that much bigger. But it won't make creating jobs in Wisconsin any more of a priority for them.

    Maybe politicians like Scott Walker can't see it because they are blinded by their ideology. Or maybe they see it clearly and are happy to go along for the ride because it'll get them where they want to go. Eventually, average working people will catch on that the "job creators" are really just profit takers with no community or state loyalties. There certainly will be anger. Political upheaval and instability too. Even violence.

    Unless wiser heads prevail and soon, we're headed for rocky times. Radical times. Maybe even revolutionary times.

    Tuesday, September 06, 2011

    Our Deadly Society

    Mahatma Gandhi famously said there are seven things that will destroy us: wealth without work, pleasure without conscience, knowledge without character, commerce without morality, science without humanity, worship without sacrifice and politics without principle. He called them the seven deadly sins.

    Gandhi's words weren't directed at America. At least I don't think they were. He was addressing an Indian audience. But when we apply Gandhi's measure to life in the U.S. today, the result is unsettling to say the least.

    1. Wealth without work. There has been a massive redistribution of wealth in the U.S. over the last 30 years. The poor are getting poorer. Racial minorities and young people, in particular, are falling behind economically. The middle class is stuck in a rut, spinning its wheels. It's the rich and super-rich who have been getting ahead in America and it's not their labor that is making them ever richer. They are making money off their money. And it's not just the Bernie Madoffs of the world running pyramid schemes who are getting spectacularly wealthy without working for it. The hedge fund dealers and securities traders and market speculators and finance mavens are doing the same thing.

    2. Pleasure without conscience. Call it what you will. Conspicuous consumption. Ostentatious display. Affluenza. Living the good life while others suffer is no stranger here.

    3. Knowledge without character. Six words. The Smartest Guys in the Room.

    4. Commerce without morality. Enron qualifies here too. But there are countless other examples, from the lengths Wal-Mart goes to be able to sell a polo shirt for $8.63 to the geniuses who invented derivatives or credit default swaps or whatever other names they came up with for larceny on Wall Street. See Inside Job. Or google "Massey Coal" or "Don Blankenship."

    5. Science without humanity. Never forget Tuskegee. Can't forget the Manhattan Project either. Or what's done to animals, not to cure cancer or some other dread disease, but to come up with a better shampoo or hairspray.

    6. Worship without sacrifice. Service to others and the social justice ethic have grown increasingly hard to locate in much of organized religion in America. The separation of church and sacrifice is central to the creed of the religious right, the latest manifestation of dominionism and prosperity theology. Let's just say Matthew 22:39 and 25:40 are not top of mind in the modern American church.

    7. Politics without principle. We have pay-per-view congressmen when they're back home who become pay-to-say congressmen when they are on Capitol Hill. And Washington isn't the only place such grotesquely unprincipled politics are found. It's endemic to Wisconsin now too. If you need convincing, just take a tour of our website, especially here and here. Enough said.

    We are on thin ice by Gandhi's standards.

    Monday, August 22, 2011

    Why Does Prosser Even Need To Ask?

    The fate of state rules requiring disclosure of special interest election spending rests with the Wisconsin Supreme Court. The court is scheduled to hear the case early next month. Justice David Prosser has said he plans to participate in the case despite close personal and political ties to attorney Jim Troupis who is representing the tea party groups and conservative organizations like Americans for Prosperity that are challenging the rules.

    Prosser acknowledges a longstanding friendship with Troupis. More importantly, Prosser's campaign paid the Troupis Law Office $75,000 to look out for his interests during the statewide recount that followed his narrow victory in this spring's Supreme Court election.

    By the way, the Troupis Law Office is one of two firms with strong Republican ties that have run up a huge tab at taxpayer expense, billing the state more than $700,000 under no-bid contracts paying up to $395 an hour to represent Governor Scott Walker and GOP legislative leaders in defending the controversial collective bargaining law and state redistricting plan. It was Prosser who wrote the majority opinion upholding the law stripping most public workers of their collective bargaining rights. The ruling overturned a circuit court judge who had thrown out the law on the grounds that lawmakers ignored state Open Meetings Law requirements in acting on the bill and therefore it was illegally passed. With a presumably straight face, Prosser argued the judge was wrong to rely on laws that “apply to the Legislature except when the Legislature says they do not.”

    Now, with all the appearances of coziness and the obvious conflict of interest that results from the Prosser campaign's payments to the Troupis Law Office, Justice Prosser is asking the parties involved in the state campaign finance disclosure case whether he should step aside from that case.

    He shouldn't have to ask.

    Wisconsin's Code of Judicial Conduct is clear-cut on the matter. It says "a judge shall recuse himself or herself in a proceeding when the facts and circumstances the judge knows or reasonably should know establish" that the "judge has a personal bias or prejudice concerning a party or a party's lawyer...." Or "when reasonable, well-informed persons knowledgeable about judicial ethics standards and the justice system and aware of the facts and circumstances the judge knows or reasonably should know would reasonably question the judge's ability to be impartial."

    Three national experts on judicial ethics say it's a no-brainer. Prosser should recuse himself. These law professors from Hofstra University, New York University and Indiana University certainly qualify as reasonable, well-informed persons knowledgeable about judicial ethics standards and the justice system. And they all question Prosser's ability to be impartial in this case.

    So do state newspapers including the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Appleton Post-Crescent and the Oshkosh Northwestern, all of which have editorialized that Prosser should recuse himself. As have national papers like the New York Times.

    Prosser has no business participating in this case. His ability to be impartial has been reasonably questioned. When that happens, the state judicial ethics code says a judge shall recuse. Not may. Shall.

    If Prosser cannot follow clear ethics rules on his own, then the state Government Accountability Board whose disclosure rules are being challenged should insist that he does. That should happen if the state Justice Department attorneys who are representing the GAB and work under the direction of Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen do what is in the best interest of the people of Wisconsin and the public agency that is their client in this case.

    That's a big if.

    Wednesday, August 03, 2011

    It's Time For A Small-Donor Revolution

    Wisconsin – and our entire country – needs a totally new approach to election financing.

    In the senate recall elections, candidates are raising record sums of money, yet outside interest groups have a virtual monopoly on election advertising. In the current environment, candidates end up being twice cursed. The large sums of private special interest money they accept raise eyebrows to say the least. Most anyone paying attention reaches the unavoidable conclusion that they are beholden to – and corrupted by – their donors. But at the same time, all the tainted money candidates raise barely gets them noticed as their campaign messages are swamped by the advertising sponsored by outside interest groups. They end up bystanders in their own elections.

    Wisconsin needs elections where candidates actually matter. That means candidates must have enough money to run competitively for state office. And enough to avoid being totally overwhelmed by outside groups.

    But it’s not enough for them to have enough money. Wisconsin also needs an election financing system allowing candidates to remain relevant without creating an appearance of corruption or otherwise laying waste to public trust in the integrity of elected officials.

    Traditional approaches to campaign finance reform – like the 34-year-old Wisconsin Election Campaign Fund or the year-old Impartial Justice Act that were just repealed – cannot possibly accomplish both of these goals. Public financing was traditionally provided to candidates who agreed to limit their spending. The availability of public financing does free candidates from the need to raise large amounts of private special interest money. But if that public financing comes with strings attached, namely spending limits, then candidates are hamstrung in their ability to respond to attacks by outside groups.

    Both the Ellis-Erpenbach bill and the Impartial Justice Act made candidates eligible for extra public money known as “rescue funds” or “trigger matching funds” if they faced high-spending opponents. But the U.S. Supreme Court recently struck down just such a provision in Arizona’s public financing program in its ruling in Arizona Free Enterprise Club v. Bennett. As a result, any candidate agreeing to the spending limits in Ellis-Erpenbach or the Impartial Justice Act would be left at the mercy of the interest groups and would most likely wind up being a spectator on the sidelines in any competitive election.

    Moreover, the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission did away with any kind of limits on election spending for all intents and purposes. This ruling makes the spending limits that were part of traditional public financing programs obsolete.

    For all of these reasons, it is abundantly clear that a new approach to election financing is required. For public financing to have a meaningful impact – or even relevance – in today’s elections, receiving public funds can no longer be conditioned on acceptance of spending limits. Public financing can and should help free candidates from heavy reliance on private special interest donations, but not at the cost of making candidates unilaterally disarm and become irrelevant participants in elections.

    There is a way to keep candidates relevant but also free of undue special interest influence. A report from the national Campaign Finance Institute outlines the one constitutionally permissible form of public financing that can incentivize small-donor fundraising while not tying the hands of candidates by limiting their campaign spending.

    With the dawn of Internet activism and online fundraising, a small-donor revolution became feasible. As the Web's political utility becomes more and more refined, small-donor-driven campaigns become more and more practical.

    Look over CFI’s report and consider the dramatic impact a small-donor incentive program could have on Wisconsin’s elections. The Democracy Campaign has put forward a new approach to election financing for our state that is based on this model.

    If this summer's recall elections have made anything clear, it's that election financing is in serious need of some major paradigm shifting.

    Tuesday, July 26, 2011

    But Can They Read The Handwriting On The Wall?

    I know one thing for sure about Republicans. They can read. I was already aware of their fondness for Ayn Rand, but it's also clear they've got much more than passing familiarity with George Orwell.

    They regularly condemn class warfare, even though they are waging an astonishingly effective class war and have been for years. Every time someone suggests that maybe millionaires and billionaires should share in the sacrifice that everyone else is expected to make, they shout "Class War! Class War!" at the top of their lungs. The class war card has become an all-purpose inoculant against any attempt to promote economic and social justice.

    Every chance they get they rail against judicial activism and label every liberal judge a judicial activist. The judges they appoint then throw judicial restraint to the wind and take judicial activism to unprecedented heights, radically reinterpreting the First Amendment to serve the purposes of their class war and otherwise reordering society by judicial fiat to usher in a new Gilded Age.

    They beseech the American people not to ever allow their elected representatives to raise taxes on the "job creators." Never mind that the U.S. economy was far healthier and producing more jobs here at home when tax rates on businesses and the wealthy were much higher than they are now. And never mind that today's "job creators" are really just profit takers. For working people, economic recovery is when the jobs come back. For those on Wall Street and in the corporate boardrooms, economic recovery is when the profits come back. For them, there's a recovery underway. That it's been a jobless one does not concern them in the least. But when someone suggests that perhaps some of their newfound profits should be plowed back into education or infrastructure repair or green energy investments, a panic attack ensues. They trot out their "don't tax the job creators" line and people fall for it and the profits from their jobless recovery are once again safe.

    I know one thing for sure about Democrats. They can read. A.A. Milne at least. They clearly are on cousinly terms with the bear of little brain. And they've got Eeyore's angst and depression and indecision down pat. When the Democrats see the remotest risk, the slightest possibility of a political setback, they sit on their hands.

    The Republicans wage class war and the Democrats whine about it and the Republicans accuse them of promoting class warfare. They feed the profit-hungry and the Democrats whine about it and they yell "you can't tax the job creators!" They stack the courts and get the judiciary's blessing of their class war. The Democrats whine about it and are accused of pushing judicial activism.

    So Scott Walker and the Fitzgerald brothers and their minions take away worker rights, roll back child labor laws, slash school spending, cut health care assistance to the elderly and poor and disabled, bring back poll taxes and deregulate the phone companies. And they are just getting warmed up.

    Hundreds of thousands of working people are inflamed. Walker's collective bargaining bill alone triggered mass protests, the largest ever seen at the State Capitol. Nine senators were targeted for recall, the most ever in Wisconsin history.

    Over at Democratic Party headquarters, Pooh sighed "Oh, bother" and Eeyore mumbled "Oh well." The chairman of the state party made remarks widely interpreted as throwing cold water on the idea of mounting an effort to recall Walker as soon as possible. He later backtracked some. Some grassroots Democrats have made it known that top party brass were cool to the idea of ever trying to recall the governor when the subject came up at the party's state convention.

    I've said it before and I'll say it again: One party is scary and the other is scared.

    One is Ayn Rand's dream and George Orwell's nightmare. The other is A.A. Milne minus the innocence of childhood.

    Neither is what our society needs.

    Friday, July 22, 2011

    P.T. Barnum's Kind Of Taxpayer

    It's easy to fathom why a great many people can't seem to bring themselves to care about redistricting. After all, it boils down to drawing maps, which seems dweebish. And it's always been seen as insider politics in its purest form, which most people hate with a passion.

    But it's much harder to figure why so few taxpayers are steamed about how their money is being used for dweebish insider politics.

    The redistricting process starts with politicians voting to help themselves to as much taxpayer money as they want to pay expensive private lawyers to assist them with their map drawing. This time around, the party in power wrote themselves a blank check while denying the other side any public funds for their own lawyers. So far, about $350,000 of the taxpayers' money has been spent and the meter is still running.

    Taxpayers aren't allowed to see the work being done at their expense. The redistricting plans are kept secret until they are ready to be passed by the Legislature. When finally the plans are made public, it becomes apparent why they are kept secret for so long. The new district lines benefit the politicians, not the public.

    All of us taxpayers end up paying to have the power of our votes diminished. We all pay to make incumbent office holders more secure. We all pay to make the party in power more likely to stay in power. We all pay and what we get for our money is less responsive representation in the state Legislature and in Congress. We also pay for more partisan division and political polarization because our money is used to draw lines creating as many strongly Republican and overwhelmingly Democratic districts as possible. Politicians hate being in 50-50 districts. So they make us pay to enhance their job security.

    And very few of us squawk about it.

    Wow. Just wow.

    Tuesday, July 19, 2011

    Drawn To Power

    Article IV, Section 4 of the Wisconsin Constitution requires state legislative districts to be "bounded by county, precinct, town or ward lines, to consist of contiguous territory and be in as compact form as practicable."

    A contiguous district is one where all parts of the district are connected to each other. In other words, a district where you can travel from any point in the district without crossing the district boundary.

    The map for the 78th Assembly District in Madison proposed under the Republican redistricting plan that is set to sail through both houses of the Legislature this week is one example of line drawing that clearly does not meet that constitutional standard.

    There are numerous islands floating inside the 78th district that are in fact attached to the 47th, 79th and 80th districts.

    It certainly is possible to draw new districts that don't take constitutional requirements like contiguity with a grain of salt. The Democracy Campaign demonstrated that it could be done in the alternative redistricting plan we put forward.

    Our plan also does not unnecessarily divide communities like Sheboygan, Marshfield and Beloit into different senate districts the way the GOP plan does. Nor does it divide little towns like Clintonville into two different assembly districts. Or DeForest into three. Or West Allis into four.

    It is possible to account for population changes in Wisconsin that have occurred over the last decade without splitting up communities and without playing fast and loose with constitutional obligations . . . if you are not setting out to create distinctly Republican and Democratic districts.

    Monday, July 18, 2011

    Military For Nothing, Benefit Checks For Free

    I want my, I want my, I want my Fox TV. I want my, I want my, I want MSNBC.

    Our country has a truth problem. Pretty much no politician can handle telling it. And the American people can't handle hearing it.

    The truth is we've been getting a lot of things from our government that we are not paying for. For a very long time.

    When we are feeling the least bit afraid or insecure, a new war is started on our behalf. But there is no war tax. There is no rationing of food, gas or clothing like there used to be when we went to war. No scrap drives, no rubber drives.

    Not only do we take for granted that our shores will be defended and the mail will be delivered, we expect the food supply to be inspected, hot lunches at school for our kids, our bank accounts insured. We've grown accustomed to a thousand other things big and small, from parks and libraries and police and fire departments to roads and bridges and water treatment and garbage pick-up and financial security in our old age.

    No politician of any stripe is telling the American people to stop taking all this for granted. Yet they keep telling us we are overtaxed. Never mind that we are paying less of our incomes in taxes than any time in the last 60 years.

    The maddening debt-ceiling talks in Washington are but a political manifestation of America's juvenile attitude about paying our bills. Politicians of every stripe have been telling the American people that they deserve more and more from their government but should pay less and less for what we get. That has sounded like a good deal and we've happily accepted the bargain. But it is a lie we're living.

    The truth is government spending must be cut. And taxes need to be raised. Getting less from government while paying more for it sounds like a lousy deal, but if we want to avert financial disaster, it is the truth. We don't want to hear the truth, and the politicians can't bear to tell it. Leaving America in dire straits.

    Thursday, July 07, 2011

    65,000 Square Miles Surrounded By Sanity

    Dave Zweifel wrote the other day about a friend from out of state calling him to ask what the hell is going on in Wisconsin. Good question. And he's not the only one getting it.

    We've got the most polarizing governor in America who can't for the life of him see what it is about him that so divides people. Supreme Court justices whose contempt for each other has been put on public display, with name calling eventually escalating to a physical altercation. A legislature that considers itself above longstanding open meetings and open records laws.

    We had lawmakers passing a new law allowing Wisconsinites to carry concealed weapons at the same time the Capitol was in virtual lockdown and visitors to the people's house were being subjected to intensive weapons screening.

    Weirdness abounds in America's Dairyland.

    Voters are not amused. A great many have taken matters into their own hands, prompting an unprecedented number of recall elections.

    Painfully ironic though it is, this year is the 100th anniversary of the most remarkable legislative session in Wisconsin history. The nation's first progressive income tax was established. Workers' compensation was invented. Railroads were regulated. The insurance industry was reformed and a state life insurance plan was instituted. Maximum work hours for women and children were set. Vocational and technical education systems were initiated. And that's just a partial accounting of the 1911 legislature's accomplishments.

    That all this happened in 1911 was no accident. The stage actually was set much earlier when landmark political reforms were enacted in Wisconsin. In 1897 the crudest forms of corruption such as bribery, illegal voting and election fraud were outlawed (yes, you heard right, these things were not illegal in the first half century of statehood). In 1905 campaign contributions by corporations were banned. Democracy was further strengthened in that amazing 1911 session with the passage of the Corrupt Practices Act requiring candidates to report all sources of their funding and barring elected officials from trading favors, monetary or otherwise, in return for financial support from wealthy donors.

    These laws have been badly weakened in recent years, and newer laws like the 34-year-old public financing program for state elections have been swept away entirely. New political pathogens have emerged and have been left largely untreated. What is happening in 2011 is no accident either.

    As was the case in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Wisconsin is at a crossroads. The defining question of our moment is the same one that stared the people of our state in the face back then. Which shall rule, wealth or people?

    A new report issued yesterday by a national academic research institute suggests an answer is in the offing. The study was based on based on an analysis of data from recent elections in six Midwestern states including Wisconsin. Among other things, the authors offer an assessment of the Democracy Campaign's proposed new approach to election campaign financing, concluding that the "combination of policies would have extraordinarily powerful effects."

    The institute estimates our plan would increase the proportion of campaign money coming from $100-and-under donors from the current 19% to as much as 91% of the total. At the same time, the role of $1,000-or-more donors would be cut from the current 34% to 6%, while the role of special interest political action committees (PACs) would shrink from 9% to only 1%.

    Game changing, that's what it would be. The report's conclusion, not mine. The report's lead author happens to have a Republican pedigree. He used to write speeches for Dick Cheney when the former vice president was secretary of defense. He also once was a top congressional staffer as associate director of the House Republican Conference.

    As was the case in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the problems we face cross partisan boundaries. The question is not which shall rule, Democrats or Republicans? The question is which shall rule, wealth or people?

    When Wisconsin answers that question as definitively and effectively as our state did a century ago, the stage will again be set for a legislative session every bit as remarkable as 1911's. Then Wisconsin will come back to its senses.

    Can't wait.