Thursday, March 5, 2015

Unfinished Business 4: Money

By Bill Kraus

Here’s what we know about money.

1. You can’t run a campaign without it.

2. People say that too much money is spent on campaigns. The only route to putting spending limits on campaigns is to insert public money into the mix. The legislation to do this has to be enacted by the incumbents who attribute their incumbency to the money that got them where they are and who zealously protect their advantage in fund raising. Public money is anathema to them because it has to be available to their potential opponents. To be effective it also has to be appropriated in amounts large enough to offset expenditures by the third party organizations. So it’s expensive too.

3. Candidates hate dialing for dollars, but they hate not having the money it brings in more.

4. The organizations that raise the special interest money which is now the dominant source of campaign spending have made it clear to the candidate beneficiaries that their funds will dry up if they have to disclose their donors in the same way that the candidates have to disclose their donors. Even though the Supreme Court has urged legislatures to enact this kind of disclosure legislation, few do.

5. The Supreme Court is in the third century and second millennium of affirming and expanding their definition of what free speech is and who has it. They started in the 19th century by declaring that corporations, organizations of people, are as entitled to the free speech protections of the 1st Amendment as individual citizens are. Every chance the court had to limit that decision throughout the 20th century resulted in a decision that expanded it instead. In the current millennium the Citizens United decision doubled down on what their predecessors started in 1886. The court is not going to change. The constitutional amendment undoing the Citizens United decision is not going to pass.

6. A major political communication industry has grown with the growth of political money. The livelihood of the people in this industry is connected to candidates’ dependence and reliance on big money spent on proven formulas (spend everything you’ve got on TV, and if you’ve got anything left over, spend that on TV too).

7. The power of the super PACs whose contributors' names are not disclosed and whose organizational names are not revealing either (an organization called American Federation for Children puts money into the campaigns of candidates who favor privatizing public education via vouchers and pays for attack advertising against those who do not) has risen with the size of their contributions to the point that super PACs are now the most important factor in campaigns. The beleaguered candidates themselves must gear their fund raising to match what the super PACs might bring to the campaign and must also save enough money and energy to counter a Sunday/Monday before a Tuesday election day blitz of personal attack ads from unfriendly super PACs.

What we also know is that the way to curb the distorting affects of big money and to mount counterattacks against the now dominant super PACs is by disclosing their donors and their agendas.

The legislation to do this has to be enacted by incumbents, incumbents who have to report the source of every dime they put into their own campaigns and are subject to severe limits on the contributions they can receive.

But the incumbents do nothing. This confirms what a wonderful book by a Nobel prize winner concluded when it says “We are not rational animals. Emotions play a central role in our decisions. A lot of thought is unconscious. Our minds are riddled with biases.”

What else can explain the almost universal legislative inertia that perpetuates an unfair and oppressive status quo where money is more important than people, and candidates who seem to think they are its beneficiaries are really its victims?

Bill Kraus lives in Madison, is the former press secretary for Governor Lee Dreyfus, and is the Chair of the State Governing Board of Common Cause of Wisconsin.

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