PEOPLE FOR BLOG

Letter to the New York Times: The GOP's War on the Courts

This letter to the editor from PFAW's Marge Baker was published in today's New York Times:

Re “G.O.P. Field Stoking Anger at U.S. Courts” (front page, Oct. 24):

Extreme anti-judiciary measures like those proposed by Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul, as well as Mitt Romney’s choice of the ultra-conservative failed Supreme Court nominee Robert H. Bork to head his legal team, are chilling reminders of the stakes of the 2012 presidential election.

But these are not far-off threats. The G.O.P. has already found a simple and immediate way to wage war on the federal judiciary: by obstructing the confirmation of new judges.

There are about 100 vacancies in federal courts throughout the country, a third of which are in districts so hard pressed that they have been designated “judicial emergencies.”

In spite of this, Senate Republicans have been confirming nominees at a record sluggish pace. The Senate is currently sitting on 23 nominees, virtually all of whom have strong bipartisan support. It simply defies reason that nominees who have received absolutely no opposition from either party are sometimes forced to wait months for a simple up-or-down confirmation vote.

A functioning independent judiciary is at the foundation of our democracy. But the religious right has often been wary of the judiciary’s power to act as a bulwark against efforts to crumble the wall of separation between church and state and to deny rights to women, gay people, religious minorities, workers and consumers. Unable to pass extreme measures like the ones being proposed by presidential candidates, the right has settled instead for quietly kneecapping the courts.

MARGE BAKER
Exec. V.P. for Policy and Program
People for the American Way
Washington, Oct. 24, 2011

PFAW

Corporate Political Spending: Relief through Consumer & Shareholder Pressure

Thanks to the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC which granted corporations the same rights as people to spend unlimited, undisclosed money to influence elections, the 2012 election cycle promises to bring the biggest flood of political spending from outside groups we’ve ever seen. Such outsized influence by a few corporations and special interest groups is a staggering reflection on the state of our democracy, and it’s clear that corporations are well on their way to becoming our elected officials’ primary constituency. If this pattern continues unabated, American citizens will be left in the dust.

A recent story by the Washington Post examines two studies showing that although special interests are likely to continue flooding the electoral process with political donations, many are beginning to realize that avoiding political spending altogether is good for government and good for business.

Americans are taking back our democracy by showing corporations that staying out of the political process is in their best interest after all. Under pressure from customers and shareholders, corporations are realizing that when they engage in political spending, they become a symbol of what they support – and the public-relations impact isn’t always positive.

When Target gave money in July to a pro-business group in Minnesota, the company thought it was helping its bottom line by backing candidates in its home state who support lower taxes. Instead, the retailer has found itself in a fight with liberal and gay rights groups that has escalated into calls for a nationwide boycott and protests at the company's headquarters and stores.

The potential for a consumer backlash has caused corporations to reevaluate the benefit of interfering in the political process, and some are banning it outright. The threat of a shareholder backlash looms large as well, and shareholders are beginning to demand disclosure of where their investments ultimately end up. The Corporate Reform Coalition, along with PFAW, has been a strong supporter of the Shareholder Protection Act, which would require corporations to disclose their political donations to their shareholders, preventing a company’s investors from indirectly contributing to a candidate without their knowledge.

Citizens United may have opened the door to a corporate takeover of our democracy, but through public pressure, reform such as the Shareholder Protection Act and ultimately a constitutional amendment enabling the government to limit corporate influence in elections, we can ensure that the American people retain the loudest voice in our democracy.

PFAW

Florida Students Get Lesson in Voter Suppression

The abhorrent new Florida election-law has snared its first public victim: A high school teacher who’s being fined a thousand dollars for failing to turn in voter registration forms she collected from her civics class within 48 hours.

Earlier this year, Governor Rick Scott and his Republican legislative allies amended the state’s election law to make it more difficult to both register voters and for citizens exercise their right to vote in upcoming elections. Recently, Secretary of State Kurt Browning, a Rick Scott appointee, wrote a letter to Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi that asked her to impose the fine on Dawn Quarles, a high school government teacher.

Before the law was amended, people running registration drives were given 10 days to send their applications to election officials. Now, they have only 48 hours. The law isn’t just affecting civics teachers--thanks to the strict requirements imposed by the legislation the Florida League of Women Voters has ceased to conduct voter registration drives.

Additionally, the law decreases the number of early voting days, which were seen as aiding democratic-leaning constituencies during the 2008 election. Florida Republicans are trying to shape the electorate to their advantage by disenfranchising Florida voters, and whatever your political leanings, the new election law isn’t the American way.

PFAW

GOP Cabinet Member: Republicans in Congress Don’t Care About Jobs

In an interview with the Daily Beast, transportation secretary and former GOP congressman Ray LaHood comes right out and says it: the current Republican Congress cares more about defeating President Obama than about creating jobs.


LaHood is understandably most incensed about the GOP’s unwillingness to pass a simple infrastructure bill that would help repair the nation’s crumbling roads and bridge while creating thousands of jobs:


Even in the wake of a national report declaring 200 bridges structurally deficient, including one that brings tens of thousands of commuters from Virginia into Washington each day, and one that spans the home states of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner, Republicans are expected to maintain their wall of opposition to a new round of stimulus spending on infrastructure. The infrastructure bill would put thousands of people to work, says LaHood, “but because of their own personal political feelings against the president, they don’t want to hand him a victory.”


LaHood has been dropping hints for some time about his frustration, and last week he unloaded in the interview.


“The crowd that was elected the last time not only came here to do nothing, they also came to put down the president,” he says. “And the way to put him down is not to give him any kind of opportunity to be successful.”


He faults the Tea Party freshmen, but doesn’t let the GOP leadership off the hook, recalling McConnell’s remark that his No. 1 goal was to defeat Obama.
“Republicans made a decision right after the election—don’t give Obama any victories. The heck with putting people to work, because we can score points,” LaHood says.


He goes on to compare the current GOP Congress to his own freshman Republican class, the Newt Gingrich-led “Contract With America” class:
 

There were sharp edges in that GOP freshman class, but the difference is, “They didn’t come here to do nothing. They came here to vote on things, to make change for the positive…That’s not the fact with this crowd [Tea Party].”

LaHood is still a Republican. He’s clearly still proud of his role in Gingrich’s 1994 army – which certainly had plenty of faults. But he’s noticed an important and troubling shift in how his party is approaching its role in governing. It’s a shift that all of us, regardless of party, should take note of.
 

PFAW

Memo to House Republicans: Slogans Don’t Create Jobs

Later today, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA.) will bring to the house floor a non-binding resolution that reaffirms “In God We Trust” as the official motto of the United States. The move might not fit with the House Republicans’ insistence that their legislative agenda will focus solely on jobs, spending and deregulation, but it shouldn’t surprise political observers. Indeed, it’s now been 301 days since House Republicans took power, and they’ve yet to bring a comprehensive jobs bill to the floor. “In God We Trust,” meanwhile, has been the official motto of the United States since 1956, and it will remain the motto with or without this meaningless vote.

The arguments used to justify the vote are laughable. According to Roll Call, Rep. Randy Forbes (R-VA.), who is sponsoring the legislation, believes the resolution is needed because President Obama once referred to “E Pluribus Unum” as the country’s motto. Additionally, Rep. Forbes asserts that the motto is absent from sections of the Capitol Visitor Center.

Back in May, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH.) reportedly told The Hill, “We’re pretty well committed to the House doing substantive work on the floor of the House.” The Speaker has also taken issue with “all of the commemorative resolutions that used to be brought to the floor of the House, some of them I thought were quite meaningless.” It’s difficult to see how a non-binding resolution reaffirming a motto doesn’t qualify as “meaningless.” It’s time for House Republicans to stop with frivolous resolutions and start working with Democrats to pass meaningful legislation to boost our economy.

PFAW

UPDATE: PFAW to Senate GOP: Leave DC alone

Last month, PFAW strongly encouraged the Senate Appropriations Committee to approve a clean DC appropriations bill. Now the fight continues in the Senate, where this week we expect the consideration of a “minibus” appropriations package including DC.

PFAW renews its call for a clean bill, and urges everyone to once again send the same message to the Senate.

DC residents and their elected officials should be the ones who determine what is best for their city, without the meddling of a Congress in which they have no vote. For a party that claims to be focused on getting the federal government out of people’s lives, many Republicans have been astoundingly eager to override DC’s home rule.

On the House side, Representative Darrell Issa is showing how eager he is to do just that. Representative Issa has introduced a bill to mandate new DC hiring practices, and he’ll mark up that bill in his committee on Thursday morning.

Seriousness of recent DC scandals aside, Representative Issa fails to recognize that this is a DC problem, one that DC itself is already investigating through the city council, the Office of Campaign Finance, and the US Attorney. DC Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton:

The bill represents a significant escalation of Republicans’ relentless attacks this Congress on the District’s right to self-government . . . [It] will not pass the committee quietly, and if it makes it to the House floor, we will make it very clear that Republicans, who profess to support local control of local matters, are focused on partisan, ideological fights, not addressing Americans’ top priority: jobs.
PFAW

Clarence Thomas Reminds Us (Again) Why the Supreme Court Matters

In a bit of good news, the Supreme Court today declined to hear the appeal of two Establishment Clause cases from Utah striking down as unconstitutional state-approved memorial crosses on public highways. But in dissenting from this decision not to take the case, Clarence Thomas has done us the favor of reminding Americans just how out of the mainstream he is.

While Thomas's dissent is an expansive critique of the Court's Establishment Clause jurisprudence, he does briefly remind readers just how far from the mainstream his views are.

Even if the Court does not share my view that the Establishment Clause restrains only the Federal Government, and that, even if incorporated [by the 14th Amendment to apply to the states], the Clause only prohibits "actual legal coercion," the Court should be deeply troubled by what its Establishment Clause jurisprudence has wrought. [emphasis added and internal citation removed]

Mitt Romney has made clear that he sees Clarence Thomas as the kind of jurist he would nominate to the Supreme Court. This is no surprise coming from someone who asked rejected Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork to lead his campaign's legal advisory team.

Thomas's dangerously narrow vision of the Establishment Clause is a good reminder of how much is at stake when Americans vote for president in 2012.

PFAW

Mississippi Personhood Campaign Draws More Scrutiny, Questions

Cross-posted on Right Wing Watch

With few Mississippi politicians speaking out against a proposed “personhood” amendment on the state’s ballot next week, Personhood USA is hoping that the Magnolia State will be the first to adopt its radical anti-choice legislation, which has been resoundingly defeated multiple times in Colorado. Personhood USA’s Keith Mason said on Friday that Mississippi’s Initiative 26, “looks like it’ll be the first one to pass in this country.”

Mississippi already has some of the most restrictive anti-choice laws in the United States. But opponents of the personhood initiative have started succeeding in educating voters over the far-reaching consequences of the proposed law, which would not only criminalize abortions without exceptions for rape, incest or health of the mother, but also potentially ban certain forms of birth control, the treatment of ectopic and problem pregnancies and in-vitro fertilization. One opponent of Initiative 26 said that polling shows that the more voters learn about the full impact of Initiative 26, the less likely they are to support it: “It’s the largest movement on numbers I’ve seen, in terms of the undecideds. It reverses the position…They’ve given us all the ammunition we need to defeat it.”

On Friday, Rachel Maddow discussed the grassroots campaign to defeat the personhood amendment and investigated the amendment’s radical roots – specifically, the role of Personhood Mississippi’s leader, Les Riley. As Maddow noted, Right Wing Watch first uncovered that Riley previously blogged for a secessionist group that wanted to create an independent theocratic state in South Carolina. In addition, Riley heads Mississippi’s far-right Constitution Party and is a past member of the neo-Confederate League of the South.

Maddow had as her guest Cristen Hemmins, who shared her story as a rape survivor who twenty years ago was kidnapped and raped by two men who shot her when she tried to flee. Hemmins told the Huffington Post that one of the bullets pierced her uterus, but if she had gotten pregnant and ifthe personhood law had been in effect at the time, she would have been prohibited by law from terminating the pregnancy.

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

PFAW

Fetus' Rights > Women's Rights in Mississippi?

This Election Day, Mississippi voters will vote on Initiative 26 -- an amendment that would define every zygote or fetus from the moment of fertilization as a legal "person." It's the latest attempt to severely curtail women's reproductive rights. Not only are voters being asked to define embryos as people, this amendment will also outlaw the most common types birth control and in vitro fertilization and would open the door for criminal investigations of miscarriages. Mississippi, already home to some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country, will now make it nearly impossible for women and their doctors to make informed and sound decisions. Initiative 26, if passed, will be one of the most damaging intrusions into women's reproductive health we've seen, even in a year marked by restrictive anti-choice bills. A number of organizations are working on fighting Initiative 26, including the Mississippi Nurses Association, American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists Mississippi and the Mississippi State Medical Association.

Fetus' Rights > Women's Rights in Mississippi?

This Election Day, Mississippi voters will vote on Initiative 26 – an amendment that would define every zygote or fetus from the moment of fertilization as a legal “person.”  It’s the latest attempt to severely curtail women’s reproductive rights.  Not only are voters being asked to define embryos as people, this amendment will also outlaw the most common types birth control and in vitro fertilization and would open the door for criminal investigations of miscarriages. Mississippi, already home to some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country, will now make it nearly impossible for women and their doctors to make informed and sound decisions. Initiative 26, if passed, will be one of the most damaging intrusions into women’s reproductive health we’ve seen, even in a year marked by restrictive anti-choice bills.

A number of organizations are working on fighting Initiative 26, including the Mississippi Nurses Association, American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists Mississippi and the Mississippi State Medical Association. 

PFAW

PFAW Foundation Celebrates 30 Years of Defending Constitutional Values in New York

Earlier this month, Norman and Lyn Lear hosted a celebration of the organization's 30th anniversary with a party in New York City. And what a celebration it was!

Board members, supporters, friends and staff came together to toast three decades of defending the Constitutional values that are at the core of our nation.

Board member Alec Baldwin spoke about his involvement with the organization and why producing accurate information about the far Right is so important.

Norman Lear talked about why he founded the organization 30 years ago, and why our work remains relevant today.

And former President Bill Clinton stopped by to talk about the state of the country, the role of government and the time he almost became President of People For the American Way.  (He decided to run again for governor of Arkansas.  That seems to have worked out well...)

PFAWF President Michael Keegan, Former U.S. President Bill Clinton, PFAWF Co-founder Norman Lear, and Youth Leadership Programs Director Andrew Gillum


President Clinton, Lyn Lear, Michael Keegan and Board Member Alec Baldwin


Andrew Gillum, PFAW Board Member Carole Shields, President Clinton and PFAWF Board Member Rabbi David Saperstein



Board Member Ronald Feldman, Alec Baldwin, President Clinton and Andrew Gillum take their turns at the podium


President Clinton and Norman Lear greet each other ...


... and hug it out


Michael Keegan, Norman Lear and Alec Baldwin wish PFAW Foundation "Happy Birthday"


Norman at the podium with a commemorative 30th Anniversary print made specially for People For the American Way Foundation by renowned artist Ed Ruscha seen in the background

PFAW

Speaking of Class Warfare…

One of the most absurd things to come out of American politics in recent months is the allegation that the president’s proposal to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans – bringing them back to the levels they enjoyed under Clinton -- amounts to “class warfare.”

In the Huffington Post last week, PFAW’s Michael Keegan called the GOP’s renewed cries of “class warfare” both “ironic and cynical.”

If you want to see what class warfare really looks like, you need look no further than Texas, where a group of oil companies has successfully lobbied to have a government panel re-examine a very large tax break that they were previously denied, and are now on the verge of receiving a $135 million gift from the state. Who’s paying for that gift? Public schools.

Here’s how the oil companies, led by Valero, are wrangling the refund from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, according to the AP:

Valero first asked for the refund for six of its refineries in 2007, and wants payment retroactive to that year. Since then, at least four other companies have asked for the same retroactive refund.


Valero argues the units should be exempt under a Texas law that says industrial plants don't have to pay taxes on equipment purchased to reduce on-site pollution. The law saves companies millions, and is meant to encourage investment in new technology.


At first, the request was denied. The commission's staff said the hydrotreaters reduce pollution in diesel and gas, not necessarily at the plant. In fact, staff said, the hydrotreaters actually increased sulfur dioxide pollution near the refineries because the toxic gas is now burned off in a flare.


Valero appealed, and the panel's chairman, Bryan Shaw, said last April that the Legislature likely intended a broader interpretation of the law. He instructed his staff to research whether they could award partial exemptions to Valero. Shaw declined to be interviewed for this story, saying it could present a conflict because the issue will be brought before him again.


Shaw, the environmental commissioner who encouraged the panel to take a new look at the oil company tax refund, was hand-picked for his post by Gov. Rick Perry. He’s an odd choice to head an environmental quality panel – as Mother Jones reported last week, he’s a climate change skeptic who has a long history of siding with industry over environmental groups.


But Gov. Perry’s ties to the oil industry run deep – since 1998, he’s raked in $11 million in campaign contributions from oil and gas companies, including $147,895 from Valero, the company that’s leading the effort to get the $135 million tax refund.


While oil companies enjoy expensive access to the governor and an ally at the top of one of the committees charged with holding them accountable, it’s the state’s children who are breathing polluted air and whose schools are being asked to pay for new corporate tax breaks. From AP:


Now, the AP's analysis shows, the Pasadena Independent School District may have to refund $11.3 million to two refineries if commissioners grant the request.


Early Monday, Gonzales and others handed out fliers, collected petition signatures and offered $10,000 cookies and brownies at a mock "bake sale" designed to raise awareness about the money at stake. Eight Houston schools planned similar mock sales for later in the day.


The mom-turned-activist said she learned about the refineries' requests while unsuccessfully lobbying earlier this year to convince Perry and the Legislature to dip into the state's so-called rainy day fund to ease cuts to the schools.


Gonzales lives near a miles-long stretch of refineries, where massive pipes and stacks light the night like skyscrapers do in other cities. An intense, burnt chemical scent hangs over the town.


"You smell it. That's what we're known for. Stinkadena because of the refineries," Gonzales said. "There are days when we can't go out because our children's asthma is that bad ... and then they want money back?"
 

PFAW

Limbaugh: Elizabeth Warren, for Advocating Fair Taxation, is a 'Parasite'

De facto head of the GOP and all-around blowhard Rush Limbaugh had the gall to call Elizabeth Warren a “parasite” and “an arrogant condescending, conceited snob who has profound resentment” last week in his latest attempt at throwing cold water on anything approaching rationality in political dialogue.

So one has to ask what Warren said that was so upsetting to the right-wing provocateur.

There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody! You built a factory out there? Good for you! But I want to be clear: You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You built a factory, and it turned into something terrific or a great idea: God bless! Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.

But hey, I get it. Anything that says there is a social compact automatically makes right wingers like Limbaugh hyperventilate. They’d rather sacrifice a good economy, schools that educate our young, and yes, a social contract that helps our seniors stay out of poverty than tell the most privileged of our society that they have to pay a larger share of their income in taxes than their secretaries. If that were my goal, I’d be pretty angry at Elizabeth Warren too.

Elizabeth Warren 1. Rush Limbaugh, right wingers, space cadets, nitwits and bullies 0.

PFAW

What You Talkin' Bout, Willard?! YOU Attacking Harvard?

Willard Mitt Romney absolutely refuses to let the words that come out of his mouth be dictated by reality. He recently insisted that "corporations are people." Now, in an attempt to portray himself as some sort of "everyman" instead of the millionaire tycoon that he is, he's attacking President Obama for his ties to Harvard faculty. But judging by his associations and resume, Romney himself might as well keep a residence in Cambridge and have his own reserved parking space on Harvard's campus.

We say it again: What you talkin' bout, Willard?!

From Talking Points Memo:

Mitt Romney once again criticized President Obama for taking his advice from the "Harvard faculty lounge" in a speech in Florida on Thursday. He's repeated the line on the campaign trail despite being a Harvard alum himself and counting Harvard faculty among his own top advisers.

In a major address on foreign policy last month, Romney used the school as a punchline to decry Obama as overly weak in dealing with dictators. "That may be what they think in that Harvard faculty lounge," he said, "but it's not what they know on the battlefield!"

Romney has never served on the battlefield, but he does hold degrees from Harvard in business and law. That's one more than Obama, who has a law degree from the school and headed the Harvard Law Review. And it's not just Romney who has Crimson ties: The Boston Globe notes that three of his children have attended Harvard Business School.

But, hey, at least he's not taking his advice from the faculty lounge, right? Actually Romney relies on their expertise plenty. Meghan O'Sullivan, a former Bush aide, teaches international affairs at Harvard and reportedly advises him on foreign policy. His economic adviser for 2008 and 2012, Greg Mankiw, is a star professor there whose textbook is used at colleges around the country.

 

PFAW

The Commerce Clause and American Progress

In the Tea Party, it’s all the rage these days to declare everything unconstitutional – Social Security, Medicare, unemployment insurance, disaster relief, federal civil rights laws, health care reform, basically any law that enables the federal government to take on national-scale problems.

One of the main strategies that the Tea Party has been using to push this extreme and regressive view of the Constitution is pushing aside the Commerce Clause, the clause in the Constitution that gives Congress the power “to regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian tribes.”

The Commerce Clause, long recognized by courts as the rationale for important progressive economic programs, has come under fire from opponents of health care reform, who are arguing in the courts – with mixed success -- that the clause does not allow the Affordable Care Act’s individual health insurance mandate.

In a new report, People For the American Way Foundation Senior Fellow Jamie Raskin argues that “a powerful case can be made “that the Commerce Clause is “the most important constitutional instrument for social progress in our history.”

Without it, Congress could not have passed the National Labor Relations Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Clayton and Sherman Anti-Trust Acts, the Civil Rights Act of 1964’s prohibition of race discrimination in hotels, restaurants and other places of public accommodation, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, the Equal Pay Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and dozens of other federal statutes protecting the environment and establishing the rights of citizens in the workplace and the marketplace.


Why, then, does the Commerce Clause seem pale and dull next to the Free Speech and Equal Protection Clauses?
Perhaps it is because these provisions clearly declare radiant principles of liberty and equality that translate into easily understood and intuitively attractive protections against arbitrary government power.

Because the Commerce Clause has been a powerful instrument of social reform over the last century, its meaning has periodically provoked deep jurisprudential controversy. This is ironic since the Court routinely and unanimously upheld congressional assertion of a comprehensive federal commerce power before broad democratic purposes entered the picture. The commerce power became the target of virulent attack by corporate conservatives when progressives and labor gained political influence and used this power as the constitutional basis upon which to regulate and improve the character, terms and conditions of the American workplace and marketplace in favor of large numbers of the American people.


Raskin follows the Commerce Clause from its origins at the Constitutional Convention, through the Lochner era, when an activist court “put the Commerce Clause in a straightjacket” to strike down federal worker protection laws and other attempts to regulate interstate commerce, to the late 1930s, when the court returned to a more expansive view of the clause, allowing progressive economic programs and civil rights reforms to flourish, to the Rehnquist Court, which again began to narrow down the scope of Congress’s constitutional regulatory power, to challenges to the Affordable Care Act, which threaten to take us back to the Lochner era.
 

You can read the full report here.

PFAW