Saying No To Good Government

Although Elena Kagan’s nomination moved out of committee yesterday, almost every Republican committee member voted against her, and most Senate Republicans are expected to follow suite. Why? As an editorial in the New York Times pointed out , Republican opposition to the broad interpretation of the commerce clause in recent decades may partly explain their refusal to support Kagan:

[D]ozens of Senate Republicans are ready to vote against [Kagan], and many are citing her interpretation of the commerce clause of the Constitution, the one that says Congress has the power to regulate commerce among the states. At her confirmation hearings, Ms. Kagan refused to take the Republican bait and agree to suggest limits on that clause’s meaning. This infuriated the conservatives on the Senate Judiciary Committee because it has been that clause, more than any other, that has been at the heart of the expansion of government power since the New Deal.

The clause was the legal basis for any number of statutes of enormous benefit to society. It is why we have the Clean Air Act. The Clean Water Act. The Endangered Species Act. The Fair Labor Standards Act, setting a minimum wage and limiting child labor. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, outlawing segregation in the workplace and in public accommodations. In cases like these, the Supreme Court has said Congress can regulate activities that have a “substantial effect” on interstate commerce, even if they are not directly business-related.

…Make no mistake that such a vote is simply about her, or about President Obama. A vote against the commerce clause is a vote against some of the best things that government has done for the better part of a century, and some of the best things that lie ahead.

In voting against Kagan’s anticipated interpretation of the commerce clause, the “Party of No” isn’t just opposing the confirmation of extremely qualified Supreme Court Justice; they’re also opposing the government fulfilling its responsibility to protect clean air and water, fair labor standards, and civil rights for all.


Kagan Clears Judiciary Committee

Yesterday the Judiciary Committee voted to forward Elena Kagan’s Supreme Court nomination to the full Senate. Here’s PFAW President Michael B. Keegan’s statement:

Today’s vote is a step towards achieving a Supreme Court that understands the way the law affects individual Americans. In her hearings, Solicitor General Kagan made clear that, unlike the current Court, she understands that corporate interests shouldn’t be allowed to run rampant over the rights of individual Americans.

It’s frankly puzzling that the GOP seems dead set on opposing that principle. Throughout much of the hearings, Republican senators lavished praise on Citizens United v. FEC, a decision that gave corporations unchecked rights to buy elections and which most Americans abhor. Given the national outrage at companies like BP and Goldman Sachs, it’s surprising that the GOP would expend so much breath pining for a Supreme Court Justice who would give even greater deference to corporations while slamming the door on individual Americans fighting for their rights.

Apparently, the ‘Party of No’ can’t stop from saying ‘Yes’ to corporate interests who want to get their way in the Supreme Court.

Fortunately for the country, the GOP has been unable to block the confirmation of this supremely qualified nominee. But as we’ve noted, their largely under-the-radar obstructionism on lower priority nominations is still going strong.


Will Your Representative Sign the Pledge to Protect America’s Democracy?

Today, People For the American Way and Public Citizen launched a new campaign to get the ball rolling on a Constitutional Amendment to kick corporate money out of elections.

In January, the Supreme Court overturned a policy that was more than a century-old to allow corporations to spend millions of dollars from their treasuries to influence elections. To get to that decision, in the case of Citizens United v. FEC, the Court determined that corporations have the same free speech rights as individuals.

This reasoning, and the conclusion it led to, have been soundly rejected by Americans across the political spectrum. A poll we commissioned last month found that 85% of Americans disagree with the Court’s conclusion that the First Amendment allows corporations to spend whatever they like on elections, and 77% wanted to amend the Constitution to undo it.

What’s more, 74%--including majorities of Democrats, Republicans, and independents-- said they’d be more likely to vote for a candidate who pledged to work for a Constitutional Amendment to undo Citizens United.

We saw this as a clear call to action. So we joined up with Public Citizen to create and start making a Constitutional Amendment a reality.

Here’s how it works. We’ve written up a pledge for federal candidates to sign, committing them to work towards a Constitutional Amendment to return our democracy to voters. It reads:

The Supreme Court's flawed decision allowing corporations to spend unlimited amounts to influence election outcomes endangers our democracy and threatens to drown out the voices of individual citizens. I pledge to protect America from unlimited corporate spending on our elections by supporting a Constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court's decision giving corporations the same First Amendment rights as people.

If you support a Constitutional Amendment, contact your representatives and candidates in your area and urge them to sign the pledge. Then get back to us and let us know what they said. We’ll keep track of contacts to candidates and officials, and publicize which candidates sign the pledge and which refuse to sign it.

We know that elections belong to voters…it’s time for elected officials to show they agree.


We’re Helping to Put Up a Billboard in Boehner’s Hometown. What Should It Say?

The PFAW Voters Alliance is cosponsoring an effort by our friends at Blue America PAC to beat Republican Leader John Boehner in his own House district. Because Boehner is an unbelievably avid golfer (he golfed 119 times last year—how is that even possible?) we’ll be putting up a billboard near a golf course in Boehner’s district. And we need your help deciding what it will say.

As you cast your vote, keep in mind these fun facts about the out-of-touch, lobbyist-schmoozing, industry-loving aspiring Speaker of the House:

  • He said passage of affordable health care for all Americans would be “Armageddon” and would “ruin the country.”
  • He dismissed Wall Street’s greedy and disastrous practices as “an ant,” saying regulatory reform would be like killing the ant with a nuclear weapon.
  • He suggested that taxpayer dollars should be used to bail out BP.
  • He wants a moratorium on new federal regulations of all industries.

On top of all these indicators that Boehner would be simply disastrous in the role of Speaker of the House, if he did achieve that position it would mean several equally extreme right-wing members taking over as chair of key committees – like Joe Barton, who apologized to BP for the government taking actions to hold the company accountable, taking over the Energy and Commerce Committee.

Here are two of the billboards we’ve designed to remind Boehner’s constituents where his--and his party’s--priorities lie:

To see the rest of the options and cast your vote, click here.



The Ethical Imperative of Immigration Reform

One of the more interesting developments in the latest push for comprehensive immigration reform has been the split developing between conservative anti-immigrant groups who are committed to mass deportation at all costs and some right-wing evangelical leaders who have come out in favor of a compassionate and realistic approach to immigration reform.

In May, a coalition of conservative evangelical leaders announced their intention to gather support for “a just assimilation immigration policy.” Soon afterwards, of course, they made it clear that their definition of “just” does not include justice for LGBT couples.

On Wednesday, a number of those leaders spoke to the House Judiciary Committee on their support for ethical immigration reform—and its limits.

In the hearing on the Ethical Imperative for Reform of our Immigration System , immigration reform was discussed in the context of ethics and morals, and the committee heard testimonies from three religious leaders and one scholar about the problems and possible solutions for immigration reform in America.

Nobody at the hearing denied that the current immigration system is broken and untenable. Rev. Gerald Kicanas, Bishop of the Archdiocese of Tucson, contextualized immigration as a humanitarian issue with moral implications, underlining that our immigration system fails to protect basic human rights and dignity. He voiced his support for comprehensive immigration reform that would encompass features such as paying a fine, paying taxes, learning English, and waiting behind those who already applied legally to eventually gain citizenship, and argued that CIR would fulfill our moral obligation to protect immigrants under rule of law.

Richard Land, President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, echoed those sentiments, stating that when looking at the issue of immigration through a faith-based lens, individuals had a biblical mandate to care for others and act mercifully.

Both speakers advocated an earned path to citizenship, recognizing that deporting over 11 million immigrants was not only unfeasible, but immoral and inconsistent with the rule of law.

It’s troubling that the compassion Kicanas and Land are advocating stops at the equal treatment of gay people. Both are right that too often, pivotal issues like immigration reform become mired in politics and party-line ideology, and it’s important for leaders from different faith backgrounds to step up and have a conversation on the detrimental effects of our broken system of immigration on millions of families. But that discussion should include all families.


Boehner: Only Regulate in “Emergencies”

In another stunning moment of out-of-touch kowtowing to industry lobbyists, House Republican Leader John Boehner has told reporters that he would support a moratorium on all new federal regulations…with an exemption for “emergencies.” Greg Sargent at the Washington Post contacted Boehner’s office to see if the moratorium would include a halt to new oil industry regulations:

Boehner spokesman Michael Steel gets in touch to clarify that this moratorium would not apply to new regs for the oil industry.

"Boehner said at the same press event that we need to find out what happened in the Gulf and how we can make sure it never, ever happens again," Steel said. "So it is clear that would fall under the `emergency' regulations exception he described."

Asked how this would work, Steel said the idea had first surfaced today during the much-publicized meeting with trade groups, which was streamed online. He said it was too early to go into detail on how such a moratorium would function.

To summarize: Boehner went to a meeting with industry lobbyists and came away with the idea to let those industries avoid all new government regulation…until AFTER that lack of regulation has created a disastrous situation that can be classified as an emergency.

Great idea. After all, that attitude worked so well for George W. Bush.


The GOP's Judicial Obstruction Stats

Yesterday, Sen. Kay Hagan of North Carolina tried to convince the Senate to confirm two appeals court nominees from her state. The two nominees, Judges James Wynn and Albert Diaz, have no controversial baggage--each received near-unanimous bipartisan support from the Judiciary Committee.

The confirmation of Wynn and Diaz would also contribute to the Obama Administration’s effort to add diversity to a woefully un-diverse court system. Diaz would be the first Latino appointed to the Fourth Circuit, Wynn the fourth African American.

Wynn and Diaz have both been waiting 169 days—over five months— for a Senate vote.

But none other than Minority Leader Mitch McConnell took to the floor yesterday to block a vote on the two nominees. He freely admitted that his action had nothing to do with Wynn and Diaz themselves, but was rather a purely political retaliation against the president’s recess appointment of a Medicare and Medicaid administrator. That appointment was not only unrelated to Wynn and Diaz, but came after the two nominees had already been stalled for months on the Senate floor.

Watch the video of Hagan’s and McConnell’s exchange:

Using judicial nominees as political pawns—thereby leaving important vacancies in courts throughout the country and stalling efforts to put judges with diverse background on the bench—is a tactic that the Republican minority has been using with zeal.

We’ve been collecting statistics on Republican efforts to keep qualified judges from starting their jobs. Here’s the latest update:

Nominees waiting for confirmation: 21
Nominees who have been waiting for more than 90 days: 18
Average number of days since nominated: 161 (200 for circuit court nominees)
Average number of days waiting for a Senate floor vote: 90 (111 for circuit court nominees)


Advocates and members of Congress gather to support LGBT equality and comprehensive immigration reform

Yesterday I joined fellow advocates and members of Congress for a press conference to support LGBT equality and comprehensive immigration reform.

We are pushing for the Uniting American Families Act (UAFA) to be included in all reform proposals. Incorporating UAFA would be a meaningful step taken toward providing equality to same-sex couples and keeping their families together. UAFA allows many same-sex partners to begin the immigration process more quickly and efficiently, and with fewer limitations. Gay men and lesbians whose partners are US citizens or legal permanent residents could apply for family-based visas and green cards.

Representative Nadler (D-NY8), UAFA’s lead sponsor in the House, laid out our demands.

As the urgency for comprehensive immigration reform increases nationally, and the debate in Washington widens, it is essential to ensure that the LGBT community is included in the reforms we propose and pass.

Representative Gutierrez (D-IL4) described the plight of the LGBT community.

Right now, too many same-sex, binational couples face an impossible choice: to live apart or to break the law to be with their partners, families, and children. That's not good for them and it is not good for the rest of us either.

Representative Polis (D-CO2) emphasized why equality is important not only for them but for us all.

We are a nation of immigrants and, as a result, our diversity is our greatest strength . . . Unfortunately, our out-dated immigration system contains laws that discriminate against LGBT families and hinder our economy, our diversity, and our status as a beacon of hope and liberty to people across the world. To be truly comprehensive and achieve real, long-lasting reform, we must provide all domestic partners and married couples the same rights and obligations in any immigration legislation.

Appearing with Representatives Nadler, Gutierrez, and Polis were Representatives Honda (D-CA15) and Quigley (D-IL5), as well as Rachel Tiven, Executive Director of Immigration Equality Action Fund, and Karen Narasaki, President and Executive Director of the Asian American Justice Center.

As my fellow advocates and I stood in solidarity behind these champions of LGBT equality and comprehensive immigration reform, I was struck by the words of Erwin de Leon.

We are not asking for special rights. We are only asking for equal rights.

Erwin works hard at his job and his education and does what he can to help the community. He has been in a committed relationship for 12 years. He and his partner are married in DC. Yet his partner cannot sponsor him for residency. Their family will be torn apart if Erwin is forced to leave the country after completing his PhD.

For more information, please visit Immigration Equality Action Fund.


The Right Wing Immigration Playbook Gets Scary

We reported earlier this year on the whisper campaign strategy we expected from the right wing in its effort to defeat comprehensive immigration reform, and since then we’ve seen exactly that--fringe extremism met with tacit acceptance by the mainstream.

We saw that strategy at work in Arizona, where an extreme-right state senator convinced the entire state government to hop on board an anti-immigrant plan that sanctioned racial profiling, hampered local law enforcement, and created a culture of fear for Latinos in the state.

But I don’t know if we expected anything as scary as we’re seeing this week.

Yesterday, the New York Times reported that an anonymous group had circulated a list to media outlets and government officials containing the names, birth dates, addresses, and telephone numbers of 1,300 Utah residents who, they said, they “strongly believe are in this country illegally and should be immediately deported.” The list also included the due dates of pregnant women.

The release of the list has caused residents who are here legally as well as those without documentation to fear retaliation by self-appointed immigration enforcers.

Today, Think Progress reported a similar fear tactic in Arizona, where someone pretending to be a sheriff has sent letters to businesses and individuals telling them in an intimidating tone to “take heed” of the state’s new draconian anti-immigrant policy.

Both of these incidents involved anonymous groups of individuals, not government officials (though Utah officials suspect government employees might have been involved in leaking the personal information to the list). In both cases, state and local authorities are looking into who is responsible.

These incidents have been disturbing, but what is even more disturbing is the right’s silence in response. Utah’s governor, Gary Herbert, has expressed his disapproval of the Utah list, but few right wing leaders have joined him in speaking out against it. A spokesman for the Utah chapter of the Minuteman Project went so far as to say he thought the release of the list was a good idea, as long as the information on it was accurate.

If right wing leaders don’t condemn these tactics of intimidation, they tacitly condone them. And they can’t claim to be interested in real reform if they stand by silently while fringe groups incite hatred and fear.


Court Stops Right-Wing Anti-Marriage Referendum

An appeals court ruled this morning that the DC City Council has every right to refuse to hold a referendum aimed at shooting down the city’s four-month-old marriage equality law.

The push to end DC’s marriage law was led by Bishop Harry Jackson, an anti-gay activist who has allied with national right-wing groups like the National Organization for Marriage and the Family Research Council in his quest to undo the law.

The DC Council refused to let Jackson introduce a referendum to ban gays from marrying in the District, citing a policy that prohibits ballot intiatives to authorize discrimination. In January, a lower court agreed with the Council, and today the DC Court of Appeals upheld that decision. The Appeals Court’s decision was split 5-4, but the judges were unanimous on one key point: that Jackson’s referendum constituted discrimination.

The DC Council passed the marriage equality law in an 11-2 vote in December; marriage licenses became available in March.

All in all, it’s been a good July for marriage equality.


Come to our Netroots Nation Panel: Undoing Citizens United

Will you be in Las Vegas next week for Netroots Nation? If so, join us on Saturday for a discussion of corporate influence in elections and what we can do about it. We’ve put together a great panel of experts and activists to discuss the Citizens United decision and its aftermath—including Reps. Donna Edwards and Alan Grayson, People For’s Marge Baker, Public Citizen’s Robert Weissman, and Lisa Graves of the Center for Media and Democracy.

For details, visit the Netroots Nation page on the panel: Undoing Citizens United: A Comprehensive Plan to Prevent Corporations from Buying Elections.

And, if you’re an overachiever looking to do some background reading, take a look at our recent poll showing overwhelming opposition to the Citizens United ruling and our report on the Rise of the Corporate Court.


Second Circuit Strikes Down FCC’s Indecency Rules

Few people could have imagined that Bono’s utterance of a single expletive during a 2003 awards show would have such a massive impact seven years later. Today, in Fox v. FCC, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals held that the FCC’s unclear rules regarding fleeting vulgar language are unconstitutional. From the Wall Street Journal, the court said that:

…the FCC's indecency policies were "unconstitutionally vague, creating a chilling effect that goes far beyond the fleeting expletives at issue here."

The 32-page ruling was laced with many of the words FCC policy said broadcasters could not allow to be spoken on air. It sets up the possibility that the Supreme Court could be asked to revisit rulings that have formed the basis for government curbs on "indecent" broadcast speech, including a 1978 decision that allowed the FCC to fine the Pacifica Foundation for broadcasting a monologue on dirty words by the late comedian George Carlin.

This decision will almost certainly lead to an appeal, but it remains unclear to what extent the Obama administration will fight it. Keep in mind that the current FCC regulations date back to George W. Bush’s time in the White House. In any case, today’s decision signals that the FCC cannot broadly punish broadcasters for airing expletives, absent clear guidelines. And as the court stated, all TVs 13 inches or larger sold in the United States come with V-chips, allowing parents to choose what their children can and cannot watch, further weakening the rationale for the FCC’s regulations.


The Next Frontier in Undoing Campaign Finance Reform

Since the Supreme Court decided earlier this year that corporations have a First Amendment right to spend however much they like to influence elections, groups have been attempting to use that decision to hack away at the core of federal and state campaign finance laws.

Last month, the Supreme Court declined to hear a challenge to the federal ban on soft money (unlimited contributions to political parties), a centerpiece of the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign reform bill. Though that case was cut short, at least one other challenge to the law is in the works.

Now, groups at the state level are trying to use the Citizens United decision as leverage to do away with bans not only on independent expenditures by corporations, but also on corporate contributions directly to candidates’ bank accounts. 22 states, like the federal government, prohibit corporations from contributing directly to campaign committees. After Citizens United, business groups in Montana were the first out of the gates, filing suit to get rid of Montana’s 98-year old ban on both independent campaign expenditures by corporations (the spending that Citizens United allowed on the federal level) and direct corporate contributions to campaigns (which Citizens United didn’t touch).

In May, the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce convinced a federal court to strike down that state’s independent expenditures ban. Now, Minnesota business interests are following the Montanans’ lead and broadening their challenge to include the state’s ban on direct contributions:

State law now allows corporations to spend money independently of campaigns on ads supporting or opposing candidates, an arrangement that the U.S. Supreme Court approved early this year.

But the Taxpayers League of Minnesota, Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life and Coastal Travel Enterprises seek to go beyond that ruling and allow direct contributions to candidates by corporations.

"Our clients believe ... that the First Amendment gives corporations ... the right to contribute to candidates and political parties through their general treasury funds," said Joe La Rue, an attorney for the plaintiffs, who sued this week in U.S. District Court in Minnesota.

In Citizens United, the Supreme Court clearly created a slippery slope of corporate money in politics. State-level bans on independent spending by corporations have been the first to go. Will guards against corporate-to-candidate contributions—and the very clear appearance of corruption that they create—be next


The Substance of the Kagan Hearings

Many viewed it as a foregone conclusion that Elena Kagan’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings would lack any real discussion of law and the Constitution. In fact, People For’s Marge Baker argues in a new memo, Kagan’s hearings were more substantial than any in recent memory. Kagan politely but decisively refused to buy into empty conservative rhetoric, and laid out a strong view of the limited, but not simple, role of the courts in a democracy:

Kagan said a great deal about how judges should approach Congressional statutes and argued for significant deference to legislators and reluctance to strike down federal law. Even when invited to take on straw men (like Senator Coburn’s fruits-and-vegetables line of questioning) she went to great lengths to describe the latitude that Congress should be allowed, even pointing to Justice Holmes, approvingly noting that he “hated a lot of the legislation that was being enacted during those years, but insisted that if the people wanted it, it was their right to go hang themselves.”

In applying laws passed by Congress, she emphasized looking at Congressional intent and examining the Congressional record—approaches very much at issue in cases like Ledbetter and Citizens United. Her testimony made an unmistakable argument both for the importance of judges’ responsibility to uphold the Constitution and for the limits of what judges should do.

We’ve put together a collection of some of the most interesting moments from the hearings. Here, Kagan takes down Chief Justice Roberts’ flawed judge-as-umpire analogy:

Click here to watch our top ten favorite clips from the hearings.


Alexander Hamilton's Plug for Kagan

For all the right wing talk of “strict constructionism" and the "original intent of the Founders," it’s important to bear in mind that the Founders themselves actually did envision the Constitution evolving to apply to new circumstances. Alexander Hamilton (who died 206 years ago today) put it this way:

Constitutions should consist only of general provisions; the reason is that they must necessarily be permanent, and that they cannot calculate for the possible change of things.

Elena Kagan echoed that sentiment in her hearing:



For more words of wisdom from Kagan’s testimony, see PFAW’s Top Ten Highlights of the Kagan Hearings.