One of the unseemly scenes that lingers from the 2016 presidential campaign is that of candidates, including then-candidate Gov. Scott Walker, coming to casino owner and billionaire Sheldon Adelson hoping he would shower millions of dollars on their political aspirations.
Adelson is said to judge candidates by whether they are sufficiently pro-Israel. Adelson and his wife Miriam, donated $20.4 million to super PACs that supported Donald Trump.
Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders famously fumed in a stump speech in Las Vegas referring to Adelson’s power over candidates seeking his support, “My friends, this is not democracy. This is oligarchy,”
Such are the concerns that big money is corrupting our politics.
Voters in the City of La Crosse on April 3 will have an opportunity to weigh in on this topic through a referendum question on whether the city should adopt a resolution to “reclaim democracy from the expansion of corporate person rights and the corrupting influence of unregulated political contributions and spending.” The resolution would call for a Constitutional amendment that would overturn the 2010 Supreme Court decision “Citizens United,” which is seen as the cause of the flood of money into politics.
In 2012, Lawrence Lessig, Harvard University professor and presidential candidate, estimated that only .000063 percent of Americans — 196 individuals — had, at the time he made the estimate, given more than 80 percent of the individual super-PAC money spent in the presidential election. He wanted to demonstrate his contention that rich individuals and powerful interest groups have the power to block policies favored by the majority of Americans.
The recent issue of gun control following the Parkland, Florida, high school shooting may offer an example.
President Trump, who received some $30 million in campaign finance support from the National Rifle Association in the 2016 election, said in a meeting with lawmakers at the White House after the shooting that he supported a comprehensive gun control law and chided one of the senators who opposed one such idea that he was afraid of the NRA.
The NRA “has power over you people,” Trump said, adding that NRA had less power over him, perhaps because he spent way more on his own election campaign, some $66.1 million of his own money, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
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Still, a day later, after Trump met with the NRA, the White House backed away from the idea of a comprehensive bill and pledged to continue to support the Second Amendment. Yet polls show that gun control has widespread support in America.
In spite of the energy and power of the students marching for action on gun control, it remains to be seen whether the movement will gain enough strength to overcome the campaign spending leverage of the NRA. A PolitiFact study last fall said that the NRA has spent more than $200 million on political activities since 1998.
The City of La Crosse referendum was promoted by La Crosse United to Amend, a part of the national effort to overturn Citizens United. The Wisconsin United to Amend (WIUTA.org) says that “the Supreme Court has given constitutional rights meant only for individuals to artificial entities such as corporations, unions, nonprofits and super PACs, and has ruled that money spent to influence the political process cannot be limited. As a result, our government today serves powerful special interests, foreign and domestic, instead of the American people.” This allowed a flood of money into elections as “free speech.”
The La Crosse resolution, if approved, would say that the community supports passage of an amendment stating:
- Only human beings are endowed with constitutional rights — not corporations, unions, non-profits or other artificial entities, and
- Money is not speech, and therefore regulating political contributions and spending is not equivalent to limiting speech.
Voters will cast ballots on similar resolutions in Green and St. Croix counties, the cities of Marshfield, Sun Prairie, Rice Lake, the villages of McFarland and Wittenberg, and the town of Sand Creek in Dunn County.
If all vote in favor, 129 Wisconsin communities will have called for the “We The People” amendment. Nationwide, 19 state legislatures have done likewise, as have more than 760 towns, villages, cities, and counties, according to WisPolitics.com.
The referendum question is not on the ballot in other local municipalities although individual citizens may sign the petition at WIUTA.org.
WisPolitics noted that more than a century ago Robert M. La Follette spoke out against corruption wrought by the “concessions and privileges” given to corporations by legislators. He wondered why, “in a government where the people are sovereign, why are these things tolerated?”
Dave Skoloda is a former part-owner and editor of the Onalaska Community Life and Holmen Courier.