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Michigan’s Lame Duck Session Ends Without Passage of “Right to Discriminate” Bill

In a victory for LGBT equality and genuine religious liberty, Michigan’s state legislature ended its 2014 lame duck session last night without passing a bill that would have allowed individuals and businesses to cite religious beliefs to bypass state anti-discrimination laws.

The Michigan Religious Freedom Restoration Act would have allowed business owners to refuse service to LGBT customers, and was initially introduced as a counter to a proposed state bill that would protect LGBT people from discrimination. But while the anti-discrimination bill never even moved, the discriminatory bill passed in the House.

After the bill was introduced in the state legislature, PFAW members and local activists mobilized to call lawmakers and raise awareness of the bill’s dangerous consequences for LGBT Michiganders. Efforts like this are not unique to Michigan and come in the wake of this year’s 5-4 decision by the Supreme Court in the Hobby Lobby case. This legislation is part of a nationwide campaign by the Right to hijack freedom of religion and use it as a weapon to deny Americans their fundamental rights.

Fortunately, the bill -- which has been called the “right to discriminate” bill by some – did not even come to the State Senate floor for a vote.

This was the second of two victories in the Michigan state legislature’s lame duck session. Earlier this month, Michigan Republicans introduced a bill that would change the way the state’s electoral votes are counted in presidential elections. This strategy isn’t unique to Michigan, but is part of a larger right-wing effort to use Republican election victories in blue and swing states to consolidate political power by rigging the Electoral College, tilting the playing field to the GOP’s advantage. Last year, PFAW helped beat back similar plans in Pennsylvania and Virginia that would have changed the way those states apportion their electoral votes. In Michigan, we were just as engaged, with our members and staff attending committee hearings and lobbying legislators.

With the passage of a key deadline last week, the Electoral College rigging bill is also effectively dead for the year. But its proponents can (and likely will) bring it up again in the 2015 session – as they may also do with the “right to discriminate” bill. Michigan’s lame duck session has ended without either of these insidious bills becoming law, but the fight is far from over. We expect to see similar state-level legislative attacks from the Right throughout the next year. PFAW is proud to be a leader in the ongoing fight against right-wing extremism, and we’re ready to keep working in defense of progressive values in 2015 and beyond.

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Patrick Leahy and This Year's Success on Judges

This year's great success on judicial nominations owes a great deal to Sen. Patrick Leahy.
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PFAW Member Telebriefing: What We Can Expect From the Right in 2015

On Friday PFAW members and activists joined senior staff on a telebriefing about the types of priorities and tactics we can expect to see from the Right in the coming year. PFAW Communications Director Drew Courtney kicked off the call with a description of the political landscape in the wake of the midterm elections, where right-wing politicians are “now holding the levers of power in critical decision-making roles.”

Executive Vice President Marge Baker discussed the “CRomnibus” spending bill, saying that the antics we have seen during the lame duck are a microcosm of what we’re going to see in the new Congress. She noted that the harmful special interest riders snuck into the bill, such as the Wall Street giveaway and the raising of limits on contributions to political parties, are examples of the kind of “strong-arming techniques” we are likely to continue to see going forward.

Senior Fellow Peter Montgomery also joined the call, noting that the Right has a sizable agenda for the new year — one that begins with right-wing activists’ hatred of President Obama. This agenda, he said, includes repealing Obamacare, impeaching the president, resisting “to the bitter end” the advancement of marriage equality, and fighting anti-discrimination laws. Montgomery noted that in the coming year, we can expect to see GOP politicians making their already-close ties with Religious Right figures even closer.

Regional Political Coordinator Scott Foval discussed the Right’s political work at the state level. He highlighted Michigan’s state house, where in only the past couple of weeks both a “right to discriminate” bill and an electoral college-rigging bill have been moving through the legislature. Foval pointed out that this type of legislation may surface in other states across the country. The coming year will provide many opportunities for PFAW members to get involved at the state level as citizen lobbyists, he said.

Speakers underscored that the answers to all of the issues PFAW members raised on the call — from the damaging spending bill riders, to the influence of the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) at the state and local level, to the disturbing revelations from the recently-released torture report — is to organize and advocate for the values we believe in.

You can listen to the full telebriefing here:

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Vivek Murthy’s Confirmation as Surgeon General is a Loss for the NRA, a Victory for Common Sense

Last night, after months of delay, the Senate voted to confirm Dr. Vivek Murthy as the new U.S. surgeon general.

Dr. Murthy's confirmation was strenuously opposed by the National Rifle Association and its allies in Congress, due to his belief that guns and gun violence are a public health concern. Murthy, an experienced and highly qualified physician who teaches at Harvard Medical School, has expressed support for limited, common-sense reforms regarding assault weapons, mandatory safety training and ammunition.

Murthy's confirmation is a victory for public health and common sense, and a loss for one of America's most influential special interest groups, the NRA.

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Wall Street Giveaway in Spending Bill is Big Money Political Influence at its Worst

It’s hard to know where to begin when running down the list of harmful special interest giveaways in the omnibus spending bill narrowly passed by the House yesterday. Earlier this week, we wrote about a rider in the bill that would allow the amount of money rich donors can give to political parties to skyrocket. The legislation moving through Congress also includes a provision that would have the effect of allowing mountaintop mining companies to keep filling Appalachian streams with toxic waste. Yet another rider is a “Wall Street giveaway,” actually drafted by Citigroup’s lobbyists, that would repeal a piece of financial regulation and let banks take part in more kinds of high-risk trading deals with government backed money.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren railed against the Wall Street rider on the Senate floor:

[Americans] see a Congress that works just fine for the big guys, but it won’t lift a finger to help them. If big companies can deploy armies of lawyers and lobbyists to get the Congress to vote for special deals that benefit themselves, then we will simply confirm the view of the American people that the system is rigged.

It is, as Sen. Warren says, hard not to think that “the system is rigged” when members of Congress use a spending bill to sneak through major policy shifts that benefit wealthy political donors, Wall Street executives, and big businesses, while leaving the majority of Americans with an even weaker political voice.

This is especially true when you consider that those who voted for the rider-filled spending deal were, by and large, the members who received bigger contributions from the benefitting industries. The Washington Post compared the House spending bill votes with Center for Responsive Politics data on campaign contributions to each representative from the finance, insurance, and real estate industries. What they found is disheartening, but not surprising:

On average, members of Congress who voted yes received $322,000 from those industries. Those who voted no? $162,000.

And that doesn’t even take into account the dark money whose source is unknown to the public (but likely known by the officials who benefit from it).

It’s one more example of the influence that money can buy in our current system, where big gifts from corporate spenders pave the way for corporate political victories. When Wall Street lobbyists can literally write the laws they want, no matter the impact on ordinary Americans, it’s clear that we need serious reform to the rules governing money in politics.
 

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Twelve More Judges to Go

The Senate should not leave town before confirming all the pending judicial nominees, including the three cleared by committee yesterday.
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Proposed Spending Bill Would Let Wealthy Political Donors Give Even More

Just what our country needs after the most expensive midterms in history: a bill that lets big political donors spend even more money.

The government spending bill released by the House last night includes a rider that would drastically increase the amount of money the super-rich can give to national party committees. The language included in the spending deal would allow wealthy donors to give ten times the current limit to political parties.

Adam Smith at Public Campaign put the potential new limits into perspective in a powerful graphic:

With the new annual individual party limit expected to be more than six times the median household income, it’s clear that this shift is simply about handing the wealthiest political donors even more power and access. A tiny fraction of the country already dominates political spending; these changes would make it even harder for ordinary Americans to have a seat at the table.

What’s more, these provisions, which would have major implications for the health of our democratic process, were not even debated by Congress. They were simply snuck into an omnibus spending bill – a quiet attack that threatens to further undermine what’s left of our country’s common-sense rules limiting big money in politics.

After the midterm elections, exit polls found that nearly two-thirds of voters said that our system already favors the wealthy. Americans are ready for a government that works for everyone. But it looks like what we’re getting instead are Congressional leaders increasing committed to big money donors at the expense of everyone else.

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Soon-To-Be Senate Majority Leader McConnell Tests the Waters on Further Gutting Campaign Finance Laws

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who is poised to become the new Senate Majority Leader when Republicans take over the Senate in January, is well known for his opposition to limits on big money in politics – whether through his unabashed support for the disastrous Citizens United ruling or his filibusters to prevent Senate votes on laws requiring more campaign finance disclosure. Now, before he even becomes Majority Leader, McConnell has already tried to further dismantle commonsense rules on money in elections.

McConnell attempted to add a rider to an omnibus appropriations bill – which must pass in order to prevent another government shutdown – that would “effectively chip away at direct contribution limits for candidates.” After opposition from sitting Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Rules Committee Chairman Charles Schumer (D-NY), Senator McConnell has backed off his proposal for now. Nonetheless, the writing is on the wall. McConnell wants to further deregulate the spending of private money in political campaigns.

Under current law, contributions to candidates in a two-year cycle are limited to $5,200 per donor. Donors can also give $20,000 to state party committees and more than $60,000 to national party committees. Currently candidates are limited in their ability to coordinate spending with the party committees that support them. If passed, McConnell’s measure would have effectively allowed party committees to fully coordinate with candidates in spending campaign funds.

While Senate Democrats rejected the rider, Sen. McConnell’s actions clearly show his intentions to further roll back existing campaign finance laws and threaten efforts to limit big money in politics when Republicans take charge of the Senate in January. This is likely a preview of what’s in store for us in the coming years.

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Republicans Revive Bold Scheme to Rig Presidential Elections

This was originally published at The Huffington Post.

After Republicans failed to capture the White House in 2012, they dusted off a tried-and-true plan to improve their future electoral prospects. No, they wouldn't moderate their views or expand their appeal to win votes. They would just change the way that the votes are counted!

The plan: to rig the electoral college with the ultimate goal of squeaking out a Republican presidential win, even in an increasingly challenging electoral landscape.

Here's how it was supposed to work.

Before the 2010 election, Republican strategists focused energy and resources on gaining control of state legislatures, and succeeded in flipping party control of legislative chambers in blue states including Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. This allowed Republican legislatures to draw congressional districts, gerrymandering their states to ensure future Republican gains even in states where Democrats tend to win statewide.

GOP strategists then took it a step further. What if Republicans used their control over these blue states and their favorably gerrymandered electoral maps to make it harder for Democrats to win presidential elections?

Under the Constitution, each state determines how it will distribute its electoral votes to presidential candidates. All but two states (Maine and Nebraska) have a "winner take all" system, in which the winner of the state's popular vote earns all of its electoral votes. The Republican plan would keep the "winner take all" system in big, solidly red states like Texas. But it would change it in big, blue states like Pennsylvania and Michigan, ensuring that a Democratic candidate who wins the popular vote in the state doesn't go home with all of its electoral votes.

For instance, under the plan originally proposed in Pennsylvania after the 2012 election, which would have divided the state's electoral votes up by gerrymandered congressional districts, Mitt Romney would have won 13 of the state's 20 electoral votes, despite having lost the state's popular vote. Last year, the Republican-controlled state house in the presidential swing state of Virginia put forward a plan to do something similar. If the Virginia plan had been in effect in 2012, Mitt Romney would have carried away nine of the state's 13 electoral vote, despite having lost the state's popular vote to Barack Obama.

Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus made the goal of the scheme clear when he endorsed it last year, saying, "I think it's something that a lot of states that have been consistently blue that are fully controlled red ought to be looking at."

The proposals in Pennsylvania and Virginia sank after groups like People For the American Way got out the word and residents realized the proposals were part of a blatant political ploy. But this month, the scheme was resurrected in Michigan, where a Republican state lawmaker is proposing his own plan to dilute the power of his state's reliably Democratic electoral college block. Under the plan introduced by Rep. Pete Lund, Michigan's electoral votes would be distributed according to a formula tied to the popular vote. It's not as blatant as the original Pennsylvania and Virginia proposals were, but it has the same goal: If it had been in effect in the last presidential election, it would have cut President Obama's electoral total in Michigan down to 12 from 16.

These plans can initially seem reasonable, even to progressives, many of whom are wary of the electoral college system. But this isn't a good-government plan to change the way our presidential elections are conducted. It's a targeted plot to get more electoral votes for Republicans, even when they're losing the popular vote. It's no coincidence that these plans have often been quietly introduced in lame duck sessions, when voters are paying less attention. These measures, if allowed to be passed quickly in a few states with little debate and attention, could have national implications and change American political history.

Voters should be allowed to pick their politicians. But this is yet another case of politicians trying to pick their voters. Like with voter suppression schemes and extreme gerrymandering, the GOP is trying to change the rules of the game for their own benefit. Voters can't let them get away with it.

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WATCH: New Video Highlights GOP’s Absurdly Offensive Remarks About Immigrants

From accusing them of carrying head lices, scabies and other diseases across the border to saying they should be tracked like  “FedEx packages,” Congressional Republicans held nothing back in attacking immigrants on the campaign trail this year. Their remarks were a continuation of a long history of outrageous, offensive and dehumanizing rhetoric from Republican lawmakers about immigrants.

So ahead of President Obama’s immigration reform announcement tonight, American Bridge and People For the American Way released a new video calling out Republicans for their extremist remarks against immigrants and immigration reform. While the President’s executive order will probably affect only some of the millions of undocumented immigrants living in the U.S., it seems likely we will hear more of the same from the Right Wing in the coming months.

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Ted Cruz Vows to Damage Texas Courts in Response to Obama's Immigration Action

Ted Cruz urges a retaliatory freeze on all confirmations next year, which would cause particular damage to courts in his own state.
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Reid: We Cannot Leave Without Confirming Nominees

The Senate needs to vote on numerous judicial and executive nominations before the end of the lame duck session.
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PFAW Delivers 50,000 Petitions Against Electoral College Rigging in Michigan

If you don’t like the outcome, change the rules of the game? Not so fast, PFAW members in Michigan told their elected officials today.

This afternoon PFAW delivered approximately 50,000 petitions against electoral college rigging to a meeting of the Michigan House Committee on Elections and Ethics. The proposed bill (HB 5974) would change Michigan’s process for distributing electoral votes from a winner-take-all system — the standard process in states across the nation — to a system that would split the state’s electoral votes, effectively rewriting the rules to help the GOP presidential candidate. This is a continuation of an effort we saw after the 2012 election in some traditionally blue presidential election states where Republicans control the state government. Not surprisingly, Republicans in states like Texas (38 electoral votes) are not seeking a similar change.

One representative from Grand Rapids told the Associated Press that he believes the public will see this partisan ploy “for what it is… a brazen attempt to rig the political system.”

As many Republican legislators across the country continue to support proposals making it harder for people who traditionally vote Democrat to cast a ballot, this latest push to rig elections in the GOP’s favor may come as no surprise.

But PFAW Regional Political Coordinator Scott Foval, who joined 34 Michigan PFAW members today at a meeting of the state’s House Committee on Elections and Ethics, said that Michiganders won’t stand by while the Republican Party tries to manipulate the election process. “The people are watching, and will hold you as elected representatives accountable for enacting purely partisan and undemocratic legislation,” said Foval.

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Small Businesses Support ‘Major Changes’ to Campaign Finance Laws

Small business owners are in favor of reforming our current campaign finance system, according to a new opinion poll from the Small Business Majority. In a nationwide survey last month, 77 percent of small business employers said that “big businesses have a significant impact on government decisions and the political process,” and nearly as many (72 percent) said they believe major changes are necessary to reform campaign finance laws. Only four percent of respondents said they believe no changes are necessary.

Yesterday Sam Becker from the Wall Street Cheat Sheet highlighted the conclusions of the survey:

[T]here is significant concern about the political and economic landscape, and the growing influence of corporate power on the parts of small business owners. With nearly three-quarters of small businesses saying they feel that they are at a disadvantage because of corporate influence in politics, it lends extra credence to the notion that our election process — which typically tends to cater heavily to the small business crowd — is in need of some serious reforms.

This is a good reminder that when enormously powerful corporate interests claim to speak for “the business community,” they are not necessarily speaking for the small businesses that play such an important role in our economy and in our communities. The results of this survey underscore the idea that campaign finance reform enjoys broad support among Americans of diverse professions and backgrounds. Religious organizations, labor unions, and business associations – in addition to many groups in the progressive nonprofit community –  are mobilizing around solutions to big money in politics. These solutions include transparency in political donations and public financing of elections, as well as a constitutional amendment to overturn Supreme Court decisions such as Citizens United v. FEC, which opened the floodgates to unlimited corporate spending in politics.

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Lame Duck Session Confirmations: PFAW Member Telebriefing

As Congress returns for the lame duck session after the midterm elections, People For the American Way hosted a member telebriefing on Monday on the critical work that needs to be completed this session to fill court vacancies. The call was kicked off by PFAW Director of Communications Drew Courtney who underscored the significant number of judicial and executive nominations the Senate faces, including President Obama’s new Attorney General nominee, Loretta Lynch.

PFAW members were joined on the call by Josh Hsu, Senior Counsel on the Senate Judiciary Committee, who shared Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy’s commitment to moving forward on nominees through the lame duck session. He pointed out that much of the GOP obstruction of judicial nominees occurs under the public radar, but it has an enormous impact.  If the judicial nominees who can be confirmed by year’s end are stalled instead, that will create a substantial and needless backlog in the next Congress that will delay judicial nominees down the line. 

Hsu also gave his thoughts on how Republican control of the Senate may impact judicial nominations. Hsu pointed out that the three most recent two-term presidents all faced opposition Congresses in the final two years of their presidencies, but all continued to move forward on many nominations.

PFAW Executive Vice President Marge Baker and Senior Legislative Counsel Paul Gordon emphasized the importance of local activists keeping up the momentum around judicial nominations, both during the lame duck and over the next two years. Gordon called on PFAW activists to continue contacting their senators and writing to their local papers. When senators hear from constituents on an issue or see articles written in their local newspaper, Gordon said, they pay attention. Grassroots activism is critical to making sure senators get the message on the importance of the courts, and of confirming nominees before the end of the year.

You can listen to the full audio of the telebriefing here:

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Welcome Back, Senate, It's Time to Get to Work

There is more than enough time during the lame duck to confirm President Obama's nominees.
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PFAW Activists Protest Kentucky’s Marriage Equality Ban

People For the American Way joined local activists at a park in downtown Louisville on Friday to protest Kentucky's ban on marriage equality for same-sex couples. 

The "Love Will Win" rally came in response to last week's federal appeals court decision that upheld laws against same-sex marriage in Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee. Currently the Commonwealth doesn't even have to recognize same-sex marriages performed legally in other states.

Protesters are hopeful this setback will pave the way for a Supreme Court reversal, bringing marriage equality to the South and the rest of the nation.

Chris Hartman, director of the Fairness Campaign, said that he’s disappointed by the decision but pleased by the prospects of getting a case in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.

"I think we all knew the sixth circuit was going to rule against LGBT freedom to marry,” Hartman said. “The sixth circuit is the most overturned circuit at the Supreme Court in the entire nation."

Thus far, 32 states and the District of Columbia have legalized same-sex marriage.

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Citizens United President Claims Decision “Leveled the Playing Field”

Today Right Wing Watch reported on Citizens United president David Bossie bragging that the Supreme Court decision bearing the organization’s name “leveled the playing field, and we’re very proud of the impact that had in last night’s election.”

It’s pretty hard to figure how Citizens United, the 2010 decision that opened the floodgates for unlimited outside political spending, could be understood to have “leveled the playing field.” As outside spending has skyrocketed in the years since that disastrous decision, it has become increasingly hard to hear the voices of everyday Americans over the roar of big money. Far from leveling the field, decisions like Citizens United have drastically tilted the field even more toward wealthy special interests and away from ordinary people.

But Bossie is right about one thing: Citizens United certainly had a big impact on the 2014 midterms. In an election where Republicans beat Democrats across the board, the millions spent by conservative outside groups “dwarfed” that spent by liberal groups, Politico’s Kenneth Vogel noted today. “Establishment Republican money finally got what it paid for,” he wrote.

That Bossie is proud of the decision’s impact on an election expected to go down as the most expensive midterm in history reveals a very different agenda behind the conservative organization’s work. Hint: it’s not about a level playing field.
 

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Kobach's New Rules Block 20 Percent Of Kansas Voter Registration Applications

In the run-up to the first general election in which Kansans have been required to provide one of a narrow set of “proof of citizenship” documents in order to register to vote, nearly 20 percent of voter registration applications in the state have been rejected or suspended, according to a Kansas political science professor.

University of Kansas professor Patrick Miller told Kansas City’s NPR affiliate last week that a large percentage of these suspended or rejected registrations are from independents, “essentially making the electorate more Republican”:

An even larger group than those who have had ID problems at the polls are those voters who haven’t yet proven U.S. citizenship, another provision of the new law. There are 22,468 voters whose registrations are suspended because they are lacking citizenship documentation, according to the Secretary of State’s office. That’s larger than the population of Prairie Village, a Kansas City suburb.

“This is a big change for Kansas. In 2010, we only rejected .03 percent of voter registration applications,” said Patrick Miller, a University of Kansas assistant political science professor. “Whereas in 2014, we’ve suspended or rejected almost 20 percent. That’s a massive increase.”

Of the nearly 22,468 suspended registrations, 18 percent are Democrats, nearly 23 percent are Republicans and a whopping 57 percent are independents, or unaffiliated. The new law has effectively made the electorate more partisan, Miller said.

“It’s filtering out independents, the swing voters, making proportionately the electorate more Democratic, more Republican,” Miller said. “In Kansas, the effect of this is essentially making the electorate more Republican, given that Republicans have a registration advantage here.”

The new Kansas law was championed by Republican Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who has also been in charge of implementing it. Kobach is facing his own tough reelection battle this year thanks in part to the mess created by his new voting restrictions.

Cross-posted from Right Wing Watch.

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