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.