How's this for a juicy scandal: A state legislature sets up publicly funded caucuses to assist its majority and minority parties with legislative research and strategy. Nobody minds that. But the parties take the money, hire big staffs and put them to work trying to win elections.

Appalling, isn't it? Or maybe you aren't appalled. Maybe you're wondering what's so terrible about political appointees trying to help their party succeed in politics. I've wondered that myself in recent months as I've followed the tortuous developments of what we might as well call "Caucusgate," the scandal that has mesmerized the Wisconsin media and legislature for the better part of a year.

My first reaction upon reading about this affair was that it was a case for Inspector Louis Renault. The news that party caucus employees were doing campaign work was about as shocking as the discovery of gambling in the backroom of Rick's Cafe in Casablanca.

But Wisconsin doesn't seem to be able to deal with it. Wisconsin possesses, to say the least, an unusual political culture. It's not so much that the state has a history of clean elections and political reform. It has that, but so do several other states. What's unique about Wisconsin is its penchant for prolonged and sanctimonious anguish whenever something unpleasant is revealed to the public.

In this case, the anguish began on May 20 of last year, when the Wisconsin State Journal reported in a front-page exclusive that employees of the Democratic and Republican leadership caucuses in the state Assembly and Senate were performing forbidden acts: compiling voter lists, analyzing poll results, designing brochures--in some cases, even more despicable acts than that. They were talking to candidates on the telephone.

It's beyond dispute that this was illegal: The state Ethics Board had ruled on the matter a long time ago. The caucuses were supposed to confine themselves to legislative work, not political work. And yet caucus employees had been doing it regularly for years.

Of course, calling these caucuses "secret campaign machines," as the Journal did, wasn't a very close approximation of reality. To say that this campaign activity was no secret is to understate the issue rather substantially. It's not just that everybody in Madison knew what was going on--it's that everybody understood that winning elections was the primary reason the caucuses existed. Breaking this on the front page was the rough equivalent of announcing indignantly that there were students at the University of Wisconsin who spent most of their time playing football.

Nevertheless, state politics has been in an uproar ever since. In June, the local district attorney in Madison began investigating possible violations of state law. In September, he began granting immunity to current or former caucus employees prepared to testify to what they had done. When the legislative leaders decided to pay the employees' legal bills with public funds, Attorney General James Doyle, a candidate for governor, tried to sue to prevent the bills from being paid. By that time, the caucuses had been officially abolished in both chambers.

Recently, the controversy has taken on more and more elements of farce. In February, on the floor of the Assembly, Democratic Assemblyman Tom Hebl accused Republican Speaker Scott Jensen of trying to keep the legal payments secret. Jensen responded that he had evidence of Hebl himself using caucus employees in campaigns, and might go to the prosecutor with it. Hebl called Jensen a "red-baiter" and "a disgrace to this body."

You have to stop every once in a while and ask yourself what the point of all this could possibly be. Why go to the trouble to gather evidence or take testimony or file lawsuits? Everybody knows what happened. An official policy of the Ethics Board was routinely violated over a period of many years, with the open knowledge and consent of the state's entire political community. Punishing the state workers who did the campaign chores would at this point be nothing more than an exercise in pettiness. If campaigning on public time was a serious offense, the only sensible recourse is to stop doing it and move on.

But even that begs the most interesting question of all: Other than the fact that the Ethics Board disapproved of the practice, what was so wrong about it in the first place?

Virtually every legislative body in America, including the U.S. Congress, has rules against staff aides doing campaign work on office time, but in fact the distinction between legislative business and political business is impossible to draw. Anybody who has worked in a congressional office knows that the majority of staff activity, week in and week out, is geared in some way toward the reelection of the member. When the most junior clerical employee sends out a letter over the congressman's signature, congratulating a constituent for bagging a deer on the first day of hunting season, or winning first prize in a dance recital, that's a form of campaigning. What else could it be? It serves no conceivable legislative or service function whatsoever.

But political promotion is something that aides to legislators and party caucuses do, in Washington, in Madison and in every state capital in the country. Every once in a while, an overactive prosecutor somewhere tries to indict someone for it, but the charge rarely sticks--most of the time, it comes off as politically inspired harassment, which frequently it is.

I know of only one intelligent argument in favor of keeping a tight rein on campaign activity by legislators' office staff. It's an advantage of incumbency that challengers can't match. A state senator who puts staffers to work drumming up political support is stacking the deck even further against his underfunded opponent.

This is an argument, however, that doesn't apply to the Wisconsin caucuses. Not only was the caucus money divided equally between the two parties, it was funneled to challengers as well as to incumbents. In many cases, more generously. The overriding goal of both Democrats and Republicans in Wisconsin is to hold majorities in the Assembly and the Senate. The way to do that is find strong challengers who can unseat the other party's vulnerable incumbents, and back them to the hilt. So if anything, the caucus campaign system was pro-insurgent.

Some outraged activists and commentators will no doubt argue that hiring caucus workers to campaign on public time is simply an unauthorized use of taxpayers' money and constitutes an abuse of office for that reason alone. But to make such a point is to overlook a much larger reality: There happens to be a genuine scandal in Wisconsin politics right now, and it is only marginally related to the one the newspapers have been yammering about.

The legislative campaigns that have been staffed and research at public expense by caucus employees have been underwritten to a much greater extent by the two dominant constellations of the Wisconsin political galaxy: one that is centered around the Wisconsin Education Association Council, and gives mostly to Democrats; and one led by Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the main source of money for Republicans. Over the past decade, with control of both the Senate and Assembly in the balance every two years, campaign costs in the few close districts that decide the outcome have risen astronomically. And the interest groups that put up the money have essentially become the kingmakers.

In 2000, for example, the four partisan caucuses of the Wisconsin legislature spent about $4 million, much of it no doubt on activity that was in violation of the rules. But more than $2 million was spent on one Senate campaign alone, counting independent "issue ad" expenditures, and more than two-thirds of that money was raised, allocated and spent by the competing interest-group coalitions. The candidates--and the parties--ended up largely as bystanders in a process orchestrated by private interests that had a financial stake in the outcome.

There's a lot to dislike about the way politics has changed in Wisconsin in recent years, and the caucuses are undeniably part of it. By reconcentrating money, favors and power in the legislature at the leadership level--reversing the decentralization and fragmentation of the 1970s and '80s--the caucus system has helped turn the two parties into tightly disciplined armies that attack each other scurrilously at election time and are increasingly obnoxious and uncivil to each other in the legislative process as well. The end result is a spectacle in which Democrats and Republicans exchange insults the way they have been doing on the Assembly floor in recent months.

But this is a complex political and cultural problem that abolishing the caucus machinery and transferring the payroll will not do much to fix. And conducting investigations into the way employees use their time will do nothing at all to fix it.

In fact, I think a pretty good case can be made that what Wisconsin and similarly afflicted states need isn't less campaigning at public expense, but more. Whatever you might think of using legislative caucus employees to conduct partisan activities, one point seems unmistakably clear: Every hour of time those workers spent on politics was an hour that didn't have to be paid for with a contribution from an interest group with an ax to grind.

I don't claim to have all the answers when it comes to election finance, but I think I know one thing. When you let somebody pay for the campaigns, you're giving them a lot of clout. And that includes taxpayers. Running the system on their money wouldn't be cheating them, it would be empowering them.

Maybe that's why we've never tried it.