Senate Holds Hearing on Need for Disclosing Money in Federal Elections

If sunlight is the best disinfectant, our system of funding elections could use a whole lot more of it. This morning a Senate committee is holding a hearing on the DISCLOSE Act and the need for increased transparency surrounding money in federal elections.

Disclosure of political spending is key to the functioning of a democracy, allowing voters to understand who is behind political information and what the funder’s agenda may be. Even in the Supreme Court’s damaging Citizens United decision that opened the door to unlimited corporate political spending, eight of the nine justices supported disclosure laws.

Unfortunately, as Rep. Chris Van Hollen recently noted in an op-ed, “the floodgates were opened to outside spending, but the disclosure has yet to follow.” He wrote:

At the time, many were concerned that corporations would be pressured to open up their corporate coffers for the purpose of making political expenditures but would prefer to do so anonymously to avoid the backlash from their customers or shareholders. Four years later, in light of experiencing the two most expensive elections in history since the decision, it appears that these fears were well-founded. Outside money has poured into campaigns and it has done so under the cover of darkness, as a cottage industry has emerged to funnel money from corporations and others, into federal elections through non-profit groups that are not required to disclose their donors.

The current influx of dark money into our democracy threatens the integrity of our political system, and Americans know it. Click on our graphic below below to share it on Facebook and show your support for increased transparency of political money:

 

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National Candidates Share Their Views on Money in Politics in the 2014 Elections

Most Americans recognize money in politics to be a pressing issue, but no one understands it quite like the candidates running for office to try and change our campaign finance system.

In a candidate forum yesterday at Netroots Nation​, moderator and People For the American Way Executive Vice President Marge Baker led panelists – Maine U.S. Senate candidate Shenna Bellows, South Dakota U.S. Senate candidate Rick Weiland, Wisconsin U.S. House of Representatives candidate Kelly Westlund, and former California Secretary of State candidate Derek Cressman – in a lively discussion of the role of money in politics in the 2014 elections.

Baker kicked off the discussion by noting both the magnitude of outside money flooding into the 2014 elections as compared to earlier elections, as well as the public will to quell this tide. She pointed out that nine in ten voters want to see their elected officials take action to fix our country’s money in politics problem.

The candidates began by telling the audience why they were inspired to make money in politics a central issue for their campaigns. Shenna Bellows, who said that her father was a carpenter and that her family did not have electricity or running water during her childhood, noted that “people like me” – those not from wealthy backgrounds – don’t often run for public office. This fact, she pointed out, contributes to the creation of laws tilted in favor of big business. Rick Weiland echoed that idea, and said that he believes money in politics is the number one issuing facing our country. For Kelly Westlund, the full weight of our country’s money in politics problem hit home for her when she approached her party about running for office and was asked whether she would be able to raise a quarter of a million dollars in three weeks. And Derek Cressman said that he was drawn to the opportunity of using the bully pulpit of a political office like secretary of state (or as Baker added, the platform of a being a candidate for that political office) to get support for measures like Proposition 49, a ballot initiative in California asking Congress to amend the Constitution to overturn cases like Citizens United that will now be on the ballot in the state in November.

Panelists also talked about fighting the cynicism and despair that can surround the issue of big money in politics for voters. Cressman said that while Americans already understand that this is a major problem, they are also eager to support solutions. He underscored the overwhelming grassroots energy around the issue. A number of panelists highlighted the importance of “connecting the dots” between money and policy – drawing the links for voters between progress on the issues they care most about and the creation of a political system not dominated by corporations and the super-rich. Multiple panelists also shared stories of the power of small dollar donors. For Bellows, a full half of the contributions her campaign receives are $6 or less. She lifted up the example of former senator and progressive hero Paul Wellstone, who she noted was outraised seven-to-one but still won his race.

As the panel wrapped up, panelists underscored the importance of pushing for a range of complimentary solutions to our money in politics problem, from the constitutional amendment now moving through the Senate to disclosure legislation to small-donor financing initiatives. As Westlund put it, it’s not enough to recognize the problems. We have to fight for solutions and get the right people at the table so that we can change the system and make sure the government’s policies reflect the will of the people.

Watch a video of the panel here:

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Sen. Joe Manchin Expresses his Support for Getting Money out of Politics

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) is the latest politician to call out the negative impact big money has on the political process. In an interview this week with Public News Service, Senator Manchin said:

I've watched people being afraid to make a vote because they're afraid of how much money is going to be spent against them. How much time, effort and money they'll need to defend themselves. And that's a sad scenario.

Manchin fears that the trend favoring big money will not come to an end anytime soon,

Billion-dollar presidential race, are you kidding me? In 2016 that'll be for starters. The country's going to the highest bidder, I believe. Or it's perceived to be going to the highest bidder. You're going to have a few people who are able to play the game and that'll be it.

That’s why Manchin supports the proposed constitutional amendment to get big money out of politics — the Democracy for All Amendment — as a way to put a limit on the distorting  influence of outsized spending by corporations and billionaires on our democracy. In Manchin’s words,

Someone has to call a truce here. Get some civility back, and some common sense. There has to be transparency. We've got to put a cap on this. Maybe we could get some Republican support to where we might have a chance of getting it.

Until recently, campaign finance reform proposals have been bipartisan efforts. The first campaign finance regulations, like the Tillman Act of 1907 that banned corporate campaign contributions, were passed with Republican leadership. More recently the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act was passed with the bipartisan leadership of former Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) and Senator John McCain (R-AZ).

It is time to have a government that promotes democracy for all rather than democracy for the few. The Democracy for All constitutional amendment cosponsored by Manchin advancing in the Senate is a common sense proposal that would help us take back our democracy from billionaires and corporations. Senator Manchin is right to call for such an amendment.

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Claire McCaskill Throws Her Support Behind Amendment to #GetMoneyOut

Yesterday, Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill became the latest U.S. senator to cosponsor a proposed constitutional amendment that would give Congress and the states the authority to regulate campaign contributions and expenditures. An overwhelming majority of Americans, over 90%, want politicians to reduce the role money plays in politics. McCaskill’s decision to cosponsor S.J.Res.19, which many are calling the 28th Amendment, is in line with the desires of her constituents and the American people.

Missouri has its own fair share of millionaires and billionaires working to buy elections. Missouri political donor Rex Sinquefield, a major supporter of ALEC and the Club for Growth, spent $3.8 million in disclosed election spending in 2013 – and that only includes his traceable contributions. Fred Palmer, the chief lobbyist for Peabody Energy, contributed $112,500 to Missouri state politicians and party committees during 2012. Ron Fein, the legal director for Free Speech For People, points out in a recent opinion piece that Palmer’s 2012 contributions were more than double what the average Missourian family earns in a year.

When this amendment was first introduced it had only a handful of supporters.  We're making progress in our march towards taking back our democracy from corporations and the super wealthy, and we’re looking forward to a vote in the full Senate this year.

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Activists Across the U.S. March, Rally, Perform Street Theater Calling for Amendment to #GetMoneyOut

Last week activists and concerned citizens across the country came together at the district offices of their senators to show support for a proposed amendment to the United States Constitution to curtail the influence of big money in politics. PFAW members joined other activists in gathering petitions, distributing information and engaging in various forms of street theater to make their voices heard.

In the demonstrations, activists got creative in their call for an amendment. In Hawaii, people dressed as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Benjamin Franklin carried giant cardboard cutouts of $1, $5 and $100 bills as they marched to money-themed music. In Vermont, a parade of more than 200 people concluded with a rally that featured an appearance by Sen. Bernie Sanders. In Kentucky, demonstrators gathered to watch a live performance about the issue of money in politics and called on Sen. Rand Paul to sign on as a cosponsor of the amendment. In Louisiana, activists with Public Citizen even put on a street theater performance outside Sen. Mary Landrieu’s office, a video of which can be viewed here.

With the proposed 28th Amendment (SJ Res 19) coming up for a Senate Judiciary Committee vote this Thursday, it is more critical than ever that senators hear from their constituents. If passed by the committee this week, the amendment will be sent to the Senate floor for an official vote in September. Currently there are 45 senators that support the amendment.

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Ted Cruz Taken Down by Famous Law Prof Ewrin Chemerinsky on Democracy Amendment

Noted constitutional law scholar Erwin Chemerinsky took to the op-ed page of The Hill last week to utterly dismantle Senator Ted Cruz's outlandish arguments against the proposed constitutional amendment to undo the consequences of decisions like Citizens United.

In his not-so-subtly titled op-ed "Ted Cruz should be ashamed," he wrote that while it is reasonable for Congress to debate the merits of a proposed amendment, Cruz’s claims about how the amendment would affect Americans are outright lies and "have no place in an informed debate."

Here’s Dean of UC Irvine School of Law Erwin Chemerinsky:

In a statement to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Cruz declared: "This amendment here today, if adopted, would repeal the free speech protections of the First Amendment. . . . This amendment, if adopted, would give Congress absolute authority to regulate the political speech of every single American, with no limitations whatsoever."

Similarly, in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Cruz said, the amendment "gives Congress power to regulate—and ban—speech by everybody." In remarks at the Family Research Council, Cruz declared: "What it [the proposed amendment] says is that politicians in Washington have unlimited constitutional authority to muzzle each and every one of you if you’re saying things that government finds inconvenient."

The amendment does nothing of the sort. It gives no authority to the government to ban or limit anyone's speech. It provides the government no power to "muzzle" messages the government doesn’t like. It does not change in any way the long-standing First Amendment principle that the government cannot restrict speech based on the content of the message or the views expressed. The amendment would do no more than allow the government to regulate spending in election campaigns.

Chemerinsky goes on to note that he has debated Cruz multiple times and knows that Cruz is "a person of great intelligence," who has had a distinguished legal career. Consequently, Chemerinsky concludes that Cruz's lies indicate that "he knows exactly what the proposed amendment would do and yet has chosen to vilify it by misrepresenting it."

Cruz responded to Chemerinsky in today’s The Hill, with an op-ed entitled “I did not lie.” Cruz accuses Chemerinsky of waging “personal insults” against him, and argues that Chemerinsky’s piece was invalid on a technicality, because he quoted from a slightly later iteration of the bill. Interestingly, Cruz’s response focuses far more on attacking Chemerinsky than on presenting – or clarifying – any valid argument against the constitutional amendment.

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Are the Koch Brothers in Your Neighborhood?

The Koch brothers are coming to a neighborhood near you. That’s the message from a new Public Citizen report, “Outside Spenders, Local Elections.” The report details how the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity (AFP) is dumping money into local government races to advance their pro-corporate, anti-worker and anti-government agenda.

In Douglas County, Colorado, for example, AFP pumped $350,000 into a school board race in an effort to keep the incumbent board members and protect recent policy changes such as one that weakened the local teachers union. In Iron County, Wisconsin, AFP sent out mailers to 1,000 homes labeling board of supervisors candidates opposed to a new open pit mine as “anti-mining radicals.” AFP even reportedly spent more than $20,000 to oppose a levy to support the Columbus Ohio zoo!

It appears that no election, no matter how local, is immune from the big money machine unleashed by Citizens United.  The American peoples’ voices cannot be heard when organizations such as Americans for Prosperity funnel their money into our communities. We need a constitutional amendment to fight back against corporations and billionaires hijacking our elections.

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Cleaning Up the Supreme Court's Democracy Mess

This post was originally published at the Huffington Post.

One year ago this week, the Supreme Court's conservative majority struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act and took yet another step toward undermining our democracy. Since then, civil rights leaders have been hard at work trying to clean up the Court's mess.

The Shelby decision was a devastating loss, especially for those who fought to see the original Voting Rights Act enacted. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, the sole surviving speaker from the 1963 March on Washington and a leader of the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, accused the Supreme Court of "stab[bing] the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in its very heart." Civil rights advocates mourned the naïve assumption that Selma had been relegated to ancient history and that racial discrimination in voting went with it. People For the American Way's director of African American religious affairs noted on the day of the decision: "Those who sided with the majority clearly have not been paying attention, reading the paper, attending community meetings, living in America."

Indeed, anyone who has been paying attention knows that voting discrimination is far from ancient history. A new report by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights found nearly 150 documented instances of voting rights violations since 2000, with each case affecting between hundreds and tens of thousands of voters.

Happily, reform is finally underway in the Senate. On Wednesday, the Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on legislation to put the VRA back together again. It's a critically important first step in getting our country's laws back to where they need to be on voting rights protections. But so far House Republican leadership has refused to move forward. Maybe they think that if they pretend a problem doesn't exist, they won't have to fix it.

The push for voting rights protections isn't the only effort underway to clean up the mess the Supreme Court has made of our democracy. With the 2012 election the most expensive in history, this week the Senate Judiciary Committee is considering a proposed constitutional amendment to overturn cases like Citizens United v. FEC, the infamous 2010 ruling that paved the way for unlimited corporate political spending. Like Shelby, Citizens United was a contentious 5-4 decision with a strong dissent. Also like Shelby, it set our democracy back dramatically. Citizens United let corporate bank accounts overwhelm the voices of everyday Americans. Shelby made it easier for state and local governments to create barriers to voting.

But Americans know that the answer to attacks on our democracy isn't despair -- it's action. Sixteen states and more than 550 cities and towns have called for a constitutional amendment to get big money out of politics like the one moving forward in the Senate, and that number is growing rapidly.

National leaders are also speaking out. President Obama has expressed his support for an amendment to overturn Citizen United multiple times since the decision. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens are just a handful of other high-profile amendment supporters. And earlier this month, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg did not hold back her disdain for the recent democracy-harming decisions coming from the Supreme Court's majority: "Like the currently leading campaign finance decision, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, I regard Shelby County as an egregiously wrong decision that should not have staying power."

The Supreme Court has made some very bad calls when it comes to protecting the rights of all Americans to participate meaningfully in our political system. But Justice Ginsburg is right: these wrong-headed decisions shouldn't have staying power. And if the American people have anything to do with it, they won't.

PFAW

“I’m Afraid to Do What I Think Is Right”: Report Highlights Real-World Impact of Outside Political Spending

While we may be accustomed to seeing charts and tables about the impact of big money in politics, it’s far less common to hear about the real-world stories of its influence. Yesterday researchers from Ohio State University released a new report on “The New Soft Money,” a first-of-its-kind look at the day to day impact of independent expenditures (such as spending by super PACs) on federal campaigns and governance.

Through interviews with former members of Congress, campaign and legislative staff, candidates, and other political figures, the report details — in the interviewees’ own words — the effects of the explosion of independent spending into our political system following the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC.

A few highlights from the report make clear the enormous impact outside spending has on the functioning of our democracy:

“No one’s saying, ‘Here’s $50 million for a good  compromise.” -Former Rep. Dan Boren (pg. 93)

“When Club for Growth first came out we used to laugh about them, we used to chuckle on the floor… But, after the Citizens United case, they became….much more active….if you didn’t behave in a certain way they would come into your district and spend a lot of money to make sure you were defeated in the primary.”  -Former Rep. Steve LaTourette (p. 87-88)

Some political insiders described the ongoing implicit threat of independent spending on attack ads as just as effective as an explicit threat would be:

“You’re already threatened.... You’re sitting there saying ... is Americans for Prosperity going to advertise against me in a primary, yes or no?....If you’re sitting there making a decision, [thinking]… we’d better do something about it, but if I do something about it, I know the Koch brothers are going to run an ad against me. I know they’re going to put a lot of money to try to defeat me in a primary. I know it… They don’t have to threaten me…the net effect is the same. I’m afraid to do what I think is right.” -Former Sen. Bob Kerrey, who ran for Senate again in 2012 (p. 82)

The report was released on the same day the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Constitution Subcommittee voted to move forward a proposed constitutional amendment that would overturn decisions like Citizens United, serving as even more evidence of the pressing need to reform our campaign finance system.

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Ted Cruz and the Myth of the Censored Grandma

In today’s Senate subcommittee markup on a proposed constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United and get big money out of politics, Sen. Ted Cruz was ready with a long line of scary predictions as to what the proposed amendment would really do. From claiming that it would repeal the First Amendment to asserting that under the original proposed amendment, a “little old lady” could be put in jail for spending five dollars to put up a political yard sign, Cruz had horror stories at the ready. During the markup, Sen. Cruz dramatically tweeted that a “constitutional amendment proposed by Democrats would allow Congress to ban books!”

As we have pointed out before, Sen. Cruz’s doomsday predictions are far cry from reality.

Here’s what is reality: the proposed amendment would allow Congress and the states to be able to set reasonable limits on the raising and spending of money in elections, as they did for years and years before the Citizens United decision. It would not change the landscape with respect to books. Grandmas would still be able to put out their candidate yard signs. The First Amendment would be restored from the damage done by Supreme Court decisions like Citizens United.

Fortunately other members of the subcommittee were able to set the record straight. Sen. Durbin underscored the idea that a large bank account does not “entitle you to buy every seat at the table, control the agenda, silence your opponents.” In other words, the First Amendment is about protecting the right to free speech, not the “right” of wealthy special interests to buy elections and drown out all other voices. As Norman Ornstein, a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, has noted previously: “I’m still looking for the word ‘money’ in the First Amendment.

But presumably the goal of Sen. Cruz’s censored-grandma myth and other horror stories is to pull the conversation far away from the actual merits of the proposal at hand. Rather than talking about the influx of money flooding our elections, we’re talking about book banning. But with across-the-board support for efforts to get big money out of politics, it’s a distraction ploy that Americans aren’t buying.

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