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Analysis: A slap in the face by the invisible hand

By Rich Robinson

On one level, the vote by the Senate Economic Development Committee to defer to another day the proposed new public-private bridge betweenDetroit andWindsor looks like the triumph of ideology over commerce. Fearless libertarians who have had enough of taxation faced down every business association in Michigan. The titans of business and industry blinked.

Infrastructure? Let them drink tea.

On another level, the bridge vote was just another episode of contemporary politics as we’ve come to know and despise it. A rational economic actor paid his way to the policy of his choice, the public interest was routed, and there is precious little evidence in the public record of what happened.

The Detroit International Bridge Company has paid more than $6 million for TV ads this year, telling viewers to contact the governor and their legislators to oppose the proposed bridge. Yet, the Detroit International Bridge Company hasn’t even bothered to register as a lobbyist, much less report its advertising expenditures.

Rich Robinson is executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, a nonpartisan, nonprofit watchdog group,

Americans for Prosperity, acting as a political hit-man for hire, has spent tens of thousands of dollars for targeted mail directing recipients to tell their elected representatives to oppose the bridge, but AFP isn’t registered as a lobbyist either.

Manuel J. “Matty” Moroun and members of his family have contributed $96,500 to the legislative caucuses’ PACs and various leadership PACs so far this year, but we’ll have to wait three more months to know which officeholders’ campaign accounts have been enriched by the Morouns since November 2010. Reporting has taken a 14-month break. Giving and receiving campaign contributions has not.

If you could add up the expenditures for advertising, lobbying, consultants and campaign donations mobilized against the bridge this year, that total could top $10 million. Less than one percent of that amount has been reported through the State’s political disclosure system.

The secretary of state’s initiative

In the middle of October, Secretary of State Ruth Johnson and legislative allies announced a package of new campaign finance bills to improve transparency inMichiganpolitics. Sadly, those bills are designed to address a handful of past aberrations, not systemic ongoing problems.

One bill lays out explicit rules on what legal bills are acceptable expenses for a candidate’s campaign account, and what must be paid by a legal defense fund. That bill addresses attempted abuses by former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick.

Another bill would require new political party committees to begin to file quarterly campaign finance reports as soon as they begin circulating petitions for certification. That addresses the fraud perpetrated by former Oakland County Democratic Party operatives who organized a phony TEA Party in 2010.

Yet another bill would require ballot committees to begin to file quarterly campaign finance reports as soon as they begin to circulate petitions. That addresses a political sucker-punch delivered by the Michigan Democratic Party in 2008 called Reform Michigan Government Now. RMGN camouflaged an attempt to eliminate Republican-held appeals judgeships in a bed-sheet-sized package of serious political reforms.

However, nowhere does Secretary Johnson’s package address the fact that officeholders file only one campaign finance report in years when they aren’t facing the electorate. Or, that PACs have a six-month gap between reports each year. Or, that $70 million has been spent for candidate-focused “issue” ads in the last decade, with no reporting of that activity in the State’s disclosure system.

Come on, Secretary Johnson, if you want the brand of a champion of transparency and accountability, you’re going to have to do better than that.

Here’s a starter list:

* All political committees should report every quarter of every year.

* All advertisements that include the name or image of a candidate in the months immediately preceding an election, using any medium, should have to be reported. And the donors whose money pays the bills should have to be disclosed.

* All lobbying expenditures, including advertisements, should be disclosed, without exception. 

The officeholders’ dilemma

Officeholders know that citizens want transparency and accountability in our politics. They also know that interest groups don’t. These days, officeholders serve interest groups rather than citizens, because interest groups know how to apply pressure and citizens are easily confused by dissembling politicians.

Transparency and accountability are conservative values, and they are progressive values. Unless citizens demand transparency and accountability, democracy will continue to wither and it will die. Pivotal policy decisions will be nothing more than applications of property rights.

The invisible hand that has stopped a new international bridge between Detroit and Windsor is an outrage. It’s also a metaphor for what our politics has become. Only engaged citizens can change this.

4 comments from Bridge readers.Add mine!

  1. Rich Bond

    What is needed is something that would force this issue onto a ballot. Someone other than a politician must know how to get this done. It might be painful on election days sorting through all the ballot initiatives, but eventually it would force the politicians to work for us rather than the lobbyists.

  2. Michael Ranville

    Totally agree with Rich Robinson – and with Mr. Bond. By far the most effective regulator of political contributions is full disclosure. Don’t tell me, as I’ve heard, the issue would be too complicated for voters to comprehend. And as long as we’re contemplating a ballot issue, Mr. Bond, how about including political calls on the “do not call list.” (In his advancing years, Ranville is becoming quite the curmudgeon.)

  3. Jonathan Ramlow

    Thanks to Mr. Robinson for a helpful and informative analysis. My only suggestion for an improvement is that Mr. Robinson could let us all know how he was able to obtain unreported dollar amounts spent by various groups opposed to the bridge. It would be easier for citizens wanting to become engaged if they could have a little help in learning to turn over political contributors’ rocks as Mr. Robinson has done.

    My only argument with Mr. Robinson’s report might be that unlike interest groups, citizens are easily confused about what political financing is all about. Since the Citizens United decision by the SCOTUS, it’s been crystal clear that the democratic principle of one man-one vote has been superseded by a different one: those with the deepest pockets get what they want every time and the public interest be damned. Personally, I rather liked the sign I saw being displayed at one of the many “Occupy” locations: “I will believe that a corporation is a person when the State of Texas executes one.”

  4. Duane

    “On another level, the bridge vote was just another episode of contemporary politics as we’ve come to know and despise it.” The only time someone dispise the system is when it doesn;t give them what they want.

    I wonder if the author dispised system, “Sadly, those bills are designed to address a handful of past aberrations…”, that Detroit Mayor was attempting to ceircumvent and now seems to suggest the propose law is a distraction from what he really wants. Similarly is the addressing what the Democratic Party was doing in Oakland county being history is another distraction from what the author so dispises.

    I most wonder if it is truly “All lobbying expenditures, including advertisements, should be disclosed, without exception.” and it this author was as vocal on this system he like the results.

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