MIKE MCCABE: Public and pols far apart on money in politics

August 10, 2013
Mike McCabe

There is a conspicuous and growing disconnect between the public and the elected officials who are supposed to be representing the citizenry. Nowhere are the representatives and the represented more disconnected than on the subject of money in politics.

Poll after poll shows a tripartisan consensus among members of the general public — Democrats, Republicans and independents alike — that money is playing far too great a role in our elections, is having a poisonous effect on governing, and needs to be reined in.

According to the latest Gallup Poll half of Americans now have reached the point of favoring banning campaign contributions altogether. Voters of every political stripe oppose the U.S. Supreme Court's ludicrous Citizens United decision allowing unlimited election spending by special interest groups and want the ruling overturned.

Even those who are best positioned to buy elections — namely America's top business leaders — are evidently getting tired of the political money game and have grown uncomfortable with elected officials being bought. Three-quarters of them regard political giving as "pay to play" and close to 90 percent believe the campaign finance system needs to be overhauled.

The political establishment, on the other hand, has a radically different view. The problem is not that there is too much money in politics, but rather not enough. Witness the bipartisan voice vote in Wisconsin's state Assembly in June to pass an amended elections bill doubling the limits on campaign contributions.

Not only do political insiders believe campaign donations should be even bigger, they also believe the money should be hard to see. Witness the lack of action — no votes, no committee consideration, not even a public hearing — in either house of Wisconsin's Legislature on bipartisan legislation like Senate Bill 166 that improves disclosure by closing the notorious "magic words" loophole and thereby shining light on the dark money in elections.

Instead we have the assistant Senate majority leader, Glenn Grothman, introducing legislation that would gut Wisconsin’s campaign finance disclosure laws. Currently, the occupation and employer of any donor who gives more than $100 must be reported. Under this new legislation, disclosure of only the occupation of any donor giving more than $500 would be required.

There are 862,064 contributions from individuals in the Democracy Campaign’s searchable online database. Of those donations, 825,827, or 96 percent, are $500 or less. Contributions of more than $500 total 36,237. If Grothman’s new proposal had been state law all along, our database would be 96 percent smaller and would show the occupation but not the employer of each of the donors who made those 36,237 contributions.

Put another way, if this bill had been law when we built our database, citizens would not have been able to see what that database enables them to see today, namely the economic interests of donors who gave more than $122.5 million to Wisconsin politicians since the mid-1990s.

It is neither healthy nor sustainable for voters to be thinking one way and their "representatives" thinking and acting another way. Some course corrections are sorely needed.

Mike McCabe is the executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.


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