Citizens United and the Big Picture

Matt Rothschild of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign points to the growth in spending by outside groups in Wisconsin elections at a press conference in the Assembly parlor on the anniversary of Citizens United. (Photo by Ruth Conniff)
Matt Rothschild of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign points to the growth in spending by outside groups in Wisconsin elections at a press conference in the Assembly parlor on the anniversary of Citizens United. (Photo by Ruth Conniff)

As this week’s floor sessions began in both the Senate and the Assembly on Tuesday, a group of legislators and campaign finance reform advocates held a sparsely attended press conference in the Capitol to mark the 10th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, and to point out how money in politics has hijacked our democracy.

A resolution introduced by Assembly Democrats from Madison, Rep. Chris Taylor and Rep. Lisa Subeck, joined by Rep. Melissa Sargent, would amend the Wisconsin Constitution to make it clear that money is not speech, and corporations do not have a First Amendment right to unlimited political spending. 

The resolution’s authors don’t have any illusions that it will make it to the floor this session. But it is directly tied to pretty much every issue that comes up — and doesn’t — in our state Legislature. 

This is the backdrop to the frustrating politics here in Madison and across the nation.

Citizens United opened the floodgates to money in politics. In Wisconsin, Matt Rothschild of the campaign finance watchdog group Wisconsin Democracy Campaign pointed out, independent expenditure groups have increased their spending by 1700% in state governors’ races over the last 10 years. Meanwhile expenditures by outside groups has grown five-fold.

“That means that the voices of the citizens of Wisconsin are completely drowned out,” Rothschild said.

Sen. Dave Hansen (D-Green Bay) pointed out the link between Citizens United and Legislative inaction on a variety of issues that are important to the public.

If you want to know why common sense gun safety measures favored by a majority of Wisconsinites of every political stripe have not passed, it’s because the NRA has blocked the way, Hansen explained.

Wisconsinites also support universal, affordable health care. “That won’t happen as long as the insurance industry is opposed,” Hansen said. “People want clean drinking water, safe places for their kids to swim and fish. But before you get your hopes up that all that talk of clean water will amount to anything, you may want to talk to WMC [Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce] first, because they would be the one that would have to allow it and it’s highly unlikely that they’ll do that.”

Why are we siphoning money out of our cash-strapped public school system to cover tuition at private schools? Among other school-privatization lobbyists, “Betsy de Vos’ group American Federation for Children spent $7 million over the last 10 years to try to elect officials here who will do their bidding,” Rothschild explained. State legislators, he added, have become “water boys for the Koch brothers and Betsy De Vos.”

The Koch brothers, Charles and David, who died last year, were the billionaires who businesses helped them finance Americans for Prosperity, a political advocacy group, and the political aspirations of numerous Republicans

Taylor connected the flood of money into political campaigns to other efforts to hijack democracy, including Wisconsin’s partisan gerrymandering, the voter purge, voter ID, and other “obstruction laws that prevent people who should be able to vote from voting.”

Taylor asked people to imagine if the Founders had drafted language in the U.S. Constitution that said “your free speech rights are conditioned on how much money you have.” That, she said, is the effect of Citizens United.

Taylor and Subeck are circulating their resolution, seeking cosponsors. Hansen and Sen. Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) will sponsor a Senate version.

“It’s only in the halls of this building that this is a partisan issue,” said Subeck, acknowledging that the measure has precious little chance of moving forward under the current Republican leadership.

“It’s the ultimate Catch 22,” she said. “As long as you have big money in politics, it’s hard to make change. But it’s hard to get the money out of politics without changing the leadership.”

Still, she is optimistic about the long term.

She compared the state constitutional amendment effort to bills in other states that seek to make abortion illegal, in case Roe v. Wade is overturned. 

But in this case, “should Citizens United be overturned, we don’t want to be in the position to say, ‘Well, we’ll allow it in our state.’ This would protect us.”

“We’re passing something that’s looking at a what-if,” Subeck added. “But we also believe that Citizens United Will be overturned. People are getting more and more fed up about government being controlled by financial interests.”

Evidence of that discontent includes the 15 referenda across Wisconsin on the April 7 ballot supporting overturning Citizens United.

“One hundred years ago, Fighting Bob La Follette said the cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy,” Matt Rothschild concluded. “We need more democracy in this country. We need more democracy in Wisconsin. We need more democracy right now. Let’s take the cure.”

And with that, the reporters in attendance filed out to cover the low-key discussion of noncontroversial issues in the Assembly and Senate.

Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine, and opened the Progressive’s office in Washington, DC, during the Clinton Administration, where she made her debut as a political pundit on CNN’s Capital Gang Sunday and Fox News. She moved to Oaxaca, Mexico, for a year in 2017, where she covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Donald Trump. Conniff is a frequent guest on All in with Chris Hayes on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, and other radio and television programs. In 2011, she did award-winning coverage of the uprising against Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. Conniff graduated from Yale University in 1990, where she ran track and edited the campus magazine The New Journal.