PEOPLE FOR BLOG

Senators Introduce Crucial Citizens United Fix

This morning, Senate Democrats announced a sweeping legislative remedy to the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC, which opened up elections to unlimited corporate spending. The DISCLOSE Act would require the disclosure of corporate money spent on influencing elections, and it would prevent foreign companies, government contractors, and bail-out recipients from spending money in American elections. People For’s President, Michael Keegan, weighed in:

Only a constitutional amendment or new ruling can truly 'fix' Citizens United, but the DISCLOSE Act goes far in mitigating its corrosive effect on our democracy. Americans want government by the people, not corporations. But as long as corporations have the ability to pour money into elections, Americans have the right to know how that money is being spent.

The Supreme Court enabled companies to spend money on elections while hiding behind front groups, PR firms, and advocacy groups -- without any disclosure whatsoever. It also opened American elections to spending by foreign corporations, government contractors, and companies that receive billions in government bailouts. The DISCLOSE Act would close these outrageous loopholes.

Not surprisingly, the main opposition to the legislation so far has come from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has plans to spend $50 million on this fall’s elections.

The Chamber may be up for a tough fight. A PFAW poll in February found that 78% of those surveyed believe corporations should be limited in how much they spend to influence elections; 70% though corporations already had too much influence in the process. Other polls have found similar levels of displeasure—across the political spectrum—with Citizens United and the increasing role of corporate money in politics.

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Sessions warns of Obama’s “dangerous” SCOTUS philosophy

Don’t say he didn’t warn you. Sen. Jeff Sessions has taken issue with several of President Obama’s criteria for picking a Supreme Court nominee, but he’s especially concerned about the stipulation that the new justice have a “keen understanding of how the law affects the daily lives of the American people.”

That priority, Sessions warned ABC News this week, is “dangerous.”

One has to wonder if Sessions was similarly terrified in 2006, when in his confirmation hearings before Sessions’ committee, now-Justice Samuel Alito made an eloquent speech about his ability to identify with the concerns of immigrants, children, victims of discrimination, and people with disabilities.

He shouldn’t have worried: despite his professed understanding, Alito helped bring us a variety of decisions that have ignored the realities of daily life in America.

But if he sees out-of-touch as the most desirable quality in a Supreme Court justice, Sessions may have found his ideal Justice in John G. Roberts. Roberts has already reassured us that he missed the Internet age entirely. And on Monday, the Chief Justice showed us his lack of concern for low-wage laborers when he belittled the situation of workers forced to sign bad contracts as “economic inequality or whatever.”

If Sessions is looking for a Supreme Court that disregards the lives of ordinary Americans, he’s got it. But maybe it wouldn’t be so dangerous for our newest Justice to understand the difference between “economic inequality” and “whatever.”

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Senate Republicans continue to warn of “bailout,” stall reform

Senate Republicans this afternoon again voted in a bloc to stall debate on a Wall Street reform measure, after a concerted effort to brand the increased regulations a fat-cat bailout. The “bailout” label, as People For’s Peter Montgomery explains in a new Right Wing Watch In Focus report, is a carefully calculated lie:

Back in January, Republican pollster and communications strategist Frank Luntz distributed a strategy memo instructing Republican officials how to obstruct Wall Street reform while confusing the American public about who was looking out for their interests. Among Luntz's key recommendations was to tie reforms to big bank bailouts. There's the 180 degree spin from reality. One of the key goals of Wall Street reform legislation being considered in both houses of Congress is preventing the need for such bailouts by clamping down on the kind of overly risky behavior that led to the financial system meltdown. The legislation has been designed to create mechanisms to shut down failing institutions in an orderly way to prevent the need for expensive improvised bailouts in the future.

So, to be clear, the purpose of the Bailout Lie was to let Republicans get away with stopping reforms that would crimp the style of Wall Street speculators while at the same time convincing tea party activists and Main Street Americans that it was somehow the Democrats doing Wall Street's bidding. That's a big bluff. But Senator McConnell is nothing if not audacious in putting the Bailout Lie to work.

An ABC News/Washington Post poll this week showed that a majority of Americans, including over a third of Republicans, actually back the legislation’s so-called “bailout” provision—a requirement that banks contribute to a fund that would cover the cost of taking over and breaking up any failing financial institutions. Two-thirds of those surveyed supported the bill’s increased regulation of Wall Street.

While the GOP’s Wall Street Reform talking points are clearly reaching Republican Senators, it’s unclear how much of an effect they’ll have on a public that’s fed up with the current lax oversight of the financial industry. Perhaps it’s time GOP Senators started consulting their constituents before their party’s spin doctors.

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Breathing While Undocumented in Arizona

Linda Greenhouse, writing for the New York Times Opinionator blog, rightly points out that Arizona's new anti-immigrant law quite literally creates a new crime of "breathing while undocumented" due to a provision that someone lacking authorization to be in the country is "trespassing," even on public land.

Greenhouse wonders what Arizonan libertarian and conservative icon Barry Goldwater would have to say about the law, writing, "Wasn’t the system of internal passports one of the most distasteful features of life in the Soviet Union and apartheid-era South Africa?"

She discusses possible responses to the law and importantly notes that even though the law might seem blatantly unconstitutional to many:

[Her] confidence about the law’s fate in the court’s hands is not boundless, however. In 1982, hours after the court decided the Texas case [Plyler v. Doe, which overturned a Texas law depriving undocumented immigrant children of public education], a young assistant to Attorney General William French Smith analyzed the decision and complained in a memo: “This is a case in which our supposed litigation program to encourage judicial restraint did not get off the ground, and should have.” That memo’s author was John G. Roberts Jr.

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Two Must-Read Op-Eds on the Stevens Vacancy and What This Court Fight Should Be About

In his column yesterday, E.J. Dionne laid out exactly the right prescription for liberals and Democrats in the upcoming confirmation battle over the Supreme Court seat being vacated by Justice John Paul Stevens.

We don't know who the nominee is yet, but we know the dangers posed by the Roberts Court and what the right-wing ideologues are doing to our country via their agenda-driven interpretations and reinterpretations of the law and the Constitution.

Citizens United is an extreme case of a general tendency: Conservative judges are regularly invoking their alleged fealty to the "original" intentions of the Founders as a battering ram against attempts to limit the power of large corporations. Such entities were not even in the imaginations of those who wrote the Constitution. To claim to know what the Founders would have made of Exxon Mobil or Goldman Sachs or PepsiCo is an exercise in arrogance.

What liberals forgot during the years when their side dominated the judiciary is that for much of our history, the courts have played a conservative role. But today's conservatives have not forgotten this legacy. Their goal is to overturn the last 70 years of judicial understandings and bring us back to a time when courts voided minimum-wage laws and all manner of other economic regulations.

Read the whole thing here >

Several days earlier, Joe Conason wrote a great piece discussing the politics of Supreme Court confirmation battles and why Democrats and progressives should be eager to have a constitutional debate about the role of the Court and how the Right's definition of "constitutional" really means the dangerous upending of the traditional understanding of the Constitution which has served America well.

Conason writes:

What exactly do they mean by "constitutional"? On the increasingly powerful fringes of the Republican right, a category that includes some Tea Party activists, the Constitution is interpreted as prohibiting every social and political advance since before the Civil War. They would outlaw the Federal Reserve System, the progressive income tax, Social Security, Medicare, environmental protection, consumer regulation and every other important federal initiative of the past century.

Targets of the "constitutional conservatives" would certainly include civil rights legislation that guarantees equal protection under law to minorities and women...

Click here to read the whole piece >

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Double your delay: Senate GOP picks another tactic off the obstruction menu

Some more evidence of the Senate GOP’s extraordinary efforts on behalf of getting nothing done: trying to put off a vote on Wall Street reform, Senate Republicans are filibustering the motion to proceed to the legislation, adding yet another layer of delay to stall the bill.


The motion to proceed has traditionally been a quick formality, dispatched by unanimous consent in order to start debate on a bill. But recently, Republicans have been embracing it as yet another opportunity to slow down Senate proceedings. NPR reports:


It used to be relatively rare that so-called "motions to proceed," or to bring up a bill, were filibustered.


Before Democrats became the majority in 2007, such filibusters occurred only about eight times a year. Since then, the Republican minority has nearly quadrupled the frequency of such filibusters.


This dilatory tactic is just one of many ways that the GOP has found to impose unprecedented delays on Senate business both controversial and mundane. At least they haven’t yet skipped out of work altogether. Oh, wait.
 

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Senators Study How to Break the Filibuster Gridlock

Yesterday’s confirmation of Chris Schroeder to head the Office of Legal Policy was a welcome break in the gridlock that GOP senators have created over President Obama’s Executive Branch nominees. (Though, as has become the pattern, they made sure Schroeder’s confirmation was held up for nearly a year before allowing it to easily pass in a 72-24 vote).

The GOP’s recent unprecedented abuse of procedural stalling tactics has Senators and observers scrambling for ways to amend filibuster rules to get the Senate working again.

In the Washington Post this morning, Ruth Marcus details her ideas on reforming the filibuster while maintaining the power of the minority to have a strong voice in the Senate, and Ezra Klein outlines the enormous time-wasting potential of the current rules.

And Chuck Schumer, chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, has launched a (sure to be smash hit) series of hearings on filibuster reform. At this morning’s hearing, there was some especially interesting testimony from the Brookings Institution’s Sarah Binder, who debunked the widely held idea that the Founding Fathers meant the Senate to be deliberative to the point of inaction.

The filibuster clearly has worthy uses (as anyone who’s seen Mr. Smith Goes to Washington knows), but it’s clearly wrong to imply that the Senate’s inventors intended the sort of obstruction that we see today.

Stanley Bach, a former legislative specialist at the Congressional Research Service who testified at this morning’s hearing, put it this way: “A useful starting point [to discussions of reform] is to ask whether the usual purpose of filibusters is more balanced legislation or no legislation at all.”

These days, the answer to that seems pretty clear.
 

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The Greatest Hits of GOP Obstructionism

The Senate Rules Committee is holding a hearing tomorrow to discuss the history of the filibuster, as Democrats consider their options for limiting GOP abuse of stalling tactics.

People For’s Marge Baker just released a memo on some of the GOP’s most egregious abuses of filibuster threats in the current Congress. She writes:

Although the bulk of the news coverage on nominations has focused on a few nominees singled out for very public attacks by the GOP and right-wing activists, it’s the lower profile nominations that most clearly illustrate the Republicans’ “Party of ‘No’” strategy. In dealing with those nominees, the GOP has undertaken a relentless and irresponsible campaign of obstruction that has frustrated the timely confirmation of the President’s nominees and diverted critical time, energy, and focus from other, equally critical business of the Senate.

The cases that Baker outlines—like that of Circuit Court Judge Barbara Keenan, who waited 124 days for a Senate floor vote on her nomination, only to find that no Republican Senator actually objected to her taking a place on the court—are frustrating examples of purely political obstruction. There’s not a consensus on what to do about the filibuster, but it’s clear that the extent to which the GOP has been using it just to stall the business of government is stunning.
 

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New People For Report Tracks the Rise of the Corporate Court

When the Supreme Court decided this year to open the electoral process to floods of money from corporate interests, it provoked a vehement public backlash. But Citizens United v. FEC was just the tip of the iceberg of a decade of rulings—some high-profile and some less noticed— made by a Court that has been disturbingly deferential to corporate interests. A new People For the American Way Foundation report outlines the rise of the corporate court under Chief Justice Rehnquist and the new life it has taken on in the Roberts court.

Americans across the spectrum have been startled and appalled by the Citizens United decision, which will "open the floodgates for special interests—including foreign companies—to spend without limit in our elections," as President Obama said in his 2010 State of the Union Address. According to a Washington Post nationwide poll, more than 80% of the American people reject the Court's conclusion that a business corporation is a member of the political community entitled to the same free speech rights as citizens.

Yet, the Court's watershed ruling is the logical expression of an activist pro-corporatist jurisprudence that has been bubbling up for many decades on the Court but has gained tremendous momentum over the last generation. Since the Rehnquist Court, there have been at least five justices—and sometimes more—who tilt hard to the right when it comes to a direct showdown between corporate power and the public interest. During the Roberts Court, this trend has continued and intensified. Although there is still some fluidity among the players, it is reasonable to think of a reliable "corporate bloc" as having emerged on the Court.

Take a look at the full report here.
 

PFAW

Justice delayed is justice denied

I recently reported that an agreement had been reached to move forward on the District of Columbia House Voting Rights Act. Four days later came word that this was no longer the case. The fight is not over, but DC’s centuries-long wait to have a voting voice in Congress will continue.

The right-wing forced an agreement with which nobody was happy. And in the end it turns out to have not been an agreement at all but a way for the right-wing to delay their inevitable counterpunch. DC can’t keep fighting these intrusions without a meaningful way to say “aye” or “no” when those infamous bells ring calling members to the House floor.

I cannot speak for Dorothy Height on the events of the last week. But I want to honor her for her commitment to DC voting rights. I remember her arrival at a hearing on a previous iteration of the bill. Without saying a word, her entry alone commanded respect.

I’m not sure if this photo was taken that same day, but Life noted one such occasion on which Dr. Height visited the Hill to champion our cause.

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Undermining Trust in Government: A Cynical, But Winning, Strategy

John Perr wrote what I consider a must-read post over at Crooks and Liars about how Republicans, when in power, fail miserably at governing and seem to do their best art destroying our country. The results of their policies -- economic or otherwise -- inevitably force them out of office, but last long enough that they are able to pin the woes on their democratic successors and make "Government" the scapegoat for all the nation's problems, with particular anger being directed at the then-incumbents: Democrats.

That Americans' trust in government has plummeted to near-record lows isn't a surprise. After all, as the Pew Research Center documented, distrust of Washington is an American tradition, one which tends to rise and fall inversely with the economy. But the spike in anger towards the federal government, a fury which doubled to 21% since 2000, points to a potential midterm bonanza for the GOP. All of which suggests that the Republican Party whose anti-government rhetoric and incompetence in office helped kill trust in government may now be rewarded for it.

By now, the Republican recipe for badmouthing government into power should be all too familiar. First is to endlessly insist that, as Ronald Reagan famously said, "Government is the problem." Second is the self-fulfilling prophecy of bad government under Republican leadership, as the Bush recessions of 1991 and 2007, the Hurricane Katrina response, the Iraq catastrophe and the transfer of federal oversight powers to the industries being regulated all showed. Third, when the backlash from the American people inevitably comes as it did in 1992 and 2008, attack the very legitimacy of the new Democratic president they elected. Fourth, turn to the filibuster and other obstructionist tactics to block the Democratic agenda, inaction for which the incumbent majoirty will be blamed. Last, target the institutions and programs (Social Security, Medicare, the IRS) which form the underpinnings of progressive government.

Then lather, rinse and repeat.

Read Perr's entire post (w/links) here >

And check out two recent PFAW reports which evidence quite clearly that the Right has no real interest in actually governing or doing what's best for the country:

PFAW

An economic historian debunks the originalist rhetoric of Citizens United

Justin Fox, on his Harvard Business Review blog, has an interesting take on the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC. He interviews Brian Murphy, a history professor at Baruch College who studies the economics and politics of early America. The original laws of incorporation, Murphy says, were developed to organize civic organizations and municipal governments, and later were applied to economic enterprises, partly as a way to dilute their growing influence. “The intent of these laws is therefore the opposite of what the Court asserted in Citizens United,” he says.

Let me put it this way: the Founders did not confuse Boston's Sons of Liberty with the British East India Company. They could distinguish among different varieties of association — and they understood that corporate personhood was a legal fiction that was limited to a courtroom. It wasn't literal. Corporations could not vote or hold office. They held property, and to enable a shifting group of shareholders to hold that property over time and to sue and be sued in court, they were granted this fictive personhood in a limited legal context.

Early Americans had a far more comprehensive and nuanced understanding of corporations than the Court gives them credit for. They were much more comfortable with retaining pre-Revolutionary city or school charters than with creating new corporations that would concentrate economic and political power in potentially unaccountable institutions. When you read Madison in particular, you see that he wasn't blindly hostile to banks during his fight with Alexander Hamilton over the Bank of the United States. Instead, he's worried about the unchecked power of accumulations of capital that come with creating a class of bankers.

The view of corporations as “persons” was meant for legal convenience and economic risk reduction, Murphy argues, and it was the courts, not lawmakers, who started blurring the distinction between the rights of individuals and corporations.

Given the public’s overwhelmingly negative reaction to Citizens United, it seems that Americans continue to understand the difference between corporations and individuals, their purpose in society, and their rights. Americans haven’t grown out of touch with the fundamental values of the Constitution—the Court has.


 

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Senator Sessions Plays the “Judicial Activism” Card

At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing today, Senator Jeff Sessions said that that Goodwin Liu’s writings represent “liberal judicial activism.” And he doesn’t like it!

But what Sessions apparently does like is conservative judicial activism. Overturn more than a century of settled campaign finance law? Limit women’s ability to recover for being discriminated against on their jobs? Hand billions of dollars to Exxon? Rewrite the Voting Rights Act? That’s a-ok! “Liberal judicial activism,” (by which I assume he means opposing those decisions)? Bad.

Senator Sessions’s ability to keep a straight face while delivering such patently farcical attack is impressive. His stale talking points aren’t.
 

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DC voting rights bill expected to move next week

DC has waited over 200 years to have a voting voice in Congress. Today the nation’s capital may be as close as it’s ever come to making that dream a reality.

On Wednesday afternoon came the breaking news that an agreement had been reached to move forward on the District of Columbia House Voting Rights Act, which would give DC a full Representative with the same voting power as other House members. Just this morning, I joined a room full of concerned citizens and activists for a briefing lead by DC Vote and DC Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton. We then took to the halls of Congress in support of the Delegate’s tireless efforts on this issue.

Nobody is happy that this agreement comes at the price of right-wing interference in local affairs. But to go any longer without voting rights is an even higher price to pay. DC can’t keep fighting these intrusions without a meaningful way to say “aye” or “no” when those infamous bells ring calling members to the House floor. As Wade Henderson of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights put it:

The civil rights community recognizes that it must be prepared to accept some setbacks in the name of long-term progress. Virtually every major piece of civil rights legislation, from 1957 onwards, has involved difficult and often painful tradeoffs. In this case, given the fundamental importance of gaining a vote in Congress, we are prepared to move forward with the voting rights bill.

People For the American Way believes that the right-wing should stay away from this bill. But we also believe it’s a tragedy that our Democracy has allowed DC residents to live without voting representation for over 200 years. Any citizen who pays taxes, and is otherwise legally eligible to vote, should be able to vote. And certainly no member of the armed services should be robbed of the right to vote simply because of where they live.

The fight will not be over even when DC can cast a House vote. It is high time the nation’s capital be given both House and Senate representation, with voting power in both chambers.

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Kyl disagrees with 69% of Americans on SCOTUS nominee

In his remarks on the retirement of Justice John Paul Stevens, President Obama alluded to his displeasure (which he hasn’t exactly been keeping secret) with the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. FEC. Now the GOP is crying “litmus test”:

Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) invoked Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts’s name in a Senate floor speech Tuesday warning Obama not to nominate someone who would be an automatic vote against corporate interests. He made it clear such a nomination could provoke a GOP filibuster.

“The big corporation might have the right law and facts in a particular case,” said Kyl, who noted that Roberts in his own confirmation hearing said that in a dispute between a “big guy and little guy” he would vote for whoever had the law behind him.

“You don’t go on to the bench [saying], ‘I’m always going to be against the big guy,’ ” said Kyl.

Kyl’s straw man argument not only misconstrues Obama’s words, but shows how out of touch his party has become with the American people. A People For poll in February found that a full 78% of Americans—from across the political spectrum— believe that corporations should be limited in how much they can spend to influence elections, with 70% believing that corporations already have too much influence. And asked whether President Obama should nominate a Supreme Court justice who supports limiting corporate spending in elections, 69% said yes.

And just this week, a candidate running on a platform that included a Constitutional Amendment to overturn Citizens United won a resounding victory in a congressional special election in Florida.

Given that kind of evidence, Senator Kyl might want to rethink his decision to make himself a champion of corporate interests over the rights of ordinary Americans.
 

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