Wisconsin’s Republican senator said he wasn’t expecting to pay himself back for loans he made to his campaign, and yet hundreds of thousands of dollars from his donors were recently sent to his personal bank account.
Wisconsin Republican Sen. Ron Johnson has provided yet another reason why so many voters are skeptical of his promises when it comes to campaigns and cash.
As first reported by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Johnson’s latest campaign finance reports show that he has been reimbursed for $400,000 in personal loans he made to his campaign last year. Yes, this is legal—thanks to a wildly inappropriate US Supreme Court ruling last year—but also unseemly, because Johnson publicly said he was not expecting to be paid back.
Why is this important? Because America’s founders and generations of leaders knew that democracy is more fragile than we want to believe—and the move toward aristocracy happens when the super-wealthy can use their money to obtain power. It is why we have seen repeated cycles of attempts to limit how much money a single person, corporation, or group can give to politicians—followed by attempts to get around or strike down those limits. Johnson is putting on a master class in how that happens.
Recall that Johnson’s very first election to the Senate in 2010 is forever stained by the way his company gave him a $10 million “deferred compensation” payment shortly after he spent $9 million of his personal funds for the race. Johnson has maintained that the payment from PACUR was an agreed-upon level of compensation after not taking a salary for the 13 years prior.
Johnson also held hostage his own party’s 2017 tax bill until it included a sweetheart deal of massive proportions for a special type of corporation—the type of corporation he happened to own at the time. So did some friendly billionaires, who paid for an endless barrage of sleazy ads that helped Johnson narrowly win a third term in 2022.
It’s difficult to prove outright corruption, but the current political finance system cannot help but give the appearance that a politician could make private promises to wealthy donors, whose dollars can later end up in the candidate’s checkbook. And it would not be surprising if any of those high-dollar donors expected favorable treatment in ways that a senator’s less-wealthy constituents could never enjoy.
To avoid any suspicions of impropriety, Congress could put a limit on how much a candidate can be reimbursed post-election for personal funds they loan to the campaign—let’s say $250,000. After all, is it really a fair election if one candidate has millions to loan to the race—knowing they can be paid back by donors once the race is over—while another candidate with a middle-class income has no similar pile of cash to make the race competitive?
Spoiler alert: That’s the system we used to have—until Johnson’s colleague, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), filed suit and the six right-wing Supreme Court justices threw out the $250,000 limit for post-election loan payback, making it even easier for millionaires to have the appearance of buying their way into office.
When some future generation of leaders finally cleans up politics, don’t be surprised when they bring up Johnson, Cruz, and the current conservative justices as Exhibits No. 1 through 8 as their motivation.
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