“The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it.”

-Oscar Wilde


Humility certainly isn’t something found abundantly within the ranks of the so-called “good government” crowd. When pushing for campaign finance reform, they make a number of bold claims – that limiting spending on campaigns will end corruption in government, that campaign commercials will be more civil, that “the people” will be better represented[1], and on and on. Can the claim that campaign finance reform will tone down your co-worker’s awful cologne really be far behind?

However, one claim in particular stands out in its absurdity. In the wake of several Wisconsin legislative leaders going to jail for breaking campaign laws, reformers claim that public financing of campaigns is necessary because it will “remove the temptation” for politicians to break campaign finance laws to raise cash for candidates. According to Jay Heck of Common Cause of Wisconsin, “[corruption is] never going to end as long as we operate under this system.. there’s always going to be another scandal. There’s always going to be another indictment.”

You may begin scratching your head… now.

The idea that somehow we can use laws to remove the temptation of people to break them seems to be an entirely new concept in governance. There are always going to be people that break the law to gain a dishonest advantage, regardless of what “system” is in place. Ideally, the threat of imprisonment should be enough to ameliorate any lawbreaking tendencies individuals may have – all that is needed is a realistic expectation that they will be caught. Is there any question that former Senate Majority Leader Chuck Chvala knew that trading legislation for lobbyist cash and money laundering were illegal before he ended up in court?[2]

One wonders how would this concept would work in other areas of the law. Should we confuse poachers by dressing deer in hats and fake mustaches? Should we eliminate the temptation for people to steal cable television by requiring the Spice Channel to hire Rosie O’Donnell? Perhaps the legislature should allow me to park in handicapped spaces, just to make sure dishonest able-bodied people aren’t tempted to do so.

Furthermore, even if this concept of removing the temptation to break laws actually worked, aren’t there other areas of the law that should receive a little more priority? On the day after Kenosha businessman Dennis Troha was charged with illegally funneling money to Governor Jim Doyle’s campaign, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel took the opportunity to editorialize in favor of public funding of campaigns. The March 20th editorial implied that the Troha affair never would have happened if more rigid laws were in place. (How exactly people being caught breaking existing laws isn’t evidence that the current system actually works is, at press time, unclear.)

In the meantime, Milwaukee is suffering through one of its most violent years yet. If this concept of removing the temptation to break laws actually worked, shouldn’t we be applying it for actual important things – like keeping people from being shot? Can we use the “temptation removal” theory to keep unwed fathers from abandoning their children, which causes much of the poverty and lawlessness found in our cities? (Incidentally, if more guys looked like me, illegitimate pregnancies would drop like a rock – I’m birth control with shoes.)

Of course we can’t – because some people simply have no fear of consequences, whether they be gun-toting thugs or legislative leaders. And that fear of consequence can only be instilled with effective enforcement of existing laws, rather than giving them new laws to ignore.

The key to having effective campaign laws is twofold: First, we shouldn’t elect people that are likely to break them. Secondly, we should enforce the laws we currently have that require full disclosure of direct donations to candidates. Then, we can all make up our own minds about who is influencing the legislative process. A new financing scheme will do nothing to weaken the power struggle in the statehouse. More draconian fundraising limitations won’t eliminate the temptation to break the law – they may only enhance it.

[1] If “the people” were able to directly control legislation, without question the Capitol Building would be renamed “The Dale Earnhardt Memorial Place Where They Make Laws.”

[2] In suspending Chvala’s law license, the Wisconsin Supreme Court said the suspension was “necessary to impress on him and on the other lawyers who are licensed in Wisconsin the seriousness of the misconduct in which Attorney Chvala engaged.” Exactly how big of a pool of people is this message intended for? If you are an attorney, and one day want to be Majority Leader of the State Senate, you are now officially on notice – no extortion or money laundering! We’re watching you!