Wisconsin Caught in the Crosswinds of Money and Politics
It is often said that campaign finance reform is the reform that makes all other reform possible. While some may dismiss the connection between political spending and policy outcomes as merely theoretical, sometimes, events conspire to throw the issue into sharp relief.
In one such instance, West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Brent Benjamin provided the gold standard for illustrating the effects of “pay-to-play” politics, when he cast the deciding vote in a case involving an individual who had contributed $3 million–more than the total amount spent by all other Benjamin supporters–to his 2004 campaign. The current drama surrounding anti-labor legislation in Wisconsin provides an only slightly more complex example.
During the 2010 election, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker received a contributionof $43,000 from the Koch brothers, who, according to the New York Times fund union-busting efforts across the nation and who have spent millions of dollars over the past year on candidates and independent ads in order to oppose a range of legislation including climate change legislation, health care reform, financial regulation, and the stimulus act. The Koch brothers’ gift constituted the second largest contribution received by the Walker campaign. The Koch brothers also donated $1 million to the Republican Governor’s Association, which spent heavily in Wisconsin, spending $65,000 on pro-Walker ads and $3.4 million on attack ads against his opponent. In reality, the Koch brothers probably spent much more money in Wisconsin during 2010, but we have no way of knowing. In the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the Supreme Court ruled that corporations such as Koch Industries can spend unlimited amounts of money on campaign advertisements, and weak disclosure laws ensure that the public has little means to determine the source of such spending.
Before bankrolling Governor Walker’s campaign, the Koch brothers admittedly worked behind the scenes through a group they founded–Americans for Prosperity–to instigate a fight against public sector unions. Now that their preferred candidate has assumed the governorship and introduced legislation that would eliminate collective bargaining for state employees, the group is kicking its advocacy into high gear, spending $340,000 on advertisements supporting the anti-labor legislation. In addition, while the brothers had a mild lobbying presence in Wisconsin prior to the 2010 election, with consulting fees in the state totaling $97,000 between 2009 and 2011, the tycoons expanded their presence in the state in the aftermath of the election, opening a consulting firm a block away from the Capitol in Madison and registering its lobbyists with the state two days after Walker’s inauguration. Providing tangible evidence of the sort of access that freewheeling political spending can buy, an activist posing as David Koch successfully engaged Governor Walker in a 20-minute, back-slapping conversation, in which the imposter strategizes with the Governor about how Koch Industries can help bring the anti-labor legislation across the finish line.
Episodes like this forcefully demonstrate the pressing need for robust campaign finance reform. Every American is endowed with a constitutional right to free speech, but money determines the volume of that speech. Just because the Koch brothers possess a net worth of $43 billion does not entitle them to more influence over Wisconsin politics than anyone else. Publicly financed campaigns and greater regulation of independent spending could level the playing field and ensure that all voters have the same degree of influence as David or Charles Koch. Unions are also absolutely critical in providing a voice for working class interests in politics. If individuals like the Koch brothers are able to spend at will in our political system to advance corporate interests, then unions are among the only entities with the power to provide a counterweight to their advocacy. Accordingly, it is all the more important that we stand up against Governor Walker’s attempt to dismantle public sector unions in Wisconsin.