For Jay Heck, the disease needs a cure. For Rick Esenberg, it’s doubtful there is a disease and, even if there is, the cure is worse.
If Tuesday’s “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” program at Eckstein Hall had been a meeting of foreign diplomats, the statement afterward would have described the session as “cordial but frank.” Two of the most prominent Wisconsin voices in the debate about whether to and how to regulate money spent on political campaigning presented their views with wit and warmth, but with no masking their widely different positions.
Heck, executive director of Common Cause Wisconsin, said elections in Wisconsin and nationally had devolved over the last several decades and regulation of election spending was a matter of restoring confidence in the political system.
Esenberg, a professor at Marquette University Law School and an attorney involved in a case currently challenging regulatory plans in Wisconsin, did not accept that the damage being done by current levels of spending was so serious. Limiting free speech related to elections presents, among many things, a constitutional problem and is a bad idea that often has unintended negative consequences.
The two appeared to be close to agreement on one thing: Disclosure of who funds political advocacy is a good idea, provided it is focused on those engaged in large scale efforts such as television ad campaigns.
Esenberg said Wisconsin law as it stands requires anyone spending more than $25 to register as being involved in political activity, which he said covered people who paint a political sign on the side of a barn or engage in other small-scale activities.
Heck said no one wants to enforce or is enforcing the law against those spending small amounts, although Esenberg said he knew of a case in which people who had spent $100 on food for an event ended up nearly being prosecuted. Heck said the focus of attention is on those spending large amounts.
Esenberg said some disclose laws were actually aimed at stopping advocacy. “I think disclosure is fine as long as the purpose is disclosure,” he said.
Heck said the public has lost confidence in government as campaign spending has soared, and many people believe the legislative process can be bought by those spending the most money. In Wisconsin, he said, $2.8 million was spent on campaigning for governor in 1986, including the costs for both major candidates. About $50 million will be spent this year, with about 60% of it coming from groups not directly connected to either major candidate.
“I am very concerned about the effects, the corrupting influence of the money,” Heck said. He also said the negativity of campaigns has increased in recent election cycles.
Esenberg said “Negative campaigning has been with us always and will be with us always.” He said it is just part of the process and that, overall, allowing speech to be as free and unfettered as possible was the best course. The amount spent on political campaigns, including advertising, is a small fraction of what is spent on consumer advertising, he said.
Heck said, “It’s human nature to be beholden and to feel good toward those who have helped you,” and politicians inevitably favor those who make large donations to their campaigns. That creates the need to regulate spending and especially to disclose who is behind spending. Many of the independent advertising campaigns under way currently are run in ways that allow for funders’ identities to be kept secret.
Esenberg said he agreed with Heck that it is human nature to favor those who give you something, “but that’s part of the process” of politics, he said. “I become concerned that the cure is worse than the disease,” he said. Esenberg said there is a lot of evidence that campaign spending actually influences very few people.
The program was one of several election-related sessions scheduled to be moderated by Gousha at Eckstein Hall before the Nov. 2 election, including debates between candidates for U.S. Senate, governor, and attorney general. The chairmen of the Democratic and Republican parties also are scheduled to make a joint appearance.