Democrats Flip-Flop on Campaign Reform

by Mike McCabe, Executive Director

June 9, 2004

The votes were there.

At its last meeting, the state Elections Board was poised to adopt a truth-in-campaigning rule requiring full disclosure of special interest campaign ads and the unlimited and anonymous “soft money” donations that pay for them.

This is the most basic of campaign finance reforms. It is based on the bedrock principle of democracy that citizens have a fundamental right to know who is trying to influence elections, how much money is spent to bankroll the effort, and where that money comes from.

The Elections Board has it in its power to adopt what would be the biggest accomplishment in the area of campaign finance reform at the state level in over 25 years. On three procedural motions, the board voted 5-4 to move toward adoption of the rule.

But when the time came to vote on final approval of the rule, two Democratic appointees to the board switched sides and refused to vote for implementation. Instead, they put off a decision on the reform plan until the board’s September 1 meeting.

In defending the flip flop, state Democratic Party chair Linda Honold and party executive director Kim Warkentin sent around a letter claiming the party is “100 percent committed to campaign finance reform” but the timing is bad because campaigns already are up and running, so adopting a rule a few months before the 2004 election would change the rules in the middle of the game.

This is a red herring. The rule’s chief backers offered to explicitly spell out that the effective date would be after the 2004 elections. But the two Democratic appointees with cold feet – Carl Holborn and Martha Love, both of whom had previously voted no fewer than three times to move forward with the rulemaking – showed no interest in taking them up on their offer.

Party leaders Honold and Warkentin also argue that there are serious constitutional concerns about the proposed rule. This is another smokescreen. The U.S. Supreme Court gave its blessing last December to the approach embodied in the proposed state rule. The Wisconsin Supreme Court invited the Elections Board to adopt such a rule in a 1999 ruling. The Brennan Center for Justice, a recognized national authority on campaign finance law that helped write the national McCain-Feingold campaign reform law and defended it all the way to the Supreme Court, says the proposed rule clearly is constitutional.

The Legislature’s own attorneys have on more than one occasion said the Elections Board has the authority to regulate special interest campaign ads and that such regulation is certainly constitutional in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision upholding the McCain-Feingold law.

The only thing preventing this reform is a lack of political will. Anyone who is “100 percent committed to campaign finance reform” – as state Democratic Party leaders claim to be – should be outraged by the Elections Board’s inaction.

Which leads to an obvious question: Where in Wisconsin is Jim Doyle on this issue?

Doyle is the leader of his party and his party is backing away from campaign finance reform at a critical moment of truth. Upon taking office, Doyle said in his inaugural address that when it comes to ethics in government “no state has fallen farther, fallen faster than Wisconsin.” It didn’t become clear until later that he is OK with that.

So far in his term as governor, Doyle has sparingly offered vague generalities about what he would be willing to support in the way of campaign finance reform but has yet to put forward a specific legislative proposal. If he were to offer a specific plan, he also has the power to call the Legislature into special session to vote on the proposal. He is yet to exercise that power.

Governor Doyle and the party he leads have a simple question to answer: If Democrats are “100 percent committed to campaign finance reform,” why are they working to keep five- and six-figure special interest donations out of public view and keep voters in the dark about who is really paying for election campaigns? This rule would have stopped at least $4 million from being passed under the table if it had been in effect for the last election.

The honest answer has nothing to do with timing or constitutionality, but everything to do with the size of the ethics problem we have on our hands in the state formerly known as squeaky clean Wisconsin.

WDC Executive Director Mike McCabe
Mike McCabe
WDC Executive Director

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