Friday, March 01, 2013

Big Donor Double Standard

In the ubiquitous TV ads for State Farm, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers complains about insurance agents stealing his signature move and turning it into their own "Discount Double Check."

Here at the Democracy Campaign, we've become well acquainted with a very similar routine. Any time we try to account for the political campaign money coming from big special interests, these groups do an old #12 when their signature move is taken at face value.

When advocating for their agendas at the State Capitol, labor unions say they speak for tens of thousands of dues-paying members and business associations claim to speak for thousands of businesses and their employees. But when we take them at their word and include the campaign donations of these masses in our analyses of interest group political influence, they scream bloody murder, whining that it's not fair to assume that all those who they claim to represent actually agree with them on the issues they are lobbying on.

A recent example is the report we issued recently showing that donors represented by interest groups lobbying for controversial mining legislation gave nearly $16 million to the governor and state legislators, which was 610 times as much as mining opponents gave.

Among the groups pushing mining deregulation is Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, which fancies itself the voice of Wisconsin business and claims to represent more than 3,500 employers. Another trade association that is lobbying for the mining bill is the Wisconsin Bankers Association. WBA claims to represent 300 commercial banks and savings institutions and their nearly 2,300 branch offices and almost 30,000 employees.

Then there is the Wisconsin Builders Association, which is pushing for passage of the mining bill on behalf of its more than 6,500 member companies. And the Wisconsin Realtors Association, which claims to represent over 13,000 members statewide. Not to mention Wisconsin Independent Businesses. WIB's message to state lawmakers is that it represents nearly 4,000 "service sector companies, hometown manufacturers and traditional Main Street retailers."

The Wisconsin Restaurant Association, which boasts over 7,000 member establishments, also is registered to lobby in favor of the mining legislation. So is the Tavern League of Wisconsin, with 5,000 members.

All such groups gain political clout from claiming to speak for so many. They trade on the power of association, on their status as the voice of such vast legions. This is their signature move.

But when we note campaign contributions from top executives and managers of these thousands of businesses to the governor and state legislators, these groups suddenly insist they do not necessarily speak for their members on the mining issue or any other issue and condemn us for painting with a broad brush.

They want it both ways. When hunting for votes on issues like mining, they want to be free to pass themselves off as the voice of thousands. But when the campaign donations of those thousands make it look like legislative favors are being bought, then there really is no association, just a bunch of independent actors who may have very different views on any given issue. When accused of pay-to-play politics, it's funny how these groups speak for no one.

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