The Larson Report

Progressive Perspectives from State Senator Chris Larson


Dear neighbor,

It’s been far too long since our last Larson Report. With vaccinations for COVID-19 ramping up to the point where Wisconsin has become a national leader, we are inching ever-closer to a time when we can safely enjoy the simple pleasures of socializing with friends, attending concerts and sporting events, or simply visiting our favorite neighborhood tavern. This is tremendous news.

Unfortunately, as was the case last year and through the January insurrection, our democracy remains on worryingly shaky ground. Wisconsin, once a leader in clean, open government, has in recent years seen its reputation tarnished as changes to state law have reduced transparency in remarkable ways. 

This week is known nationally as “Sunshine Week,” where advocates seek to highlight policies that embody the ethos that sunlight is the best disinfectant. In other words, the more information people have about the actions of their government, the less potential for corruption and the greater the trust in our institutions. To that end, this morning I introduced a bill which would require the legislature to retain public records. Amazingly, my colleagues in the Assembly and Senate are exempt from doing this under current law.

"The more information people have about the actions of their government, the less potential for corruption and the greater the trust in our institutions."

Late last year, I released parts I and II of my series Democracy in Distress. Today, we move to “Part III: $peech is not Free.” As you can probably guess from the title, the topic of this newsletter is money in politics.

I’m not talking about the $50 you give to a candidate for school board, or even a $1,000 contribution you may make to a candidate for Governor. Campaigns cost money, and the bigger the campaign, the more money is required. What this newsletter is about is the outsized influence of big money, which has in modern history come to dominate the political landscape in ways we are only beginning to understand.

Freedom of $peech

“in a time of historic wealth inequality, the decision has helped reinforce the growing sense that our democracy primarily serves the interests of the wealthy few, and that democratic participation for the vast majority of citizens is of relatively little value.” - Daniel Weiner, Brennan Center for Justice

In 2010, the same year I was elected to the State Senate, one of the most famous Supreme Court cases in recent memory, Citizens United v. FEC was decided, sending shockwaves through our political system. The decision had the effect of allowing unlimited political spending by corporations and other outside groups, under the justification that money is speech, and therefore could not be curtailed. A direct result from Citizens United was the creation of shadowy nonprofits, PACs, that do not even have to disclose their donors.

All of this would be bad enough, and we’ll get into some of the reasons why later on, but in 2015, the Legislature under Governor Walker made things even worse in Wisconsin with a slew of election law changes. These changes included doubling all individual contribution limits, allowing direct coordination between candidates and issue advocacy groups, and raising the standard of what constitutes coordination so high for other groups as to essentially make coordination legal in our state. Wisconsin continues to be the only state in the country that allows for this open coordination, opening the door for blatant corruption.

Spending Explosion

Allowing corporations to spend unlimited sums on elections sounds bad enough on its face, but what was the practical effect of this change? In other words, how much did political spending really go up since Citizens United? In short, an awful lot.

In 2008, the last presidential election before Citizens United, a total of $5.2 billion was spent on federal elections for President and members of Congress. The 2020 election is set to blow that out of the water with a projected $13.8 billion in total spending. Even more alarming is that out of the $6.6 billion spent in the race for President, less than one-third of that money ($1.9 billion) will have been by the candidates themselves, with the rest coming from outside groups.



The same trends hold true for Wisconsin. The 2018 race for Governor was the most expensive in our state’s history at over $93 million. State legislative campaign spending set records in 2016 and 2018, and early indications are that 2020 will have set yet another record. Outside “express advocacy” groups (the ones that say to vote for or against particular candidates) spent $8.3 million on legislative races in 2020.

Why it Matters

So far we’ve seen that spending has increased dramatically in the last decade, but does it really matter? If both sides have equal access to these funds, isn’t the system still fair? Not exactly.

First of all, while it’s true that some elections have favored Democrats and others have favored Republicans when it comes to outside spending, there isn’t a whole lot of evidence to indicate that the playing field is level.  For now, I’d like to put aside the partisan piece of this and look at why this explosion in spending is bad for our democracy in general, no matter which party you support.

In a system where limits on donations are non-existent, and money is tantamount to speech, those with the most money will effectively have the most speech. If we truly believe in the ideal of “one person, one vote,” this should be alarming to everyone.

Reverse Bribery

When most people think of bribery in politics, they probably imagine a lobbyist with a bundle of cash approaching a lawmaker with a demand to vote a particular way on a bill favorable to their client. Of course, this type of bribery is the hardest to prove. 

In reality, those following the issue most closely would say that you’re far more likely to have a lawmaker approach a donor saying “how can I help you” than the scenario mentioned above. Lawmakers, particularly members of congress, are under so much pressure to fundraise, or to get in the good graces of cash-flush Super PACs, that they are forced to proactively approach special interests, rather than wait for the indecent proposal to arrive at their doorstep.

Incumbency Effect

Public opinion polls of Congress in recent years represent one of the more glaring paradoxes of our time. While approval of Congress has hovered in the teens most of the past decade, the reelection rate for incumbents has never been lower than 85% since the 1960s, and is usually north of 90%.

What does this have to do with campaign finance? Well, PACs, Super-PACs, and even single-issue interest groups overwhelmingly spend their money on incumbents. Besides the obvious implication that challenging incumbents has become even harder post-Citizens United, it demonstrates that even if the intentions of lawmakers were 100% pure, those who run PACs believe their money is well-spent in influencing politicians who are in office, and thus able to directly impact the policies they care about. If incumbents weren’t serving their interests, challengers would most certainly earn more than a few percent of the kitty.

Campaign Finance and Rising Inequality

There is a fascinating book by constitutional scholar John Attanasio which makes the startling and well-researched claim that campaign finance decisions in the U.S. Supreme Court, including Citizens United and 1976’s Buckley v. Valeo, its direct precursor, have not just been associated with rising income inequality, but may have played a strong role in creating it.

Let that sink in. 

Considered by many, including new Senate Budget Committee Chair Bernie Sanders, to be the greatest threat to our democracy in the 21st century, economic inequality can be directly tied to uncontrolled campaign spending. As Attanasio writes, “Predictably, a few short years after Buckley was decided, legislative policy began to turn sharply toward property interests as evidenced by the astonishing and temporally correlated rise in income share of the top 0.1% to levels not seen since the Great Depression.”

"Economic inequality can be directly tied to uncontrolled campaign spending."

If rampant campaign spending is the cause of even a small proportion of the wealth disparity in this country, which as we know continues to disproportionately impact women and people of color, it is well worth our time to explore ways to put this genie back in the bottle, if it isn’t already too late.

Potential Solutions

To review, we know that campaign spending has increased dramatically in recent years, and that much of this spending has come from shadowy interest groups. We know that most of this spending has been focused on incumbents, who continue to win reelection over 90% of the time despite abysmal approval for the institution of Congress. Finally, there is strong evidence that this type of campaign spending and the resulting policies favoring the wealthy may actually be driving our income and wealth gaps. What, if anything, can be done to fix this broken system?

Supreme Court

If the Supreme Court helped create this problem, could it also be the place to start to solve it? Perhaps, but it won’t be easy. One of the most potentially long-lasting implications of Donald Trump’s presidency is the 6-3 conservative majority that now exists on America’s highest court. Combined with the youth of several of these members, and the fact that Justices currently serve lifetime terms, this ideological bloc seems unlikely to flip any time soon.

President Biden and the current Congress could alter the playing field a bit by increasing the size of the Court or ending lifetime appointments, but as of now it is impossible to predict whether this is a step they’d be willing to take or what the long-term implications would be for campaign finance reform. As I mentioned before, campaign spending is not something that benefits just one political party, so even if reforms were made we don’t know for sure what the results would be. Absent drastic changes to the structure or makeup of the High Court, there are limits to what laws Congress can pass to reign in political spending that can actually be enforced.

Legislative Reforms

At the state level, there are many things we could do to improve campaign finance and transparency laws, many of which I have sponsored in past legislative sessions. The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a watchdog group that tracks campaign spending in our state, has a helpful explainer on some of these reforms on their website. Many of these changes are simply undoing some of the harmful provisions passed under former Governor Walker, while others go further to level the playing field.

Some examples of policies other states and cities have tried involve various forms of public financing. These include matching individual donations, like in New York City municipal elections, or offering democracy vouchers to residents to spend on the candidates of their choice, like in Seattle. 

There are too many possible policies out there to discuss all of them here, but the 800 pound gorilla in the room is overturning regressive decisions like Citizens United. One way to do that without the need for changes to the Supreme Court would be a constitutional amendment. Twenty states have expressed support for such a move, but there is still a long way to go before the requisite two-thirds majority could be reached. In fact, none of the 27 Amendments to the Constitution have been passed in this manner. A two-thirds vote of Congress could achieve the same goal, but with a 50-50 tie in the Senate, this appears unlikely at this time.

"In the absence of the ability to meaningfully limit spending, our best hope lies with transparency."

In the absence of the ability to meaningfully limit spending, our best hope lies with transparency. We must pass laws at every level of government which require complete disclosure of all political spending, as well as free and easy access to these disclosures for the general public. It is our right as Americans to know who is trying to influence our politicians, whose decisions have far-reaching impacts on our lives, whether we voted for them or not. While this isn’t the overarching solution we need, the power of public scrutiny combined with the technology to share information quickly and easily has shown that many large spenders and companies have been guilted into making better decisions for fear that they will otherwise feel the wrath of consumers. This can only happen if the public can see the full picture. We witnessed some of this immediately after the January 6th domestic terror incident. 

Conclusion

The task ahead is daunting. If we are to restore faith in our political system, all people must be able to play a meaningful role in it. From voting to financing campaigns to running for and attaining elected office, if large swaths of the population are left out, we are not doing enough to ensure we live in a nation with true liberty and justice for all.

For my part, I will continue to fight for campaign reform as long as I am in office, and my utmost priority will always be the best interests of the constituents I serve, whether they support me, oppose me, or have no idea who I am.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this newsletter, or any other matter that’s important to you. I hope you’ve enjoyed this series of newsletters, Democracy in Distress. If you’ve missed one, you can read them at the links below. Stay tuned in the coming weeks for the final installment, focused on the critical issue of gerrymandering.

In service,

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The Larson Report - Democracy in Distress


 MADISON OFFICE: 20 South, State Capitol
PHONE: (608) 266-7505
FAX: (608) 282-3547
EMAIL: Sen.Larson@legis.wisconsin.gov
U.S. MAIL: P.O. Box 7882, Madison, WI 53707-7882
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