John Calabrese of Menomonie, an advocate for reforming our nation’s campaign financing, spoke recently at University of Wisconsin-Stout regarding his concerns about representative government.

He believes that government is broken because of money in politics, what he describes as legalized bribery resulting in legislation that benefits wealthy donors.

According to Calabrese, concern about the undue influence of business interests and the ultra-wealthy on a representative democracy dates back to formation of the U.S. government in the late 1700s when the corporate excesses of British East India Company helped lead to the Boston Tea Party and the Revolutionary War.

The country’s first federal finance campaign law was passed in 1867. In 1907, the Tilman Act forbade corporations from donating directly to candidates. The 1949 Taft-Hartley Act forbade unions from donating.

Neither law was well enforced. The 1971 Federal Election Campaign Act, amended in 1974, restructured campaign financing and established the Federal Election Commission.

FECA limited the contributions to candidates for federal office, required the disclosure of political contributions, limited expenditures by candidates and associated committees, and limited candidate expenditures from personal funds.l

Calabrese noted that in the Lewis Powell Memorandum of 1976, written to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce about the “Attack of American Free Enterprise System,” Powell encouraged businessman to get involved in politics and in molding the public’s perception of business as well as advocating capitalism through education and encouraging the influence on legislation and judicial decisions to favor business interests.

Powell identified two key adversaries of capitalism as consumer protection advocate Ralph Nader and Herbert Marcuse, a university professor. Two months after the memorandum was written, President Richard Nixon appointed Powell as a U.S. Supreme Court Justice and, Calabrese believes, setting off changes in campaign financing that continue to be felt today.

In 1976, in Buckley v. Valeo, a majority of judges held that limits on election spending in the 1971 Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 are unconstitutional and that expenditure limits violate First Amendment protection of freedom of speech.

In 1978, Justice Powell delivered the opinion of the 5-4 majority in which the Court held that the right to attempt to influence the outcomes of elections is one of the primary rights the First Amendment was meant to protect, establishing that corporate rights fall under the same free speech rights accorded to people.

Calabrese noted a Princeton University demonstrating that public opinion has little effect on the passage of law. In contrast, however, if the wealthy support a law, it is very likely to pass. Follows the money donated to politicians in the State of Wisconsin, Calabrese sees what he calls the purchasing of political representation and laws. He believes that lobbyists are a big part of the corruption of our representatives — and that individuals of both parties are also involved.

In 2015, campaign laws were changed in Wisconsin to increase the amount of contributions allowed for candidates from individuals and also increased the limits of contributions for campaign committees.

Calabrese pointed to special interest groups that seek to influence Wisconsin’s elected representatives as they seek tax breaks, credits and deregulation. The largest among them is Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce which has donated $33 million since 2006.

Added to that are reports of voter suppression, gerrymandering, and lack of full disclosure laws. Calabrese reports that people who don’t want taxes also seem to be against public financing.

The amount the state will be giving to Foxcom has grown from $3 billion to $4 billion. Nationally, Calabrese notes, corporate taxes were 30 percent in the mid-1950s — now they are 11 percent. With wealthy individuals paying less in taxes, the burden for running the government falls on the rest of the population.

Is public campaign financing the answer? In the U.S., Calabrese reports that a number of states have public campaign financing. However, when Gov. Scott Walker signed the biennial budget in 2011, he effectively ended the state’s 33-year-old system of providing public funding to candidates who agreed to abide by overall spending limits, considered “one of the first and best public campaign financing laws in the nation,” according to the nonpartisan Center for Governmental Studies.

In 2015, campaign laws were changed in Wisconsin to increase the amount of contributions allowed for candidates from individuals and also increased the limits of contributions for campaign committees.

To control campaigns spending, other countries limit advertising on TV and the internet. In the U.S., the media goes after the campaign dollars to keep themselves in business.

Some countries put a limit on the time of campaigning. Unfortunately there are no time limits to campaigning in our country. Once a campaign has concluded, the next election cycle starts.

Two models of public campaign financing in the U.S. offer possibilities, Calabrese explained. First is a clean election program under which small amounts from small contributors result in funding from the government corresponding to the position. In Maine’s Congressional elections, small funders with $5 donations from 500 people will enable a candidate to receive $500,000 for the campaign. Under a matching funds program in New York City, for every $1 raised from small individual contributors, the candidate receives $6 in public funding, up to $150.

Thanks to corruption in politics and a lack of representation, people are fed up with politics and government, and Calabrese maintains that they haven’t trusted our politicians since 1976. He hopes that young people have the skills to detect to what is real and what is propaganda.

He recommends the daily Wheeler Report, a legislative news service covering the Wisconsin legislature that tracks all legislation introduced, including bill referrals, hearing notices, executive session action, floor action, and action by the governor along with summaries of appeals court and Supreme Court decisions and tracking of the Wisconsin biennial budget, including all action by the Wisconsin Joint Finance Committee.

Politics is significant and has a powerful effect on our lives. It is important that citizens fight the money in politics with their votes. Calabrese states that democracies are fragile institutions — and that the American experiment will come to an end unless the greed that is destroying it can be stopped.

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Dunn County News editor

Barbara Lyon is the editor of The Dunn County News in Menomonie, WI.

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