Wearing our children’s clothes

I think it was Thomas Jefferson who said that expecting each new generation to forever live by the customs and laws of past generations is like expecting adults to wear the same clothes that fit them as children.

If only Wisconsin lawmakers would heed that wisdom.

Our state outlawed bribery in 1897. Ponder that for a moment. That means for the first half-century of statehood it was perfectly legal to bribe a public official in Wisconsin. But the people eventually grew sufficiently intolerant of that corrupt practice and it was banned. It was that sort of law that earned Wisconsin its reputation as a beacon of clean, open and honest government.

Today the bribery law offers little real protection from political corruption. Only a total fool would offer or accept an old-fashioned bribe when there are completely legal means to accomplish the same aims. The bribery ban is toothless today because it is silent on the money in election campaigns. So is the gift ban that was added to the state ethics code in 1973. The code’s conflict of interest law enacted that same year also says nothing about campaign contributions.

Not addressing campaign money undoubtedly didn’t seem like much of an oversight in 1973. After all, that was when Bill Proxmire was spending $150 or $200 on his statewide campaigns and was repeatedly elected to represent Wisconsin in the U.S. Senate. Lawmakers in 1973 couldn’t possibly have seen $81 million elections for governor or multi-million dollar races for a seat in the legislature coming.

While their lack of foresight is understandable and therefore forgiveable, our inability or unwillingness to adapt ethics laws to today’s political realities is neither comprehensible nor pardonable. Wisconsin remains stuck with an ethics code for public officials that made sense 40 years ago but no longer fits given how we’ve grown. We have an ethics code that stands guard against the corruption that could possibly result from someone buying a legislator a beer, but offers no protection from the corruption that is infinitely more likely to result from someone spending hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars on advertising singing a legislator’s praises.

It is long past time to think about how utterly obsolete the bribery law and the gift ban and other such anti-corruption measures have become, how ridiculous these laws now look, and how little they do to keep the political system clean and honest. If you give a politician a t-shirt with your company’s name on it, or a coffee mug bearing your group’s logo, you are committing a crime. But it’s entirely legal to write out a check for $500 or $1,000 or $10,000 and hand it to that same politician. What’s more valuable to politicians – and what’s more likely to influence them – the t-shirt or the check? The mug or the money?

We’ve allowed a fiction to grow up around us that there is no problem with large amounts of money changing hands in politics. It’s considered free speech. As if an act of patriotism. It’s called a “contribution” or “donation.” Sounds downright charitable. It’s time to call it what it is. Bribery. There’s nothing charitable or patriotic about that. Bribery is a crime and its modern form should be recognized and treated as such.

We’ve grown accepting of, or at least resigned to, money’s dominion over politics. If there’s to be a future for American democracy, we have to get over that. We have to become as intolerant of corrupt practices as the people of this state were a hundred years ago.

Mike McCabe is the executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a nonpartisan election campaign watchdog agency.

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