Christian Schneider

Author, Columnist

The Great Campaign Finance Debate

For the last couple of days, I\’ve been selling out arenas nationwide on the Pro-Corruption World Tour. Last night\’s stop included the Humanities building on the UW-Madison campus, where Common Cause held a debate on the merits of campaign finance reform. I debated Senators Mike Ellis and Jon Erpenbach, along with poor Gail Shea, who wasn\’t able to get a word in edgewise with all of our hot air taking up the time.

Here\’s how it went down:

Ellis and Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, said they hope to pass legislation that would limit the amount of money interest groups are allowed to spend on political campaigns. The bill would require disclosure by advertising groups on how much they are spending and where the funds come from.

Heck said legislation on campaign finance reform could easily pass, except legislative leaders are “philosophically opposed” to the idea and would not bring the issue to light.

But according to panelist Christian Schneider, a fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, there is strong ground for opposition to Ellis and Erpenbach’s campaign finance reform because of the right to freedom of expression.

“If the First Amendment is meant for anything, it is to protect unpopular political opinions,” Schneider said. “It is condescending to voters to say, ‘You’re not smart enough to see through negative television advertisements.’”

Schneider added negative advertisements can bring harsh truths to light and often increase voter turnout by making voters more interested and invested in campaign issues.

However, Erpenbach and Ellis were quick to defend their campaign finance reform legislation from Schneider’s attacks.

“I do believe firmly in the First Amendment,” Erpenbach said. “I think everybody has the right to free speech — but you can’t go into a crowded theater and yell ‘fire.’”

Erpenbach added huge contributions collected by special interest groups can mute individual opposition voices.

But Ken Mayer, UW political science professor, questioned Erpenbach’s idea of campaign finance reform as a shield to defend the individual opposition voices.

“I’m a little uncomfortable with this idea of using government power to redistribute funds,” Mayer said. “There is no reason to punish those with more money.”

The account is here.

And despite my disagreements with virtually everyone in the room on this issue (except Mayer, apparently,) everyone was extremely welcoming and pleasant. In fact, they were so interested in what I had to say, they asked me every question during the crowd Q&A period.

From what I understand, video of the event will be available on WisconsinEye at some point. I\’ll post it when it goes up so you can see me spar with Ellis and Erpenbach.

SIDE NOTE: Ken Mayer as written some excellent pieces about campaign finance reform.  See \”\”Political Realities and Unintended Consequences: Why Campaign Finance Reform is Too Important to be Left to the Lawyers.\”

And:\”Do Public Funding Programs Enhance Electoral Competition?\”

I also have plenty to say as a follow-up to some of the details discussed at the forum.  I\’ll be posting those in the near future.

1 Comment

  1. “I do believe firmly in the First Amendment,” Erpenbach said. “I think everybody has the right to free speech — but you can’t go into a crowded theater and yell ‘fire.’”

    Mike McCabe tops that. “Just as an individual’s possession of a weapon of mass destruction would pose an intolerable threat to other community members’ rights to life, liberty and security, the First Amendment right of free speech likewise can be exercised in a way that does violence to citizen rights and the common good.”

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