Sunday, my state representative spoke at my church. The topic? This week’s legislative proposals to dramatically remake the way in which politicians are held accountable for political activities in Wisconsin. Last night I had the chance to read through these bills and I am genuinely confused. Not so much by the content (though bills are never easy reads), but the purpose. Simply, why do Wisconsin legislative leaders feel the need to do this?
I am not a person who reflexively decries money in politics, or views interest groups as inherently evil. I’ve run and worked on campaigns. It takes money. That is reality. Yard signs, literature, commercials…they are important tools for informing the electorate and generating support, and they are not free. And as a professor of mine once said, never forget that interest groups represent the interests of real people. That fact has always stuck with me.
So what exactly is being proposed? The first bill, AB68, changes the John Doe law. Among other things, it appears to exclude targets of the investigation from the secrecy order of John Doe proceedings, and imposes heavy fines and even jail time for reporters that violate the order. It also limits investigations to six months, unless extended by a panel of judges whose votes become public record. Finally it limits the crimes that can be investigated under these proceedings. There is more in there, but these seem the most important parts to me. This bill is obviously 100% a reaction to the John Doe investigation targeting the Governor and various conservative groups in Wisconsin. Was this investigation problematic? The Wisconsin Supreme Court thought so, so they put an end to it. Fine. That is how checks and balances work. But is the John Doe process fatally flawed to the point of needing to make structural changes such as these? I’ve heard the anecdotes relating to one investigation, but have not seen a comprehensive argument.
The second bill, AB 388, replaced the Government Accountability Board (GAB) with a new partisan-appointed Election Commission. I am not sure what to make of this one. I agree that it is impossible to insulate an organization from politics…people have political opinions that influence their day-to-day work. However, I am unconvinced that dumping the GAB and replacing it with political appointees is the answer. Again, what problem is being solved? This is more John Doe fallout, but the presence of a misguided partisan or two within the GAB does not make the agency itself a partisan actor. This is a major change in how we handle transparency and accountability in our elections…why rush it based on anecdotes?
The third bill, AB 387, confuses me the most. My read is that it will allow coordination between 3rd party groups and campaigns as long as contributors stay within certain limits. Coordination, even with rules, is problematic. It takes us closer to a system where the major interests represented by interest groups are not citizens, but the candidates themselves. That makes no sense to me.
Chances are, all three of these bills will soon be law. These are major structural changes to the way in which the sovereign expresses its will. I hope we are not moving to fast. If we are, legitimacy is at risk.