Why We Need to Get Money Out of Politics

By Matt Rothschild, Executive Director

September 9, 2015

This was the prepared text of the talk that Rothschild gave on Sept. 8 to former State Sen. Dale Schultz’s UW-Platteville political science class. The class is entitled “Citizenship and Practical Decision Making.”

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I’d like to thank Dale for inviting me to come to speak to you today. Getting to know the Senator over the last few months has been one of the biggest pleasures of my job so far.

Take a good look at him. This is a man at peace with himself. And he’s at peace with himself because he stood up for what he believed in, even if it jeopardized his political career. His party was railroading through some bad public policy, and he would not be bullied to go along. That’s a rare profile in courage.

And as David Axelrod, Obama’s campaign manager and later White House counselor, said in Madison a few weeks ago, there’s a reason why JFK’s Profiles in Courage was such a thin book.

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I’m thrilled to be here, and it’s really appropriate that you’re taking a class that’s called “Citizenship and Practical Decision Making” because, to a large and alarming extent, the citizenry in Wisconsin, and in America as a whole, has been reduced to the role of mere spectators in our elections and especially in policy making.

A pathbreaking study last year by Princeton University professor Martin Gilens and Northwestern’s Benjamin Page concluded that “the average citizen or the ‘median voter’ has little or no independent influence on public policy.” Or, as they also put it, “It makes very little difference what the general public thinks.” Let me quote some more: “When a majority—even a very large majority—of the public favors change, it is not likely to get what it wants.”

Unless powerful business groups and the economic elites want that change, too. If they don’t want it, it’s not likely to happen. “In the United States,” they conclude, “the majority does not rule.” This, they said, with a great deal of understatement, is “troubling news for advocates of ‘populistic’ democracy, who want governments to respond primarily or exclusively to the policy preferences of their citizens.”

“Troubling”?!?

I’d say more like “devastating.”

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So how do big business interests and economic elites prevail? Mostly through campaign contributions and lobbying.

You and I don’t give campaign contributions or pay lobbyists. But the Big Boys do.

The figures are staggering: In 2010, just 0.26 percent of the public accounted for 68% of all direct campaign contributions.

And in 2014, 0.01 percent accounted for 29 percent of all direct federal campaign gifts.

And outside spending on federal elections to so-called independent groups has gone through the roof, increasing from $10 million in 1998 to $1 billion in 2012. That’s an increase of 100-fold in the last 14 years.

Dark money has gone up, as well, to the extent that we can trace it, from $5 million in 2004 to $310 million in 2012, and increase of 60-fold in just eight years.

This money buys access, buys influence, and gets rewarded. And then many of these same wealthy forces hire lobbyists. It’s a big business: In Washington, it amounted to $6.6 billion in 2011-2012.

Here in Wisconsin, we’ve got the same problems. Donations for governor up have skyrocketed 650% in the last twenty years. Outside money is increasing, as well, from $12 million in 2010 to $28 million in 2014. And spending on lobbying has gone way up, too.

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We see the results, in Washington and in Madison. The people don’t get what they want. But the vested interests do.

We saw the bailout of the banks in 2008 and 2009, where the government, first under George W. Bush and then under Barack Obama, lavished hundreds of billions of dollars on the very institutions that drove the economy off the cliff. But homeowners and consumers didn’t get a dime. There was no moratorium on foreclosures. There was no reductions of the principal on 60 million mortgages, many of which were on inflated properties. The banks got bailed out, but homeowners were left to flounder.

Even afterwards, we haven’t gotten meaningful reform, because Wall Street lobbyists know how to throw their money around Congress: As Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois put it, “The banks own this place.”

But it’s not just in Washington.

Just last week, I wrote a story about all the spending on lobbyists in the capitol in Madison. The companies up there have money to burn, and they’re burning it! 47 groups were spending $1,000 or more an hour on lobbying in the capitol.

The Bucks spent $2,389 an hour on lobbying, for a total of $482,000. And it was a good investment, bringing in $250 million. That’s about $500 for every $1 in lobbying!

Then there’s the WEDC scandal, with William Minahan giving $10,000 to Scott Walker and receiving a $500,000 unsecured loan from WEDC that Walker’s own staff lobbied for. Actually, they pressured WEDC to give a much bigger loan!

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And it doesn’t matter who’s in power.

When the Democrats had control of the governor’s mansion, the State Senate, and the State Assembly, for instance, the pay-day lenders had a field day, and it wasn’t because the public was clamoring for higher rates of usury.

And with Republicans in control, it’s not like you or I or even the Republican base has been clamoring for higher levels of lead in our paint, but that’s a bill that got passed last term and signed by the governor.

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Unfortunately, it’s only going to get worse after the recent State Supreme Court Case on the John Doe decision.

Basically, the State Supreme Court threw out the law in our state that says that candidates cannot coordinate with outside groups doing campaign work.

The Court said that so long as an outside group doesn’t say the magic words “vote for” or “vote against,” then it’s OK for the candidate to work with that outside group. It’s OK to raise money for that outside group. It’s OK to coordinate strategy and messaging with that outside group.

This makes a mockery of our ability to prevent corruption and to have any meaningful transparency.

Here’s why: Say you’re running for governor and you’ve got a billionaire friend. The most your friend can give your campaign is $10,000 and you’d have to disclose the donation. But now, rather than have him give 10 grand directly to you, you can tell your friend to give $10 million to an outside group that you’re working with, and so you’ll be able to run a cajillion more of the same ads that you would have run if he donated directly to you. What’s more, your rich friend can do it all in secret! The outside group won’t have to reveal where it got that $10 million.

But you would know. And you’d be indebted to that person just as if he or she gave it to you directly, and when your friend comes knocking on your door when you’re in office, chances are you’d do the person a favor.

As a result, our government is going to be for sale as never before.

And our democracy will be drowning in a sea of dark money.

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All is not lost, however. Here are some solutions to the problems that face us.

First, citizens need to engage more in the process. Even a little thing, like contacting your legislators, can have an effect. For instance, when Gov. Walker and Speaker Vos tried to shield legislators from needing to comply with the Open Records law in a sneak attack on the eve of the July 4 th weekend, the people wouldn’t stand for it. They gave their legislators an earful at parades and in their email.

One legislator told me that if they get more than 10 letters (not form letters but individual, personal notes) on one issue, that’s a lot. If they get 100, they freak out!

Second, we need nonpartisan redistricting. The legislature in 2012 rigged the electoral maps so that Republicans could win 60 of the 99 Assembly seats, even though more citizens voted for Democrats in the Assembly than Republicans. There’s a pending lawsuit, which Senator Schultz is behind, that is challenging the 2012 redistricting, which it says was “one of the worst in modern American history.” I was at a press conference today where many legislators came out for the so-called Iowa Model. And it’s a bipartisan effort because Representative Todd Novak of Assembly District 51 joined in. I doubt it will pass in this session, but it needs to pass, and soon.

Third, we need mass movements to get policy changes that the citizenry favors. Many, if not most, of the great social changes over the last 160 years have come about not because a particular politician was elected Senator or President but because people organized themselves at the grassroots and demanded change. That was true for the Women’s Suffrage Movement, the Labor Movement, the Civil Rights Movement, and for the great nonviolent movement of our time—the LGBT revolution.

Fundamentally, the answer is to amend the U.S. Constitution. There have been a series of wrongheaded Supreme Court cases dating back to1886 in Santa Clara County vs. Southern Pacific Railroad that say that corporations are persons.

And then in 1976, in Buckley v. Valeo, the Court said that money equals speech.

And in Citizens United, the Court said that corporations can spend unlimited amounts of money to elect candidates so long as they don’t coordinate with those candidates.

It contained the two most naïve statements ever written in a Supreme Court decision:

Independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.”

And “The appearance of influence or access, furthermore, will not cause the electorate to lose faith in our democracy.”

What planet were those five justices living on when they came up with those whoppers?

And in McCutcheon last year, the Court said that states could not impose aggregate limits on how much someone can contribute.

These decisions, taken together, will give the richest of the rich and the most powerful corporations unprecedented ability to buy the elected officials and the policies they want.

As Jimmy Carter said, we’re fast becoming “an oligarchy with unlimited political bribery.

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People understand this, no matter what party they’re in. Donald Trump, for instance, talks openly about how he’s thrown his money around, and that when he contributes to a politician, he gets something for his money.

A recent NYT/CBS poll showed that 84 percent of the public believes that private money plays too big a role in our politics, and that included 80 percent of Republicans.

It also showed that 78 percent believed that we should be able to limit spending by outside groups, and that included 73 percent of Republicans.

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This is not a new problem in America.

Thomas Jefferson saw it coming almost 200 years ago to this day when he said:

“I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations.”

Well, he and our other Founders didn’t succeed at that, and the monied corporations are no longer in their birth.

Fighting Bob La Follette fought his whole life against the monied corporations, and he didn’t fully succeed either.

And now these monied corporations are fully grown now into monsters, and they are devouring our democracy.

We must finally tame these monsters and get our democracy back.

Our politics shouldn’t be a contest between billionaires. It should be a contest of ideas, where every American has an equal voice. But today, sadly, your voice barely matters, and my voice barely matters.

We can’t compete with the billionaires, and our voices can’t even be heard.

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And that’s why one of the great movements of our day is to amend the Constitution to say that corporations aren’t persons and money isn’t speech.

Hillary Clinton just today came out in favor of this. Jimmy Carter is in favor of it. Barack Obama is in favor of it. Even Lindsey Graham of South Carolina says it may be necessary.

Fortunately, many Wisconsinites agree.

In 59 villages, towns, cities, and counties all across this state (and three were added just this week), the people or their representatives have voted by overwhelming margins in favor of such an amendment.

From Douglas County and Chippewa County and Eau Claire County across to the city of Wausau and Appleton and down to Ripon and Edgerton and Elkhorn and Delavan, it’s passed with huge majorities.

Even in red Waukesha, on April 1, 2014, it got a 69% approval that same day.

And it may be on the ballot next April here in Platteville.

This is what it means to refuse to be a spectator and actually to be a citizen.

This is what it’s going to take to give democracy a real fighting chance in the United States.

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130 years ago, in New York City, there was a corrupt leader named Boss Tweed.

And he infamously said, “I don’t care who does the electing, so long as I get to do the nominating.”

We shouldn’t let today’s Tweeds do the nominating or the electing.

We’ve got to do it ourselves.

That’s our job, as citizens.

And I, for one, believe we can do a much better job of it than the billionaires and the big companies.

WDC Executive Director Matthew Rothschild
Matthew Rothschild
WDC Executive Director

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