The Mugging of Democracy in Wisconsin

November 7, 2015

Crime Scene

It happened in the dark of night. Almost no one was around. But just about at midnight on Nov. 6, the Republican-dominated Wisconsin State Senate struck at the heart of open and clean government in Wisconsin, dealing it a mortal blow.

By a vote of 17-15, the Republicans passed a horrendous campaign finance bill that will open the floodgates of dark money, which will drown our democracy and breed corruption and criminality.

Only one courageous Republican, Rob Cowles, dared to break with his party on the campaign finance bill. He voted no, joining all the Democrats.

The rest of the Republicans rammed the bill through, which doubles the amount that individuals can give to candidates and allows unlimited donations to political parties and legislative campaign committees. It also allows coordination with “issue ad groups” and opens the door for coordination, at times, with “express advocacy” groups.

The Senate Republicans managed to make a horrible bill even more horrible than many good government groups thought it would be.

First, they went back on the reported deal that would have required donors who give $200 or more to candidates to list their employers. Now the requirement is out the window, so it will make it extremely difficult for the media, the public, and prosecutors to find out who is throwing money around to win special favors -- and who is breaking the law in the process.

Second, they made it easier for candidates to coordinate with “express advocacy” groups – that is, groups that run ads saying “Vote for” or “Vote against” a particular candidate. Under the Senate bill, it would now be OK for a candidate to coordinate with an express advocacy group unless the candidate (or a person or group representing the candidate) would “specifically request” the group to run an ad and unless the group “explicitly assents” to that request.

So, the following scenario would be perfectly legal: I’m running for governor, and an express advocacy group is running ads telling people to vote for me, and I’m telling my richest donor to give the group millions and millions of dollars. Then I call up the head of the group and say, “I’m just wondering, I’m not sure, I’m just talking out loud here, but I’m wondering whether another ad buy with a new message I just came up with might be helpful in the following three cities over the next two weeks.” Notice that I’m not “specifically” requesting that the group do this. And the head of the group says, “I’ll take a look at it.” Notice that the head of the group doesn’t “explicitly assent” to the elbowed request. But I and the head of the group understand perfectly well what’s supposed to happen.

These loopholes—big enough to drive a Koch Industries truck through—were new, as of last night. And they make a mockery of contribution limits. If I’m running for governor, the maximum my biggest donor could give my campaign directly is $20,000 under this bill. But that same donor could give $20 million or more to this express advocacy group. It’s with the same intention and having the same effect as if he gave the $20 million directly to my campaign.

And like the Assembly bill, for the first time ever in Wisconsin history, the Senate bill legalizes coordination with “issue advocacy” groups – those groups that run phony issue ads around election time, smearing candidates and telling voters to call their offices while carefully avoiding the magic words of “Vote for” or “Vote against.” Donations to issue advocacy groups are unlimited but don’t even have to be disclosed, whereas donations to express advocacy groups have to be disclosed.

So now my rich friend can give $20 million or more to an issue advocacy group I'm working with and no one would ever know about it. And that issue advocacy group can run an ad that says my opponent is the biggest scoundrel on the face of the Earth and urge voters to call my opponent’s office and tell him to stop being such a scoundrel.

As a result, our TV screens will be splattered with mud as never before come election time.

And it gets worse. As Dem. Sen. Jon Erpenbach noted on the floor of the State Senate, “Nothing prevents a Senator from forming his own issue advocacy group” and getting $50,000 from a corporation that just testified in front of him for that group. “Each one of us can have our own,” he said. “Who needs a middleman?” And Senators could give them nice names, like “Friends for a Sunny Day” or “We Love Cheese,” said Erpenbach, and no one would ever know that the Senators were behind those committees. “If you don’t think that will lead to corruption,” Erpenbach said, “you don’t belong in the Senate.”

This bill makes a mockery of our ability to have meaningful campaign limits and anywhere near adequate disclosure.

It is a bill designed not for a democracy, but for a plutocracy, where the rich rule over everybody else.

And it will allow a tidal wave of dark money to flood the electoral arena and drown out the voices of the citizenry. We won’t even know what hit us.

The only seemingly positive change the Senate made to the Assembly bill was to limit the amount of money that corporations, associations, labor unions, or Indian tribes could give to a legislative campaign committee or political party for purposes other than helping a specific candidate. In the Assembly bill, such donations were unlimited. The Senate bill caps that limit at $12,000.

But corporations, associations, labor unions, or Indian tribes could still give unlimited amounts of money to an independent expenditure committee and to a referendum committee. Since the bill allows candidates to coordinate with independent expenditure committees, the cap on corporate contributions to parties is essentially meaningless.

Once the Republicans got through with dealing mortal wounds to any meaningful campaign finance restrictions, they chopped up the nonpartisan watchdog Government Accountability Board less than two hours later. On this one, the Republicans voted unanimously to replace the GAB with two commissions: one covering elections, the other covering ethics, lobbying, and campaign finance. Both boards would have partisan representatives on them, three Republicans and three Democrats each. The only concession the Senators made was to add two retired judges to the ethics, lobbying, and campaign finance commission.

This doesn’t get around the basic problem that existed prior to the Government Accountability Board, where partisans on the Elections Board conspired with each other to block enforcement of the laws, since both parties were violating them. That’s what ushered in the Legislative Caucus Scandal, which led to the convictions of the Democratic Senate Majority Leader and the Republican Speaker of the Assembly, among others. The new boards would be similarly handicapped, and inaction would be the order of the day, allowing corruption and criminality to fester.

When the Senate finally adjourned in the wee hours of Saturday morning, democracy in Wisconsin was left in a dark alley, with gaping wounds and gasping for air.