Political Bribery Is Legal Again

By Robert Kraig, Mike McCabe and Andrea Kaminski

May 21, 2012

Our election system is literally awash in money, and the 2012 election will again shatter all spending records. The amount of money from wealthy special interests, millionaires and billionaires coursing through the Wisconsin recall election and the presidential election corrodes public faith in our democracy.

The U.S. Supreme Court made the situation much worse with a series of rulings that equated money with speech and opened the door to unlimited special interest election spending. Contrary to common sense, a narrow majority in the Citizens United case asserted that allowing unlimited election spending by corporations will not give “rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption” and that the “appearance of influence or access, furthermore, will not cause the electorate to lose faith in our democracy.”

The public knows better.

Buying elected officials is nothing new. In the 19th century, politicians were notoriously paid off with bundles of cash. Utility franchises, streetcar contracts and other public goods were auctioned off to the highest bidders. The railroads got their way in Madison by bribing legislators with free passes. Reformers over time eradicated these crass forms of bribery and other forms of petty corruption, creating the democratic conditions necessary to establish modern state and federal governments that advanced economic opportunity and security throughout the 20th century.

In his essay in the current Wisconsin Blue Book on the 1911 Legislature, historian John Buenker describes a stunning change in just 10 years, in which the caliber of politician serving in Madison was transformed. He quotes Milwaukee journalist Rodney A. Elward who attributed the change to “the political sanitary measures adopted. . . . over the past decade.”

We outlawed the old fashioned type of bribery. Now we need to adapt our laws to deal with its modern equivalent.

As election spending has escalated to unprecedented heights, public confidence in our governmental institutions has plummeted to the lowest levels ever recorded, undermining our capacity as a state and a nation to effectively respond to our economic and social challenges. The public understands at a fundamental level, no matter how much tortured legal logic is offered, that six-figure contributions and multimillion dollar “independent expenditures” on behalf of candidates are meant to buy public policy, pure and simple. Social scientists are even beginning to produce research that quantifies very high returns on such “investments” in the political process.

Let’s cut through the legal clutter and speak plainly. Giving tens of thousands of dollars to a campaign, or spending hundreds of thousands on a candidate’s behalf to influence his or her conduct in office is a bribe. It simply isn’t credible to say that politicians benefited to this magnitude are not unduly influenced, no matter what they may tell themselves. The corruption may be less brazen than receiving a stack of money in a back alley, but that actually makes it even more insidious because it can be more easily rationalized.

The term “legalized bribery” is now commonly used to describe our system for funding elections. The question is why would we legalize bribery? Why is it a bribe, punishable by imprisonment, to hand a politician $100 concealed in a paper bag, but perfectly legal to spend millions of dollars on behalf of a candidate with the object of influencing his or her conduct in office?

Bribery is not speech; it is a crime. Our state and federal laws need to reflect this by adapting to the modern method of political bribery. Only fools take bribes in the old fashioned way anymore, when there are perfectly legal mechanisms for receiving unlimited support from wealthy special interests seeking to corrupt our public policy.

The system of legalized bribery we have allowed to develop over the past four decades undermines the bedrock American value that government as near as possible should be of, by and for the people. It is profoundly threatening to our democracy that we have allowed our laws on political wrongdoing to become so lax that it is now perfectly legal for a handful of millionaires and billionaires to buy our elected leaders. For example, the five major presidential Super PACs raised nearly $80 million through the end of February, with half of that coming from just 20 donors who gave $1 million or more each. If and when these mega supporters receive government favors at the expense of average citizens, it ought to be a crime just as surely as it is to slip money under the table to an elected official.

We urgently need new “political sanitary measures” today to restore faith in our government and democratic institutions. We should reform the entire campaign finance system, and we can start by criminalizing the modern form of political bribery. Leaders of both parties will attempt to evade this issue, and elaborate rhetorical defenses of our thoroughly corrupt elections will be marshaled. But a ban on modern bribery could certainly pass, if there is the public will to force it onto the agenda.

After all, what politician would want to be on the record voting for bribery? The public needs to call the question.

Robert Kraig is executive director of Citizen Action of Wisconsin; Mike McCabe is executive director of Wisconsin Democracy Campaign; Andrea Kaminski is executive director of the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin.

WDC Executive Director Mike McCabe
Mike McCabe
WDC Executive Director

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