A dialogue used to be defined as a conversation between two or more people or an exchange of opinions or ideas on an issue with the purpose of reaching agreement.
But thanks to recent court rulings that have removed restrictions on political donations, dialogue apparently now means a one-sided carpet-bombing of campaign commercials funded by independent political-action groups.
It should surprise no one that a federal appeals court on Monday struck down a Wisconsin law limiting how much any one person can donate to independent political action groups.
The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Wisconsin Right to Life’s political action committee, saying the state’s $10,000 annual limit was an unconstitutional restriction on free speech.
The 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Citizens United — which overturned a ban on corporate spending in federal elections — provided the precedent for Monday’s ruling.
“Citizens United held that independent expenditures do not pose a threat of actual or apparent quid pro quo corruption, which is the only governmental interest strong enough to justify restrictions on political speech,” Judge Diane Sykes wrote in Monday’s decision.
Barbara Lyons, executive director of Wisconsin Right to Life, called it a “sweeping victory” that will allow the organization to “significantly contribute to the state and national dialogue on speech and elections.”
Let’s define the dialogue that Lyons is referring to — a heavy rotation of television and radio ads, phone calls and direct-mail pieces. While Wisconsin Right to Life has a pretty transparent purpose, many of the special interest groups do not.
Do we want our campaigns to be about what the candidates stand for — heard directly from them — or about issue ads where candidates are either supported or attacked through a thinly veiled message urging people to contact a particular candidate?
Issue ads are not dialogue. Mike McCabe, director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, says candidates are becoming increasingly irrelevant because special interest groups are raising more and more money and advertising.
“I’m not sure that very many people will notice a difference because money is flowing so freely in Wisconsin politics,” McCabe told The Associated Press. “There’s no shortage of channels through which special interest funds can flow.”
Flow the money does. Spending on the nine state Senate recalls last summer totaled an estimated $44 million, McCabe’s group reports. Much of that came from groups not subject to the state campaign contribution limit.
The courts have ruled that political contributions and campaign spending is a First Amendment right. But those contributions and spending should not be done in secret or through a maze of groups and organizations that operate like legal money launderers.
There is a simple solution that will allow the unlimited spending and help keep the candidates’ voices in elections.
Require complete disclosure on the state and federal level. Full sunshine on campaign spending is the disinfectant that will ensure openness and a clean and healthy democracy.