Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Out With The Big And In With The Small

Most regular people are feeling helpless if not hopeless when it comes to the commanding influence of money in politics. Different people call what we have now different things, but mostly agree it's not much of a democracy so long as power is concentrated in so few hands. At least as far as election financing goes, our system qualifies as a plutocracy (government of, by and for the rich). Some might say we have a kakistocracy (government by the worst and most unprincipled people). Or maybe a kleptocracy (government run by thieves).

Word play aside, the reality of today's politics is that money does not talk, it screams. And the root of the money problem is that there is so much of it and it comes from so few.

Part of what caused our current mess is systematic neglect and malpractice by elected officials who refuse to acknowledge much less repair obsolete campaign finance rules and anti-corruption laws. Another part of the cause is that the Supreme Court took a look at 45 of the most important words ever written and decided that when those words were penned two centuries earlier the authors must have meant "money" when they used the word "speech" and really meant "corporations" when they said "people."

Over the long haul, anyone who believes in democracy has a duty to do what it takes to make sure these rulings end up in the trash bin of history where they belong. But that will likely take decades. In the meantime, there is much that can and must be done to work around the legal nonsense foisted on us by the Supremes and, in so doing, make political power less concentrated and more widely dispersed.

One way to do that is to insist on long-overdue updates to ethics laws that once protected the public from government corruption but no longer do so. Another way is to press for new laws enhancing corporate accountability and protecting shareholder rights, like the state legislation proposed last session and supported by the Democracy Campaign. If the Supreme Court is going to treat things as human beings and allow those things to spend unlimited amounts on elections, then the things should have to notify the human beings  namely investors  who supply them with capital and should have to get the investors' permission to use their money this way.

But the most important short-term treatment for the sickness that has been visited on us and our democracy involves direct intervention in how the money flows. Again, the root of the money problem is there is so much of it and it comes from so few. For the time being, the courts are insisting that money flow freely and all but a handful of elected lawmakers are doing nothing to challenge the judges. So until sanity returns, all spigots have to be opened wide. In which case, we need more spigots. To be more precise, we need to make sure that all the money is not pouring out of a few enormous spigots.

Put another way, we can fight big money with small money.

A small donor empowerment plan was just introduced in Congress, and the Democracy Campaign has proposed a reform plan based on the same model for state elections here in Wisconsin. The idea is simple. Make small donations worth a lot more than they are worth today. Give candidates a strong reason – and a big reward – for seeking small contributions from the local communities they want to represent. And hence give more people a reason to believe that making a small contribution will actually make a difference.

If the incentives provided by the public matching programs in our plan and the one just proposed in Congress could convince as little as 5% of the population to make small political donations, big money could be replaced by small money in our elections.

For years now, politicians of every stripe have embraced the old idiom "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" and surrendered to the concentrated power of the few in our society who can afford to pump massive amounts of money into the political process. We have it within our power to put a subversive twist on that idiom. If you can't stop 'em, outnumber 'em.

Monday, September 17, 2012

What Citizens United Has Wrought

You can likely count on one hand, with fingers to spare, the number of Supreme Court rulings that your average American can name, much less explain. Citizens United is one of the few. An unusually large number of people know of the case and have formed an opinion about the court's decision. The words "Citizens United" have become part of our political vocabulary, shorthand for democracy for sale.

Even fairly casual observers know that the Citizens United ruling blessed unlimited corporate spending in elections. But when most people hear the word "corporation," they think business corporation. And they probably expected Citizens United to unleash an explosion of campaign ads sponsored by Wal-Mart, ExxonMobil and the Bank of America. When that didn't happen, some concluded that Citizens United must not have been such a big deal.

Business corporations were never going to be the ones, visibly at least, to exploit the ruling and sponsor a torrent of campaign advertisements. Companies want to sell to everyone, and it's not good for business to alienate half of the population. What Citizens United was always most likely to do, and what it has in fact done, is produce an explosion in the number of political corporations. These new corporations – the offspring of Citizens United and a subsequent case called SpeechNow – now dot the landscape, many of them getting vast amounts of money funneled to them by businesses and their top executives.

As of today, 844 federal Super PACs have been formed to influence the 2012 presidential race and other federal elections. Some are for the Republicans and some are for the Democrats. They have names like Restore Our Future, Priorities USA, American Crossroads, Winning Our Future, Endorse Liberty, Make Us Great Again, and Liberty for All. Then there's Now or Never, New Prosperity Foundation, Prosperity First, Brighter Future Fund, Strong America Now, American Sunrise, America Shining, and Restoring America. Not to mention America for Americans and Americans for America (no, I am not making that up, there really are two separate groups with those names). And there's America Forever, America Get Up, America on the Move, American Crosswinds, American Crosswords, Americans for Balance, Americans for New Leadership, Americans for Real Change and, of course, Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow. That last one is comedian Stephen Colbert's real-life parody of all these other groups.

The meter is obviously running, but at last count these Super PACs have raised more than $349 million raised so far in 2012 and have spent over $243 million. Conservative Super PACs are outspending their liberal counterparts by more than 3 to 1. Despite getting their heads handed to them in this game, the Democrats are warmly embracing Super PACs.

And here's the statistic that speaks volumes about the fundamental character of these outfits: Of the money Super PACs have raised from individual donors, 80% has come from just 196 Americans. That's 63 one-millionth of 1% (.000063%) of the population giving four-fifths of the money.

On top of the Super PACs, there are 59 nonprofit “charities” that have spent $70 million so far in 2012 to influence national elections. These include groups like Americans for Prosperity, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Crossroads GPS (an arm of Karl Rove's American Crossroads), League of Conservation Voters, Planned Parenthood, the National Rifle Association, Right to Life and the Club for Growth. These political groups are masquerading as tax-exempt charitable organizations, meaning that American taxpayers are subsidizing their political agendas. And unlike Super PACs, there is no disclosure of their donors. They can keep their sources of funds a secret. By the way, conservative nonprofits are outspending liberal ones by more than 6 to 1.

Here in Wisconsin, election authorities approved a rule (GAB 1.91) after the Citizens United decision came down, allowing committees to be formed to do unlimited corporate spending in state elections. After the rule went into effect in 2010, 13 such groups were formed to influence that year's elections. Twenty-one more were formed in 2011 to sponsor advertising aimed at swaying voters in last summer's recall elections. And then another 23 were formed in 2012 to influence this year's recalls as well as the regular elections this fall.

Among these state political corporations are the American Federation for Children, Citizens for a Progressive Wisconsin, Advancing Wisconsin, Wisconsin Right to Life, Republican State Leadership Committee, Koch Industries, Greater Wisconsin, Working America, Progressive Kick Wisconsin, Sportsmen for Wisconsin's Hunting Heritage, Taxpayers Hoping for Change, Patriot Advisors, Equality Wisconsin, Restore Wisconsin's Image and Reputation, Rebuild the Dream in Wisconsin, Coalition for American Values, Independents for Better Government, and Midwest Victory Team.

These groups and the rest of the 57 political corporations formed after the 2010 Citizens United ruling have collectively spent over $25 million on campaigning in Wisconsin elections. Because of inadequate state campaign finance disclosure laws, these groups are able to keep the public in the dark about where their money comes from.

Disclosure is inadequate because Citizens United rendered Wisconsin's disclosure laws obsolete overnight. Corporate election spending was banned in this state in 1905. So of course there was no law requiring disclosure of corporate election spending, because there was no such spending, it was illegal. When the Supreme Court struck down that ban in the Citizens United case, we not only lost the protection against the corrupting effects of unlimited corporate cash in elections but we also didn't get disclosure. Transparency in these transactions would require new laws requiring the disclosure of the origins of the funds fueling corporate electioneering. New laws that neither the current Republican-controlled legislature nor the Democratic majority that preceded it have enacted.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Wearing Our Children's Clothes

I think it was Thomas Jefferson who said that expecting each new generation to forever live by the customs and laws of past generations is like expecting adults to wear the same clothes that fit them as children.

If only Wisconsin lawmakers would heed that wisdom.

Our state outlawed bribery in 1897. Ponder that for a moment. That means for the first half-century of statehood it was perfectly legal to bribe a public official in Wisconsin. But the people eventually grew sufficiently intolerant of that corrupt practice and it was banned. It was that sort of law that earned Wisconsin its reputation as a beacon of clean, open and honest government.

Today the bribery law offers little real protection from political corruption. Only a total fool would offer or accept an old-fashioned bribe when there are completely legal means to accomplish the same aims. The bribery ban is toothless today because it is silent on the money in election campaigns. So is the gift ban that was added to the state ethics code in 1973. The code's conflict of interest law enacted that same year also says nothing about campaign contributions.

Not addressing campaign money undoubtedly didn't seem like much of an oversight in 1973. After all, that was when Bill Proxmire was spending $150 or $200 on his statewide campaigns and was repeatedly elected to represent Wisconsin in the U.S. Senate. Lawmakers in 1973 couldn't possibly have seen $81 million elections for governor or multi-million dollar races for a seat in the legislature coming.

While their lack of foresight is understandable and therefore forgiveable, our inability or unwillingness to adapt ethics laws to today's political realities is neither comprehensible nor pardonable. Wisconsin remains stuck with an ethics code for public officials that made sense 40 years ago but no longer fits given how we've grown. We have an ethics code that stands guard against the corruption that could possibly result from someone buying a legislator a beer, but offers no protection from the corruption that is infinitely more likely to result from someone spending hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars on advertising singing a legislator's praises.

It is long past time to think about how utterly obsolete the bribery law and the gift ban and other such anti-corruption measures have become, how ridiculous these laws now look, and how little they do to keep the political system clean and honest. If you give a politician a t-shirt with your company's name on it, or a coffee mug bearing your group's logo, you are committing a crime. But it's entirely legal to write out a check for $500 or $1,000 or $10,000 and hand it to that same politician. What's more valuable to politicians – and what's more likely to influence them – the t-shirt or the check? The mug or the money?

We've allowed a fiction to grow up around us that there is no problem with large amounts of money changing hands in politics. It's considered free speech. As if an act of patriotism. It's called a "contribution" or "donation." Sounds downright charitable. It's time to call it what it is. Bribery. There's nothing charitable or patriotic about that. Bribery is a crime and its modern form should be recognized and treated as such.

We've grown accepting of, or at least resigned to, money's dominion over politics. If there's to be a future for American democracy, we have to get over that. We have to become as intolerant of corrupt practices as the people of this state were a hundred years ago.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

You Call These Elections?

Even before the smoking guns were found, it was obvious that Wisconsin Republicans took full advantage of the redistricting process last year and drew new district maps designed to tilt the electoral scales in their favor.

The biggest losers, however, are not the Democrats. That distinction belongs to the voters.

This becomes clear when you look at the votes by legislative district in the 2008 election for president and the 2010 election for governor – one a strong Democratic year, the other a big year for Republicans.

Based on voting patterns from those two years, only four of the 33 new senate districts are purple; that is, true battlegrounds where elections could go either way. Nine are either light red or blue, meaning they either clearly lean Republican or show a tendency to favor the Democrats. The other 20 are bright red or vivid blue. Solidly Republican or solidly Democratic.

Of the 99 districts in the Assembly, the 2008 and 2010 election results show that 12 of the new districts qualify as toss ups. Another 21 lean Republican or lean Democratic, with 17 of the leaners on the Republican side compared to just four for the Democrats. The remaining 66 assembly districts are solid for one party or the other.

There are 33 districts (28 assembly and five senate) where there is a major-party candidate who will go unchallenged in the November election. Voters literally won't have a choice and the outcomes of those elections are obviously foregone conclusions. But in the vast majority of the other districts, the choice voters will have looks to be an empty one, especially when you look at how the financial competitiveness of the races are shaping up in addition to the effects of redistricting.

There are only five races (four assembly and one senate) where the worst-funded candidate has at least 70% of what the best-funded candidate in the race has. Interestingly, only one of the races where there are competitive cash balances at this point in the election season is in a district that qualifies as a toss-up based on 2008 and 2010 election outcomes. That's in central Wisconsin's 72nd Assembly District, where the incumbent Republican legislator has about a $5,000 fundraising edge over his Democratic challenger so far.

The assembly's 37th district is an open seat and both parties' candidates have about the same amount of money so far, with about a $500 edge to the Democrat. But based on the 2008 presidential election and the 2010 election for governor, the 37th rates as a solidly Republican district. The 43rd district race pits two incumbents who are running in the same district under the new maps. The Republican has raised close to $11,000 more so far than the Democrat, but the district went for Obama for president in 2008 and Tom Barrett for governor in 2010. The 86th district is an open seat that clearly leans Republican.

The only senate race that is close financially so far is in the 18th district surrounding the southern part of Lake Winnebago where the Democrat has raised more than $80,000 so far, with her Republican opponent collecting about three-quarters of that amount. The 18th leans Republican, however, going for Obama by a whisker in 2008 but Walker by a wide margin in 2010.

When you look at both how the districts are drawn and how the money is stacking up, there are precious few races that look to be competitive this fall. The combined effect of redistricting and fundraising makes voters virtually powerless in almost all districts.

Not a pretty picture. And not the way democracy is supposed to work.