Monday, May 30, 2011

How power gets made

By Bill Kraus

Most of the coverage of the current Wisconsin legislative leaders has focused on the fact that the Speaker of the Assembly and the Majority Leader of the Senate are brothers, which is interesting. What is overlooked is the more obscure phenomenon that the jobs they hold have become more and more powerful over time.

Legislative leaders were always powerful, and usually attracted the best and the brightest from the elected members even though the main talent on view and needed was akin to herding cats in a venue where the cats had large egos and demanding constituencies.

The cats, for the most part, came to them courtesy of the recruiting, slating, funding and campaigning of the political parties.

All of that began to change when the Watergate reformers decided that the reason for the excesses that led to the Watergate scandal had mostly to do with the Republican Party fund raisers. The solution was to diminish the parties’ power to extort contributions from their well-to-do adherents. This freed the donors from sending their money to the party that longtime GOP chair Ody Fish described as a “kinder mistress.”

Once the money got loose, any savvy large donor was going to give it to candidates directly instead of through the party filter. The age of beholdenism began. The first undesirable side effect was that this development ushered in the age of dialing for dollars by candidates themselves. In no campaign where I was a participant from 1952 to 1978 did any candidate I worked for ask anyone for money. That is what the finance committee did.

The unintended consequence of this “reform” and the side effects was a shortlived era of entrepreneurial candidacies and independent incumbents. The money was loose. So were the cats.

Did I mention that the legislative leaders who were dealt this new hand were the smartest and hardest working people in the room?

They moved quickly to corral the cats.

They set up their own campaign committees and used their inside-the-Legislature powers, which were still intact, to set up their own toll booths that redirected the donors’ contributions to them. This move made some sense to the contributors, who could put their money into four kitties instead of 132 independent campaigns.

Dialing for dollars didn’t go away, but a new set of mistresses was in town and they assumed for the most part the recruiting, slating, funding and campaigning roles previously played by the parties whose power to do those things went south when their traditional money flow dried up.

Naturally the leaders whose power was so dramatically expanded forgot Lord Acton’s dictum about the corrosive effects of that kind of power and went too far. Several trials and pleas and jail sentences ensued.

But the power that had been abused didn’t go away. Nor did beholdenism

The members of the next sets of legislative leaders were a lot more careful and covert without being any less dominant in the power structure.

The brothers Fitzgerald are the beneficiaries of almost 40 years of forceful and subtle and unrelenting movements of the power to attract the money needed to function in this free speech electoral system. Other powers to move legislative merchandise attend that power and are subject to their use and abuse.

Maurice Stans, who was the perpetrator (or, more accurately perhaps, the real perpetrator’s instrument) of the sins of Watergate, had this kind of power. He abused it. His missteps brought down a president and the political party he led.

For better or worse. Mostly worse?

Follow Bill Kraus on:
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Bill Kraus is the Co-Chair of Common Cause in Wisconsin's State Governing Board

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