Clean Elections Win in Connecticut Shows Power of Movement to Fight Big Money

Following an outcry from a range of local and national leaders, including PFAW president Michael Keegan, Connecticut legislators withdrew a plan yesterday that would have cut funding for the state’s clean elections law.

Connecticut’s landmark program is a model for the country, one that has allowed people to run for office and become elected officials even if they don’t have access to special interest money or wealthy backers. When the proposed attack on clean elections was announced, the pushback was swift. A cohort of young Connecticut lawmakers, many of whom are members of affiliate People For the American Way Foundation’s Young Elected Officials Network, spoke out against the proposal in a letter. They highlighted the clean election program’s success in allowing young people to compete in the state’s elections “based on policy positions and ideas” rather than “who has access to the biggest donors.” PFAW members in Connecticut made calls to their state legislators and asked them to reject any plan to undermine clean elections. State groups like Common Cause Connecticut and ConnPIRG rallied against it, and former Gov. Jodi Rell, who signed the landmark reform into law, spoke out against attempts to “turn aside” the program “many of us worked so hard to put in place to prevent political corruption scandals.”

That the proposal was withdrawn after just three days is a win not only for the state of Connecticut, but for the national movement to fight big money in politics. From clean elections victories in Seattle and Maine earlier this month to yesterday’s win in Connecticut, it’s clear that policies to help lessen the influence of big money in politics are popular, valued, and people will fight for them.


Justice Scalia's Ironic Comments About Democracy

Justice Antonin Scalia had some interesting things to say at a speech yesterday to Georgetown University law students.  The Washington Post reports on Scalia’s response to a question about minority rights:

But a question about whether courts have a responsibility to protect minorities that cannot win rights through the democratic process — the issue that animated the court’s landmark decision this year on same-sex marriage — brought a caustic response.

“You either believe in a democracy or you don’t,” Scalia said. “You talk about minorities — what minorities deserve protection?”

Religious minorities are protected by the First Amendment, Scalia said, and so are political minorities. But beyond that, he asked rhetorically, what empowers Supreme Court justices to expand the list.

“It’s up to me to decide deserving minorities?” Scalia asked. “What about pederasts? What about child abusers? So should I on the Supreme Court [say] this is a deserving minority. Nobody loves them.”

“No, if you believe in democracy, you should put it to the people,” he said.

No, Justice Scalia, if you believe in democracy governed by the Bill of Rights, people have rights that cannot be violated by majorities.  The majesty of the Equal Protection Clause is that it was intentionally written broadly, rather than being limited to certain people.  And it doesn’t have a clause saying “except for gay people.”

In addition, given Scalia’s caustic dissents in cases recognizing the constitutional equality and basic humanity of gay people, it is hardly a surprise that he answered a question implicating LGBT equality by dragging in pederasts and child abusers.  From a legal perspective, can he really not see any difference between protecting innocent but unpopular people who aren’t harming anyone, and policies designed to prevent adults from committing acts of violence against unwilling children?

Legal comparisons aside, why bring up child molesters at all?  For far too long, far right extremists have long peddled the pernicious lie that gay people are inherently a threat to children.  Why did Scalia’s mind go there?  Surely there are other categories of people he could have mentioned to make the same point.

Scalia’s comment about believing in a democracy also has to be taken in context: He voted with the 5-4 majorities in Citizens United (opening up our elections to unlimited corporate and special-interest money) and Shelby County (gutting the heart of the Voting Rights Act and empowering those who seek to win elections by disenfranchising Americans who might vote against them).  And, of course, he was with the 5-4 majority in the ultimate judicial middle finger to democracy, Bush v. Gore.

At the heart of our democracy is the right to vote in free and fair elections.  That means elections without barriers designed to keep the “wrong” people from voting, and elections where the voices of ordinary people are not drowned out by a tiny sliver of phenomenally wealthy and powerful interests.  That is what a healthy democracy looks like, and it makes Scalia’s comments quite ironic.

PFAW Foundation

Koch Communications Officer Delivers Spin to St. Anselm’s College, Activists Call Out #KochProblem

koch visibility event

It’s not just secret money and front groups for the Koch Brothers this election season. Sometimes, the Kochs are up front in their attempts to sell their toxic agenda — like when they decide to send Koch Industries Chief Communication and Marketing Officer, Steve Lombardo, to St. Anselm’s Institute of Politics to pitch a softer side of Koch.

A group of about 10 activists from People For the American Way and Granite State Progress gathered Tuesday outside the Institute of Politics to hold signs that read “#KOCH PROBLEM” and “PR Stunt” — among other messages.

The event was brazenly titled, “Beyond the Political Spin: How Koch is is Driving Freedom, Fairness and Prosperity."

The Kochs — no strangers to attempting to buy support at college campuses through stipulations about hiring and coursework — are planning on spending up to $900 million in this year’s election cycle through their secretive network of organizations.

When asked if the Kochs will acknowledge that the candidates they back are beholden to them, Lombardo failed to explain a difference between other forms of “crony capitalism” the Kochs like to decry and the political work done by the Koch network.

Question: “In a recent interview with the Wichita Eagle, Charles Koch claimed that politicians are ‘beholden to corporations and cronies who get them re-elected’ and deemed this ‘welfare for the wealthy.’ The Koch network has poured millions of dollars into our political system—do the Kochs agree that the candidates they back are beholden to them?”

Lombardo: “Yeah, that’s a great question. I’m going to answer it the way Charles has recently answered that. And that is – beholden is the wrong word. Charles is frustrated right now, to be honest with you, he’s very frustrated that a lot of the candidates that the network that he’s a part of, along with a lot of other donors, hundreds of donors, thousands…have not done a lot of things that they said they were going to do, okay. And he’s quite frankly very frustrated and we have not at this point in time, supporting any presidential candidate. And Mr. Koch believes- is worried right now that none of them are going to do what they say they’re going to do.  So the folks that we supported in 2014 frankly a lot of them have not lived up to the things that I’ve been talking about in terms of fighting corporate welfare, in terms of supporting criminal justice reform among other things. Beholden is wrong. We all, everybody who votes for someone or contributes money to them, contributes $5 — you’re hoping that they’re gonna do what they said they were gonna do. Now if you call that beholden you can call that beholden, but to me, it’s I give $5 to a candidate because I think — they said they were gonna do something, and I go ‘wow, I agree with that, I want them to do that, I’m giving them $5.’ Now you can call that beholden, or $500 million or whatever it might be…I don’t think it’s the same way but we are expecting them to do the things they say they were gonna do, and frankly a lot of them aren’t.”

The Kochs clearly expect a lot in return for the amount they’re spending on politics — so yes, the candidates that they back are beholden to them, and much more so than they would be to any small donor.  Downplaying their own effectiveness doesn’t change the fact that they are blatantly attempting to buy influence, with their network expected to spend as much as, or more than, either political party.


Coalition Nearly 200-Strong Takes a Stand and Says "NO" to Harmful Policy Riders

Today, a coalition of nearly 200 organizations, including People For the American Way, took a stand against another tactic that special interests have attempted to use to exert outsized influence over the political process – harmful policy riders attached to must-pass appropriations bills in order to advance ideological agendas rather than fund must-needed programs and services for the American people.

Far-right members of Congress take a dislike to something, say . . . the critical reproductive and preventive healthcare services offered by Planned Parenthood, and they write a line or two into an appropriations bill that says that government money cannot be used for that purpose.  All kinds of programs and laws are subject to this kind of indirect assault: Just prohibit any money from being spent on it.

In its letter, the coalition urges President Obama and members of Congress to oppose any funding bill that contains such dangerous proposals.

With the passage of the framework bill for funding the government, attention now turns to how to allot the monies and what may be attached. Appropriations bills have been used before to undermine essential safeguards through “policy riders” – provisions that address extraneous policy not funding issues, and are slipped into appropriations bills to win approval as part of must-pass funding legislation. These are measures that the public opposes, and the President would likely veto as standalone legislation. The American people support policies to restrain Wall Street abuses and ensure safe and healthy food and products, to provide for clean air and water and keep workplaces safe, to prevent consumer rip-offs and corporate wrongdoing, and to ensure continued access to vital health care services.

These inappropriate riders are intended to advance the priorities of special interest donors and supporters. They have become the “new earmarks,” but they are actually far worse than the old earmarks, because they have vastly greater reach and consequence for the American people. Some Members of Congress have even gone so far as to say they are willing to shut down the entire government over outrageous policy riders like the defunding of Planned Parenthood which provides health services to millions of low-income Americans.

[ . . . ]

We urge Members of Congress and Senators to oppose flawed funding proposals such as the non-exhaustive list of examples above if they come to the floor attached to the omnibus funding package. We further urge the administration in the strongest possible terms to oppose any funding package that includes these or any other dangerous legislative proposals. If included in a final package, any ideological policy riders would undo key safeguards and protections for Main Street.

Think the EPA should be able update air quality standards?

How about the SEC's ability to require political disclosures from publicly traded companies?

The FDA and drug safety labeling?

That's what we're talking about here.


Despite Lack of Questions, Money in Politics a Constant Theme of Democratic Debate

This piece originally appeared in The Huffington Post.

When CNN asked for input from the public on topics for last night’s Democratic debate, they were flooded with hundreds, possibly thousands, of questions about getting big money out of politics. But none of the moderators asked a single question about it, either unaware of or indifferent to the groundswell of people who wanted to hear more from the candidates on this issue.

Even without a question posed, money in politics was a pervasive theme throughout the night. Jim Webb kicked off the debate by acknowledging that “people are disgusted with the way that money has corrupted our political process” and painting himself as a leader who hasn’t been “coopted” by the system. Bernie Sanders wove the issue throughout his comments, connecting it to everything from climate change to Wall Street regulation. He brought up the 2010 Supreme Court Citizens Uniteddecision more than once, saying that Americans rightly “want to know whether we’re going to have a democracy or an oligarchy as a result of Citizens United.”

The candidates are not only right to bring up the big-money takeover of our democracy -- they’re smart to do so.  Polling consistently shows that this is a top issue for voters and that Americans are looking for leaders who will fight for reform. More than nine in ten voters want to see their elected leaders work to lessen big money’s influence in elections.

But we want to hear more from candidates about how they will actually make reform happen. The leading candidates have laid out agendas on money in politics reform that include a range of solutions, from a constitutional amendment to overturn cases like Citizens United, to disclosure of secret political spending, to small donor empowerment measures. The CNN moderators missed a ripe opportunity to ask the candidates how they would put these plans in place if they become the next president.

At the next debate, it’s time to move from talking about the problem of big money to talking about the solutions.


Expanding Democracy by Amending the Constitution to Get Money Out of Politics

This piece originally appeared in the Huffington Post.

Ninety-five years ago today, we added an amendment to the U.S. Constitution saying that women have a right to vote in our elections. While today women's suffrage seems like a no-brainer to everyone -- except maybe Ann Coulter -- it was not an inevitability that simply fell into place. Women were not "given" the right to vote. It was an amendment that women fought for, tooth and nail, for more than 70 years in every state across the country

In a 2010 piece about the suffrage movement, New York Times columnist Gail Collins wrote that "behind almost every great moment in history, there are heroic people doing really boring and frustrating things for a prolonged period of time." It was a painstaking process of organizing, state by state, that ultimately led to the 19th Amendment.

It's not a fast process to amend the Constitution -- just ask Susan B. Anthony, who organized for decades and didn't live to see the passage of the women's suffrage amendment. It shouldn't be easy to change our country's guiding document. But we have a history of passing amendments, when necessary, to make our democracy more inclusive, and often to correct serious harm done by the Supreme Court. The women's suffrage amendment overturned a 1875 decision that held women didn't have a right to vote. In all, seven of the 17 constitutional amendments adopted since the Bill of Rights have reversed damaging Supreme Court decisions that threatened popular democracy.

Today we're facing another serious threat to our democracy: Supreme Court rulings like Citizens United. 

In the wake of decisions allowing unlimited spending to influence elections, money has inundated our political system like never before. 2014 was the most expensive midterm in history, but with fewer donors than in past elections. The 2016 presidential election is already on its way toward eclipsing all previous records. We're seeing more and more money from fewer and fewer donors, and it's taking a real toll on the functioning of our system.

There is a nationwide movement pushing for a constitutional amendment that would overturn decisions like Citizens United and take our political process back from the tremendous influence of big corporations and moneyed interests. Like the women's suffrage movement, it's a slow process of building support city by city, state by state, one conversation at a time. So far 16 states and 650 cities and towns have gone on record in support of an amendment, and momentum continues to build

The campaign for an amendment, like the Democracy For All amendment being considered in Congress, is grounded in simple ideas: we should be able to set reasonable limits on money in elections. The size of your wallet shouldn't determine the strength of your voice. Our elected officials should be paying attention to the needs and priorities of everyday Americans rather than following a political agenda set by wealthy special interests.

On Women's Equality Day we celebrate the expansion of political rights almost a century ago. It was an expansion based on the recognition that our political system is for all of us. But as the foundation of representative democracy is threatened by an overwhelming influx of money in elections -- to the point where all of us can no longer be heard in our democracy -- we are called to amend the Constitution again.


2016 Candidates and the Fight to Get Big Money Out of Politics

There’s no denying it: the destruction of our campaign finance laws has created an out of control system that poses a serious threat to our democracy. The announcement that Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush has raised over $114 million, along with the fact that the Koch brothers plan to spend almost $900 million, feeds into the fears of many that the U.S. is turning into an oligarchy, where the views of wealthy donors are the only ones that matter. A huge majority of Americans think the campaign finance system needs reform, and this is an issue that presidential candidates can’t ignore.

This week, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, an outspoken opponent of big money in politics, pledged to introduce legislation at the start of the next session that would provide public financing for elections. Hillary Clinton has also stated her support for small-donor public financing. A bill introduced earlier this year by Rep. John Sarbanes (D-MD) attempted to level the playing field by providing voters with $25 to spend on elections and to match small individual donations to a candidate  6 to 1 with public money, which would turn into a 9 to 1 match for candidates that rejected large donations altogether.

In addition, both Sanders and Clinton have expressed their support for a constitutional amendment that would overturn decisions like Citizens United, as has Sen. Lindsey Graham.  These two solutions, public financing of elections and an amendment to get big money out of politics, are both highlighted as measures needed to fix the broken campaign finance system in “Fighting Big Money, Empowering People: A 21st Century Democracy Reform Agenda,” released by PFAW and other campaign finance reform proponents.  As the agenda makes clear, for lasting change we have to move beyond “individual statements or even individual solutions” toward a comprehensive set of policy solutions.

Three out of four Americans are in support of a constitutional amendment, and over 5 million people have signed a petition in favor of it. Many other political leaders at the state and local level from both major parties want to put an end to the post-Citizens United big donor arms race.

 As Sen. Sanders has pointed out:

The need for real campaign finance reform is not a progressive issue. It is not a conservative issue. It is an American issue.


Scott Walker's Environmental Woes

At a recent campaign stop, Scott Walker was greeted by two young people who were very excited to see him – just not in the sense he would have hoped. Two activists from 350 Action tricked Governor Walker into holding up a fake check displaying his reliance on the Koch brothers.

When interviewed by reporters, one of the activists, Elaine Colligan, explained that her inspiration stemmed from Walker’s lack of climate change prevention policies. “Scott Walker is the worst on climate change,” she said, comparing him to the other 2016 presidential candidates. Colligan’s complaints are not unfounded, since being elected as governor of Wisconsin, Walker has demonstrated his preference for the fossil fuel industry over efforts to prevent climate change.

To list only a few of Walker’s policies that have led to his current reputation: he signed the no climate tax pledge, prepared a lawsuit against the federal government because of EPA regulations, proposed to cut $8.1 million from a renewable energy research center, and advocated for increased railways carrying frac sand. It is no surprise Walker is being targeted by environmental advocacy organizations like 350 Action.

At the campaign stop, another attendee joined in, saying: “Scott Walker will do anything to get elected! Because that’s what politicians do!” While this comment is particularly pessimistic, it stems from a frustration many Americans feel with our current campaign system. When a man like Scott Walker, who is receiving millions from undisclosed and unregulated donors, is more influenced by those donors than everyday Americans like Elaine Colligan, something is obviously wrong with the system. But there has been recent action calling for reform of this system, including a constitutional amendment to overturn decisions like Citizens United. Candidates need to be responsive to their constituents on issues like climate change, rather than to the wealthy special interests that can afford to pour money into our elections.


Conservatives, As Well As Liberals, Can't Stand Big Money in Politics

 The unpopularity of our post-Citizens United campaign finance system knows no partisan bounds. As wealthy donors have continued to pump larger and larger amounts of money into our elections, a vast majority of Americans, including Republicans, have decided that the system needs to be changed. Three-quarters of self-identified Republicans want more disclosure by outside spending groups, and only 12 percent of Republicans believe that the new campaign finance laws have made the process of nominating presidential candidates better.

 While many in Washington treat this as a partisan issue, at the local and state levels, Republican officials have joined the fight to get money out of politics.  Resolutions urging Congress to adopt an amendment that would set limits on campaign expenditures passed in statehouses with bipartisan support, and 159 Republican officials mostly at the state level have stated their opposition to the Citizens United decision. Now, conservative grassroots activists are starting to turn their attention to this issue.  

 Last Friday, conservatives from organizations such as the Weekly Standard and the American Enterprise Institute met at a forum titled “Finding Common Ground on Money-In-Politics in Washington,” where they explored ways to improve the campaign finance system that could appeal to Americans on both sides of the aisle. Some ideas floated were to reform the makeup of the gridlocked Federal Election Commission, to better enforce bans on foreign contributions to elections, and to incentivize small donations through tax credits.


“To leave the field void, to say no one on the right is talking about money in politics, I think is a problem,” said John Pudner, a GOP strategist and executive director of Take Back Our Republic, an organization that promotes campaign finance reform from a conservative perspective.


 Public officials from both major parties have spoken out in favor of campaign finance reform, including Democratic Senator Todd Udall, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, former Republican Senator Alan Simpson, and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Even former Republican Congresswoman Michele Bachmann has expressed her frustration with the “absurd” amount of money in our political system. With the movement to get money out of politics enjoying bipartisan support, it’s only a matter of time until this passion turns into real reform at the legislative level.



Jeb Bush, Of All People, Says He Wants Lobbying Reform

On Monday, July 20th Jeb Bush announced that he wants to curb the influence of lobbyists in Washington, D.C. by setting a six-year moratorium on former members of Congress registering as lobbyists.  Bush said, ““We need to help politicians rediscover life outside of Washington… which — who knows? — might even be a pleasant surprise for them.” His comedic interjection is an indication of the stance he has decided to take on this issue, posing as a Beltway outsider who can see, and wants to reform, Washington’s corruption.

But Bush is anything but a political outsider. His father and brother spent a combined 20 years in the White House and he was Florida’s governor for eight years, after which he became a political consultant. Neither is he rejecting the money that lobbyists are currently collecting on his behalf: he has eight lobbyists working together to raise more than $228,000 for his campaign. That’s on top of his efforts to skirt campaign finance rules by spending months raising millions of dollars for a superPAC that purports not to coordinate with his own presidential campaign. Bush is the ultimate establishment candidate, regardless of whether or not he has spent time on the Hill.

And while this specific proposal is well and good, it’s also glaringly insufficient. The reforms Bush supports would not stop much of the lobbying that does occur in Washington. The six-year ban would only apply to registered lobbyists, a designation easily avoided by not engaging in specific activities or spending less than 20 percent of one’s time actually lobbying. There are simply too many loopholes Bush’s plan would not cover for real reform to occur.

Jeb Bush made this announcement in an effort to capture some of the grassroots anger at the role of money in politics. But, hopefully it will also ignite some real debate and raise public awareness of the reforms we would need to make a meaningful difference.