Protesters gather outside the Wisconsin state Senate on Nov. 6 to oppose bills to hike campaign spending and dismantle the agency charged with overseeing political conduct. Photo by Bill Lueders
Here are three words that should probably never be applied to the Republicans who control the Wisconsin state legislature: They wouldn’t dare.
Take the recent passage of legislation to bar the future use of John Doe investigations to look into allegations of political misconduct. These investigations led to the criminal convictions of six former aides and associates of Republican Gov. Scott Walker. In addition to doing away with future probes, the legislature is now revamping the state’s campaign finance laws and dismantling the agency charged with overseeing the political arena.
The state Assembly is slated to vote next Monday, Nov. 16, on bills to create a new system of campaign finance laws that substantially reduce transparency and open the floodgates to electoral spending, as well as a bill that would break the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board into two commissions, both dominated by partisan political appointees.
These bills have already passed the Assembly but must be voted on again because the state Senate made minor changes when it placed the bills in a marathon session on Friday, Nov. 6, that did not end until 2:30 a.m. on Saturday. It was called an extraordinary session, which means that special rules are in place to limit discussion and expedite passage. But it was also extraordinary in the usual sense of that word.
Jay Heck of the nonpartisan reform group Common Cause in Wisconsin, in a press release, called the process regarding these bills “among the most abusive, disrespectful, secretive and despicable in the history of the Wisconsin Legislature.”
Most of the key decisions were made behind closed doors, in Republican caucus sessions. Details of Republican amendments were not unveiled until late Friday afternoon, shortly before the votes. Democratic amendments to address perceived problems with the bills were clubbed to death, one after another, like baby seals.
“I get it,” said Sen. Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee, told his Republican colleagues. “You have the votes. You can do whatever the heck you want. It doesn’t make it right.”
The opposition of media editorial boards and good government groups including the Wisconsin League of Women Voters made not a lick of difference. In all, more than a dozen groups registered in opposition to the two bills, compared to just three in favor: Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, a business lobby group that was the target of an aborted John Doe probe; Wisconsin Right to Life, which runs “issue ads” during elections; and Americans for Prosperity, a Koch Brothers creation.
It was an exercise of raw political power, one that Democrats and others predicted would have deep and lasting impacts. Predicted Sen. Tim Carpenter, D-Milwaukee:
“Someday somebody is going to sit in these seats and say, ‘What the hell were they thinking?’ ”
The new campaign finance bill will open the door to unlimited spending on state political campaigns. It will leave issue ad groups with no fundraising or spending disclosure requirements. It will allow candidate campaigns to coordinate with these groups. It will let wealthy donors give as much as they want to political parties and campaign committees controlled by legislative leaders, who can then dole out money to candidates. It will end the requirement that donors of significant sums disclose their place of employment.
The old law’s declaration of purpose held that “our democratic system of government can be maintained only if the electorate is informed.” It said “excessive spending on campaigns for public office jeopardizes the integrity of elections.” And it found a compelling state interest in “designing a system for fully disclosing contributions and disbursements made on behalf of every candidate for public office, and in placing reasonable limitations on such activities.”
All of this language is gone. The new bill opens with a directive to impose “the least possible restraint on persons whose activities do not directly affect the elective process”—i.e., issue ad groups, which stop just barely short of expressly telling people how to vote.
The bill’s greenlighting of coordination with outside groups follows a Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling this summer that this is not illegal. Heck calls this an “outlier decision that’s going to be appealed” and could be overturned; no federal court has reached this conclusion. The change effectively eliminates individual donor limits because candidates can simply direct donations above the legal limit to outside groups and then help plan how these are spent.
Senate Democrats tried to pass an amendment to require disclosure by third-party groups, as the U.S. Supreme Court, in its infamous Citizens United decision, expressly allowed and even encouraged. They quoted conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia: “Requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage, without which democracy is doomed.”
Sen. Chris Kapenga, R-Delafield, responded by twice citing what he claimed was another, unfairly overlooked quote by Scalia: “The more money in politics, the better.” This may be overlooked because it’s a fabrication. Scalia’s actual quote: “Thomas Jefferson would have said the more speech the better.”
The amendment was defeated on a party-line vote. The bill as a whole passed 17-15 at midnight, with one Republican, Sen. Rob Cowles of Green Bay, voting no. He said he objected to more money in politics—take that, Antonin!—and eliminating disclosure of donors’ employees.
The second bill splits the state’s Government Accountability Board, which has angered Republicans by looking into alleged transgressions by Republicans, into two commissions. One would oversee elections, the other state laws governing ethics, campaign spending and lobbying. Both would be overseen by partisan political appointees—half Democratic, half Republican—but the ethics commission would include two former judges. The current GAB is fully nonpartisan, governed entirely by former judges.
The new commissions would need legislative permission to spend more than $25,000 on any investigation, potentially giving veto power to the people being probed.
According to the Republicans, the GAB is a “failed experiment” in need of reform. The board was created in 2007 in response to a major state scandal that occurred right under the noses of the existing regulatory apparatus. That consisted of two boards with partisan political appointees, nearly identical to what Republicans seek to restore.
In fact, the current GAB has been hailed as a national model and its performance during elections ranked among the best in the country. Kevin Kennedy, the agency’s director and general counsel, on Oct. 27 provided a point-by-point rebuttal to criticisms that had been leveled against the board by Sen. Leah Vukmir, R-Wauwatosa.
“The reasons given for doing away with the GAB are based on inaccurate, incomplete and, in many cases, completely false assertions by the proponents of this legislation,” Kennedy asserted.
For instance, Vukmir alleged that the GAB “neglected to investigate” an allegation against a liberal group. But Kennedy said “a legislator’s lack of knowledge as to whether the Board has investigated a complaint does not mean the Board has not investigated it.” That’s because the Legislature has decreed that GAB staff who disclose information regarding agency investigations are subject to criminal penalties. The new bill preserves this gag rule.
During last week’s session, several Democrats argued that the GAB was being treated unfairly, especially compared to Walker’s scandal-plagued job-creation agency, the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., which they felt was more deserving of being labeled a “failed experiment.”
The bill dissolving the GAB passed on a party-line vote, with no Republican dissenters.