Political bribery is legal again
A commentary by Robert Kraig, Mike McCabe, and Andrea Kaminski.
Our election system is literally awash in money, and the 2012 election will again shatter all spending records.
The amount of money from wealthy special interests, millionaires and billionaires coursing through the Wisconsin recall election and the presidential election corrodes public faith in our democracy.
The U.S. Supreme Court made the situation much worse with a series of rulings that equated money with speech and opened the door to unlimited special interest spending.
Contrary to common sense, a narrow majority in the Citizens United case asserted that allowing unlimited election spending by corporations will not give "rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption" and that the "appearance of influence or access, furthermore, will not cause the electorate to lose faith in our democracy."
The public knows better.
Buying elected officials is nothing new.
In the 19th Century politicians were notoriously paid off with bundles of cash.
Reformers over time eradicated the crassest forms of bribery, creating the democratic conditions necessary to advance economic opportunity and security throughout the 20th Century.
As election spending has escalated to unprecedented heights, public confidence in our governmental institutions has plummeted to the lowest levels recorded.
The public understands at a fundamental level, no matter how much tortured legal logic is offered, that large contributions and multi-million dollar "independent expenditures" on behalf of candidates are meant to buy public policy, pure and simple.
The corruption may be less brazen than receiving a stack of money in a back alley, but that actually makes it even more insidious because it can be more easily rationalized.
Why do we allow bribery to be legal? Why is it a bribe to hand a politician $100 concealed in a paper bag, but perfectly legal to spend millions of dollars on behalf of a candidate with the object of influencing his or her conduct in office?
Bribery is not speech, it is a crime. Our state and federal laws need to reflect this by adapting to the modern method of political bribery.
It is profoundly threatening to our democracy that it is now perfectly legal for a handful of millionaires and billionaires to buy our elected leaders.
For example, the five major presidential Super PACs raised nearly $80 million through the end of February, with half of that coming from just 20 donors who gave $1 million or more each.
If and when these mega supporters receive government favors at the expense of average citizens, it ought to be a crime just as surely as it is to slip money under the table to an elected official.
We should reform the entire campaign finance system, and we can start by criminalizing the modern form of political bribery.
Leaders of both parties will attempt to evade this issue.
But a ban on modern bribery could certainly pass, if there is the public will to force it onto the agenda.
After all, what politician would want to be on the record voting for bribery?
The public needs to call the question.
Robert Kraig is executive director of Citizen Action of Wisconsin; Mike McCabe is executive director of Wisconsin Democracy Campaign; Andrea Kaminski is executive director of League of Women Voters of Wisconsin.