Monday, January 25, 2010

Campaign reform magi

By Bill Kraus

Not under anyone’s Christmas tree, but a welcome gift to all of us is something called the impartial justice law. It came from the governor, the Legislature, a motley collection of reformers, and mostly from the current justices of the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

What the law does is provide enough public money to fully fund campaigns for the Supreme Court to candidates who agree to abide by the adequate but far from obscene spending limits mandated by the statute.

The desirable side effects are that taking advantage of the law’s provisions shields candidates for the court from the onerous business of fund raising which has the additional desirable side effect of simultaneously getting rid of any suspicion that the funders they no longer have to solicit may be buying something more with their contributions than a talented judiciary.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The bright sides of the Supreme Court's dark ruling

isconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
January 24, 2010

By Bill Kraus

Most of the do-good organizations are railing against the recent Supreme Court decision on election participation and decrying what this will do to an already-broken, outrageously expensive election system. The need for money is what is driving political behavior, and this decision exacerbates that. But it isn’t going to be reversed; at least not soon. So let’s look at what can be salvaged from the wreckage of the regulation solution.

I think there are three very positive things in this decision to exploit.

The first, of course, is disclosure. Twenty years ago, one-time Wisconsin GOP chair George Parker told me what the Supreme Court is telling us: The answer is disclosure. The majority opinion encourages legislation that will reveal the name of everyone who is putting money into advertising in every campaign. A deterrent. No more KKK politics for the currently anonymous funders of issue ads who are hiding behind front organizations to do their political propagandizing. It also suggests upfront and prominent disclaimers on every ad run by corporations and unions and everyone else who is a beneficiary of this ruling. The viewers can know where and who these ads are coming from before they watch them. The theory is, “When the people have all the facts, they will respond appropriately.”

This kind of disclosure also arms candidates who come under attack from these advertisers. They will know who their enemies are, very specifically. Next to a weak opponent a candidate’s next best blessing is a vulnerable enemy. Disclosure will offer up a treasure trove.

Since the Supremes said nothing about public financing, it survives. This means that spending-limit legislation (like that which recently passed for Wisconsin Supreme Court races) can be expanded to include matching funds for those who accept public funding beyond that already authorized. This offsets money being spent beyond the spending limit by millionaire candidates and parallel campaigners to include corporate advertisers that oppose them.

The unintended consequence of the decision may be that it gives a boost to campaign finance reform legislation--without repressing free speech. Suddenly candidates who are in the sights of this kind of spending by outsiders may reconsider their opposition to forward-looking proposals like those contained in the Ellis-Erpenbach bill.

And, finally, this may be a prayer that the presumed winners may not have wanted answered. The political leaders who must raise the money for our current system are not stupid. This is the gang that set up multiple toll booths on the legislative highway to raise money. They can’t do that anymore. The free-speech decision offers up another opportunity to extort contributions from a new set of deep pockets.

The newly liberated and well endowed supplicants can expect to be dragooned into campaign activity in favor of whichever side is most likely to do their bidding. Pre-election extortion instead of the post-election variety? Don’t bet against it.

If the dire predictions from the hand-wringing set prove to be true, we might even get an “enough already” from the beleaguered voters who can be convinced to vote against money instead of for the slick ads the big money can now buy to advance its interests and clutter up what used to be a pastime: watching TV.

It would be a circuitous route to reform, but the direct regularity route which few were taking wasn’t crowded anyway. This decision could put reform on everyone's short agenda.

Follow Bill Kraus on:
twitter / wmkraus

Monday, January 18, 2010

Fixing the fix

isconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
January 18, 2010

By Bill Kraus

All the talk about the 2010 elections is about the referendum on the Obama/Democrats response to the great recession, about the length of the coattail on the Obama popularity if any (coattail or popularity), and how these things will play out in legislative elections everywhere.

No one is talking about the fact that the legislatures elected in 2010 will be responsible for the mandated legislative redistricting that will follow the 2010 census.

Don’t kid yourself. There is a great deal of talk about this. But it is among the insiders who nest in the D.C. beltway and the Madison capitol square.

The alleged purpose of redistricting is to even out the size of the Assembly, Senate and House districts, and achieve some kind of popular homogeneity within them while getting as many competitive races as possible.

What the legislative leaders are trying to get is redistricting that protects the electoral majorities of the current incumbents (who will, not so incidentally, get to vote on whatever districting plan is proposed) and to save campaign expenses by reducing the number of districts that have competitive races for which they will have to raise the money to run.

I was unhappily in the middle of the redistricting process that followed the 1980 census. There were some very important issues on the public agenda at that time because a post-Carter recession was closing in on those in power. My recollection is that the actual agenda revolved around a state senator whose father-in-law would no longer live in his district if a particular plan was enacted, and an assembly representative whose finance chair was being moved to another district, and more turf battles in more places. The recession could wait.

Since then, Wisconsin’s elections have been Kohl-ized, and large amounts of money are thought to be necessary to win seats in areas that are really up for grabs.

The legislative leaders’ top objective now is to keep the campaign costs manageable by reducing the number of those elections.

If there was an anti-trust law that applied to the conspiracies hatched by the likes of Dave Obey and Jim Sensenbrenner for the congressional districts, and for their counterparts in Madison who carve up the state into legislative districts, all of them would have violated it.

There wasn’t. There still isn’t. Until and unless there is we will have a situation where the candidates are picking their constituents rather than vice versa.

The post-2000 redistricting has resulted in about a third of the state legislative elections being settled in July when nomination papers are filed and one out of three candidates drawing no opponent. Another third are settled in September primaries where the winning candidate for one party or the other will be virtually guaranteed a victory in a partisan-loaded area in November. That leaves about a third where both parties think they have a shot at a November victory while in reality only about a third of that third do.

My question is why aren’t all those tea party protesters who are painting signs, holding rallies, and marching in the streets to express their unhappiness with the people who represent them focusing on this? Screaming slogans and insults will do nothing to dismantle the districting system that denies them a chance to elect someone who might be more responsive to their grievances.

Until and unless there is a revolutionary change in how we carve up the legislative districts, the status quo is pretty much safe from any party, including any tea party.

Follow Bill Kraus on:
twitter / wmkraus

Monday, January 11, 2010

Keeping our appointments

isconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
January 11, 2010

By Bill Kraus

The road to appointing instead of electing judges and justices in Wisconsin is long, twisting, and full of potholes large enough to swallow a truck.

The constitutional barrier is high and prolonged. The cultural barrier dwarfs the constitutional barrier.

Wisconsin is election addicted.

We elect coroners, city clerks, registers of deeds.

We elect constitutional officers to jobs that no longer exist.

We thwart attempts to make education a cabinet office because we prefer to elect a superintendent of public instruction who mainly supervises a money-shuffling bureaucracy.

The chances of giving up the right to elect judges and justices are somewhere between zero and none.

The argument that well over half of the people on benches in Wisconsin got there by appointment not election is beyond unpersuasive. It’s unheard.

But it does suggest an opportunity to get much of what the advocates of an appointment process promise without banging their heads against a double brick wall.

Every appointment system starts with some sort of selection process which is designed to put the smartest, fairest, most qualified prospects into a pool from which the governor must pick an appointee.

The Legislature could enact such a process statutorily. No constitutional amendment required.

This kind of pre-selection gets the search off the governor’s desk, gives the Legislature and the people and the advocates of appointment over election assurance that the ultimate appointees will be qualified for these important jobs and will not be partisan cronies or worse. The majority of the first time occupants of judicial posts will come out of these pools instead of a ballot box.

Easy. Effortless. Uncontroversial.

Not quite. One pothole remains: Who will be on the panel that selects the pool of candidates for the governor to appoint from and the state Senate to confirm?

Follow Bill Kraus on:
twitter / wmkraus

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Wish list: 2010

isconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
January 7, 2010

By Bill Kraus

1. A reduction in the need for money in political campaigns specifically, politics generally.

2. A reinvention, resuscitation, or something, of journalism.

3. A return of citizen politicians to the business of campaign management.

4. A decline in the influence of talk radio and other manifestations of faux journalism.

5. A revival of political ambition and a concomitant decrease in careerism by office holders.

6. A redistricting of legislative districts which is designed to have more rather than fewer congressional and state legislative districts which are competitive.

7. A reduction in the number, influence, and virulence of groups with narrow interests in politics.

8. An invention of a general interest political device into which special interests could be incorporated and citizens could find a route into political activism other than through special interest groups or entrepreneurial candidate organizations.

9. A re-creation of politics as a participatory instead of a spectator sport.

10. An end to endless (or continuous) campaigns and campaigning (see wish number 1, above).

11. A return to discourse and adversity in political discourse; sometimes referred to as civility, mutual respect or listening.

We all know that our political institutions, like all institutions, are not much interested in self-correction. The only way, then, to even make progress in any of these 11 areas is for a lot of us to realize and react to our own culpability. Someone has said what we need is for more of us to recognize that the they we criticize is us. Or, to put it more directly, as the drunken driver who turned herself in to 9-1-1 did last year, “I am them.”

Follow Bill Kraus on:
twitter / wmkraus