The Supreme Court issued 7-2 ruling in favor of voting rights today, finding that a restrictive Arizona law requiring that voters show proof of citizenship when registering by mail is preempted by federal law. The court upheld Arizonans’ right to register to vote by mail using a federal form created by the 1993 “Motor Voter” law, which allows voters to certify under oath that they are citizens. Arizonans will not have to submit information that the federal form does not require.
PFAW Foundation joined in an amicus brief in the case, Arizona v. Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, on behalf of its Young People For program.
The Arizona law, which would have required voters to present one of a narrow set of documents proving citizenship in order to register to vote, would have impeded the voting rights of countless Arizonans. As Demos put it:
Many eligible citizens do not possess these narrow forms of documentation required by the law and, of those who do, many do not carry them while conducting their daily affairs. Community-based registration efforts overwhelmingly rely on approaching individuals who did not plan in advance to register at that time or location and who are thus unlikely to be carrying a birth certificate, passport, or other documentation.
Even when a potential registrant does happen to be carrying one of the required documents, logistical hurdles—ranging from an inability to copy documents on the spot to an unwillingness to hand over sensitive identification documents to registration drive volunteers—greatly hinder the ability of community-based organizations to register people in Arizona.
The Supreme Court has yet to issue a decision in the other major voting rights case on its docket this term, the constitutionality of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.
Judge Nitza Quiñones Alejandro broke an important glass ceiling this week, becoming the first openly lesbian Latina confirmed to a federal judgeship. The Senate confirmed her by voice vote to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania yesterday. Previously Quiñones served for more than two decades on the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas.
The Washington Blade notes that Quiñones is only the seventh openly LGBT person in our country’s history to be confirmed as a federal judge.
PFAW has advocated for more diversity in the judiciary, applauding President Obama’s push to bring qualified judges from many backgrounds to the federal bench. Issuing decisions that affect all communities, the federal bench – and all benches – must reflect the diversity of our nation.
Last year President Obama said he was committed to ensuring that “the judiciary resembles the nation it serves.” This week’s confirmation is an important step toward that goal.
Two months ago, Evelyn Rivera, an alumna our affiliate People For the American Way Foundation’s Young People For program, wrote that her family’s dream is a future where “immigration reform will include family reunification and that my mom will return to the United States.” Rivera’s mother, who she describes as “the most courageous woman I have ever known,” was sent back to Colombia more than six years ago after being stopped while driving without a license.
“I miss her every day,” Rivera said.
Yesterday NBC Latino featured a powerful video of the reunification of Rivera and two other DREAMers with their mothers. Organized by United We Dream, the young people met their mothers at the border fence in Nogales, Arizona.
Jacquellena Carrero of NBC Latino reported,
“For the first time in six years, Evelyn Rivera was able to give her mother a hug. But the circumstances were less than ideal: Her mother was on the other side of a steel bar fence, which marked the United States and Mexico border….‘There were so many tears and we couldn’t get words out. Then we just kept saying ‘I love you, I love you’,’ Rivera says, describing the first few moments she spent with her mother. ‘My mom was upset. She was saying ‘I thought I would be able to hug you better.’ But we were so happy just to be able to touch.’”
Across the country from where Rivera and her mom embraced, the Senate voted Tuesday to proceed to debate on the immigration bill – and deliberation among Congress members on immigration reform continues.
“Although the Senate bill would help young immigrants like Rivera and Padilla by giving them an expedited pathway to American citizenship, Rivera says it does not do enough to bring back deportees. While the current bill would allow some deported children, spouses, and siblings of U.S. citizens and permanent residents to return, there is no provision that says deported parents of undocumented immigrants can come back. Republican senators have vehemently opposed the return of any deportees.”
Those in Congress would do well to keep the experiences of Rivera’s family – and the many families across the country and across the world like them – in mind as the debate proceeds. As United We Dream notes, this is what immigration reform looks like.
Watch a video of the reunion here:
Strong campaign finance laws lead to more competitive elections and a greater influence from small donors, according to a new report from the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
The report, released in May, examines state-level elections to gauge the impact of campaign finance laws. Titled "Evidencing a Republican Form of Government: The Influence of Campaign Money on State-Level Elections," it follows the finances of candidates in each state, looking at their donors, expenditures, and disclosures, providing evidence of the deleterious effects that unrestrained campaign spending has on our democracy.
States with high or no contribution limits, for one, have dramatically fewer competitive races than those with public financing. For example, the Institute found that only 6 percent of 2010 elections in Georgia were competitive, compared with 75 percent of elections in Maine. Not coincidentally, Georgia has relatively high contribution limits, with winning candidates raising a median amount of $50,425, while Maine uses public financing and had a much lower fundraising median of $5,844.
Further, removing limits on contributions also appears to crowd out small donors. In Texas, a state where individuals are allowed to contribute unlimited sums directly to campaigns, the median fundraising gap between winners and losers for 2010 was a whopping $255,318. Meanwhile, just 4 percent of 2010 donations in the state were under $250, while 59 percent exceeded $10,000. In fact, the Institute’s data reveals that in Texas, nearly half of all political donations came from a few hundred people. In contrast, in Colorado, which has much stricter contribution limits, the equivalent half of all contributions came from about 35,000 people. The Institute found this pattern to be present in all 50 states.
Lax campaign finance law has a double effect: not only does it reduce the competitiveness of political races, allowing candidates with money to simply overwhelm their opponents with tides of spending, but it also drastically reduces small-donor participation in politics, concentrating power and influence in the hands of those with deep pockets. This, of course, is a problem – as DEMOS has pointed out, the elite “donor class” often has vastly different policy priorities than those of most Americans.
As corporations, wealthy individuals, and special interests continue to adjust their election strategies in the wake of Citizens United, pouring ever more money into political campaigns, the conclusions of this report are cause for worry. Fortunately, the American people are not sitting idly by while our democracy is threatened. We are mobilizing.
In yet another state, the American people have made it clear that we will not allow our elections to be bought and sold.
Recent months have seen Delaware legislators and local advocates busy collecting signatures for a letter to Senator Carper, Senator Coons, and Representative Carney, asking them and their colleagues in Congress to pass a constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United. Working with Common Cause Delaware, PFAW has been on the front lines of this initiative. Last month Legislative Representative Calvin Sloan went “door to door” with PFAW members and allies in the state legislature urging lawmakers to sign onto the letter.
Following their hard work, Delaware today became the fifteenth state to go on record calling for an amendment to reclaim our democracy. Signed by the majority of lawmakers in both chambers of the state legislature with bipartisan support, today’s victory means that 30% of our nation’s states have called for such an amendment. Four of those states – West Virginia, Maine, Illinois, and now Delaware – have made their position official in just the last two months.
The tide is turning. The momentum is undeniable. As the letter points out, “There is no more critical foundation to our government than citizens’ confidence in fair and free elections.” Today’s victory – as well as those in other states and those in states still to come – makes clear that Americans are taking back our elections.
Today marks the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Equal Pay Act. It should be a celebration. But it should also be a wake-up call about how far our country still has to go toward fair pay.
When President Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act into law, he called the practice of paying women employees less than men doing the same job “unconscionable.” The year was 1963, and Kennedy noted that women were making about 60 percent of men’s average wage.
What was unconscionable then at 60 cents on the dollars is unconscionable now at 77 cents on the dollar, with women of color facing an even greater pay gap. A recent study by the American Association of University Women found that this gap starts early:
“[I]n 2009—the most recent year for which data are available—women one year out of college who were working full time were paid, on average, just 82 percent of what their male peers were paid. After we control for hours, occupation, college major, employment sector, and other factors associated with pay, the pay gap shrinks but does not disappear. About one-third of the gap cannot be explained by any of the factors commonly understood to affect earnings…”
In order words, even after controlling for “choice” factors such as college major – men, for example, are more likely to major in lucrative fields like computer science – the pay gap remains. Women doing the same work as men are still, on average, being paid less.
This discrepancy runs counter to basic ideas of fairness, with implications for almost all other aspects of women’s lives, from long-term economic stability to health and wellness. While 77 cents on the dollar may sound small, over the lifetime women lose hundreds of thousands of dollars because of this gap. It is an injustice that harms not only women, but also their families. And with women increasingly serving as primary breadwinners, the implications for families are compounded. For all of these reasons, PFAW continues to advocate for the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would provide women with additional tools to identify and fight back against pay discrimination.
“Equal pay for equal work” has been a women’s rights rallying cry for decades, powerful in its simplicity and incontestable logic. But as a country, we are not there yet.
On June 5th, hundreds of students made their way to Capitol Hill to express their concerns and tell their personal stories about rising student debt. We wanted to bring attention to the federal student loan interest rate that is set to expire on July 1st. After meeting with and leaving information for over 120 Senate and House members, student advocates from affiliate Young People For, Campus Progress, and other youth organizations hope to have left an impact on the senators considering various plans to address the impending increase.
Students roaming the halls of the Senate and House offices were passionate and excited about their movement. In meetings with offices including Barbara Boxer’s (D-CA), students were encouraged to continue making noise about this issue, as public attention is a key factor in forcing a bipartisan solution. We were told that the public attention brought to the issue by President Obama’s campaign and 2012 State of the Union address was a key factor in passing the one year freeze that was enacted last summer. Although the president spoke to a group of students on Friday about the interest rates, the public attention to the matter is smaller than it was last year.
But student debt remains a pressing issue. The average college student graduates with roughly $26,000 in student debt, and doubling the interest rate would result in what the president referred to as a $1,000 tax hike each year for students. Over the course of four years, that’s $4,000 in addition to the initial loan amount. That is $4,000 that is not going towards stimulating the economy, preventing graduates from buying cars and houses, and forcing them to put off big decisions like moving out of their parents’ houses and starting families and lives of their own. This is something each student on the Hill echoed regardless of the degree to which they are personally affected by the student loan deficit. As the roughly 7 million students with student debt contemplate how they will face the reality of their futures, they are turning around and telling future generations something we were never told: It is not worth it. If you are incurring debt in your undergrad years, going to graduate school might be even further out of the question. As one student shared yesterday, “Masters degrees have become the new bachelors.” When students cannot afford the education needed to be hired for the jobs available, the effects are felt across the nation. We now have less than one month to ensure that students are not incurring even more unnecessary debt that does nothing for our economy but hold us back.
Intern for affiliate People For the American Way Foundation’s Young People For Program
Yesterday afternoon the Delaware Senate passed a historic civil rights bill adding gender identity to the state’s hate crime prevention and non-discrimination laws. Despite damaging lies about transgender Americans pushed by organizations like Focus on the Family and the Delaware Family Policy Council, the state Senate approved the bill in an 11-7 vote.
Sarah McBride of Equality Delaware said,
“The Senate vote today inspired a lot of hope in me and I’m sure that’s true for many other transgender people across Delaware. It was inspiring to see a majority of the Senators stand up for a group that has seen disproportionate levels of discrimination and violence.”
If enacted, Delaware will become the 17th state with an employment non-discrimination law that covers gender identity in addition to sexual orientation.
Earlier this week President Obama nominated three unquestionably qualified candidates – appellate attorney Patricia Millet, former civil rights attorney Cornelia Pillard and D.C. District Court judge Robert Wilkins – to the D.C. Circuit, the second most influential court in the country. Republicans are already fighting hard against these nominations, claiming that the D.C. Circuit doesn’t have a large enough workload to necessitate filling the vacant seats. Sen. Chuck Grassley (D-IA) even went as far as to say, “No matter how you slice it, the D.C. Circuit ranks last or almost last in nearly every category that measures workload.”
Not quite. Glenn Kessler at The Washington Post wrote an article this morning delving deeper into Sen. Grassley’s claims. Kessler wrote,
“Challenged by Grassley’s claim that the D.C. Circuit is last ‘no matter how you slice it,’ we came up with two other measures that might shed more light on the D.C. Circuit’s workload… One way to measure this is by looking at the data for ‘administrative appeals.’
In 2012, nearly 45 percent of those appeals at the D.C. Circuit involved administrative appeals concerning federal rules and regulations, which many experts say are highly complex and take more time to review. By contrast, at the other circuits, virtually all of the administrative appeals involve immigration cases. Using the data in Table B-3, we found that in the other circuits, administrative appeals that did not involve immigration matters accounted for less than 3 percent of the appeals. (In some circuits, it was less than 1 percent.)”
In other words, the D.C. Circuit is considering some of the most intricate and far-reaching cases of any court. The complexity of these types of cases make apples-to-apples comparisons with other circuits difficult.
“Another measure of the complexity of the cases are statistics on written opinions. The raw data suggest that judges on the D.C. Circuit write fewer opinions than judges on other appeals circuits. (This was one stat that Grassley staff sent us.) But Table S-3 shows that the D.C. Circuit produced a greater proportion of written, signed opinions on cases determined on the merits than most other circuits.”
Overall, the Post concludes,
“[T]he certainty in Grassley’s argument is particularly misplaced, given the unusual nature of the D.C. Circuit… you can’t just assert that one appeals filing is equal to another — or that one set of statistics is better than another. Depending on the metrics, the D.C. Circuit could very well be in first place.”
In 2005, Sen. Grassley did not seem to have these workload concerns when he voted to confirm Bush nominees Janice Rogers Brown and Thomas B. Griffith to the tenth and eleventh seats on the D.C. Circuit. Yet when he and other Republicans cast those votes, the court was handling the same number of cases as it is now. As President Obama pointed out in his speech announcing the three nominees, this is an overtly political move on the part of Senate Republicans:
“When a Republican was president, 11 judges on the D.C. Circuit Court made complete sense. Now that a Democrat is president, it apparently doesn't – eight is suddenly enough.”
Our society is one which remains afflicted by institutionalized discrimination. Although most Americans believe protections already exist, it is still perfectly legal to fire someone for being lesbian, gay, or bisexual in 29 states, and for being transgender in 34.
Indeed, a new report released Tuesday by the Movement Advancement Project, the Center for American Progress, the Human Rights Campaign, and others provides a comprehensive synthesis of the wealth of evidence documenting the inequalities faced by LGBT workers. Titled “A Broken Bargain: Discrimination, Fewer Benefits and More Taxes for LGBT Workers,” the report presents extensive documentation of bias in the recruitment process, of hostile work environments, of persistent wage disparities as compared to non-LGBT employees, and of dramatically reduced access to health insurance, family and medical leave, retirement benefits, and disability and survivor benefits – despite paying higher taxes due to the inability of LGBT households to file jointly.
The impact on families is devastating. According to the report, inequality when looking for jobs, inequality on the job, and inequality in benefits received from jobs combine to make LGBT parents twice as likely to live near the poverty line when compared to non-LGBT counterparts.
Left to right, seated at panel: Bill Hendrix, Nicole G. Berner, Dorian Warren,Sam Hall, Mia Macy, T.J. Maloney. Photo of release event at Center for American Progress.
While the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recently found that existing Title VII law covers gender identity, courts are not required to give any deference to its legal interpretations, so legislation is required. Such a bill to guarantee much-needed federal employment protections for LGBT people was recently introduced in the 113th Congress. Known as the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), the bill has been introduced in nearly every Congressional session since 1994, and the fight for basic workplace equality continues to the present day.
Further, corporate America knows that ENDA is good for business. As Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) said Tuesday morning at the release event for the report,
“When we asked employers about this, many of them said, ‘well, isn’t it already illegal’? … In our Fortune 500 companies, over 400 have policies addressing LGBT discrimination, and well over half have addressed gender identity. In the 21 state laboratories in which this has been implemented, there has been no concern over [costs to business caused by] additional lawsuits … they are a small percentage of all lawsuits to do with gender, religion, and race. This is a non-issue.”
Passing ENDA, then, would not only help alleviate discrimination faced by LGBT workers, but would also help businesses attract the best qualified employees possible. As Bill Hendrix from Dow Chemical said at the event,
“It’s hard enough already to find good people to fill jobs. Why would you begin by excluding parts of the population?”
The pushback against Pennsylvania Republicans’ electoral vote-rigging bill continues to grow, as more and more public officials and average voters call on Governor Corbett to dump the hyper-partisan scheme plan.
On Monday, People For the American Way held a press conference in Philadelphia with state Senator Anthony Williams and a representative from the office of U.S. Rep. Robert Brady, who said that he fears this legislation represents “more of the same” partisan tactics that we saw with last year’s voter ID bill.
Yesterday in the state capitol of Harrisburg, state Auditor Eugene DePasquale and state Treasurer Rob McCord added to the calls for Corbett to put aside partisan politics and “stand up and say, ‘This isn’t right.’” McCord warned that the bill would mean millions in lost economic activity, and called it a “shame.” DePasquale said that the bill would greatly reduce the influence of Pennsylvania in national elections by limiting the number of electoral votes in play to 3 or 4, similar to small states like Wyoming. “When was the last time you saw a major policy announcement from a president in Wyoming?,” he asked.
With the chorus of voices against the bill growing ever louder, from both Democrats and Republicans, it’s becoming harder and harder for Corbett to maintain his tacit support for this scheme. If Pennsylvanians keep speaking out against this bill, Corbett won’t be able to act like he can’t hear us for much longer.
“I stopped going to school four months before graduation because I couldn’t handle the bullying anymore. I will not get to attend my senior prom, and…throw my graduation cap in the air.”
Harassment and bullying in schools are widely understood to be pervasive nationwide problems. But as the above quote from an LGBT student highlights, for LGBT young people the situation can be especially severe. Yesterday the Student Non-Discrimination Act (SNDA), which would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity/expression in public schools, was both reintroduced in the Senate by Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) and included in Sen. Tom Harkin’s (D-IA) proposed education bill updating the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
Studies show that this kind of legislation is sorely needed. The most recent Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network National School Climate Survey found that in the past year alone, more than eight in ten LGBT students had been verbally harassed because of their sexual orientation and more than six in ten because of their gender expression. The majority of students who were harassed did not report it to school staff, believing that nothing would happen if they did – or that the situation could get even worse.
As one student shared,
“Bullying in our school is mostly verbal, but it hurts just as much as any physical pain… Teachers rarely do anything about it.”
Those who were harassed frequently had lower GPAs and were less likely to say they planned to go on to college or other post-secondary education. Many LGBT students reported missing class because they felt unsafe or uncomfortable, with nearly one in three LGBT students missing at least one full school day in the past month.
When harassment at school is associated with missed classes, lowered grades, shifted educational ambitions, or even depression, it can have long term implications for the wellbeing of LGBT youth. No student should face this kind of hostility at school because of who they are or who others perceive them to be.
Today, President Obama nominated three people – experienced appellate attorney Patricia Millet, Georgetown law professor and former civil rights attorney Cornelia “Nina” Pillard and D.C. District Court judge and former public defender Robert Wilkins – to the influential Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.
All three have stellar qualifications. Yet, Senate Republicans were threatening to block all three even before they knew who the nominees would be.
In a Rose Garden speech introducing the nominees, President Obama blasted Republican obstruction and urged the Senate to quickly review and hold votes on all three. “The Constitution demands that I nominate qualified individuals to fill those seats,” he said. “What I am doing today is my job. I need the Senate to do its job.”
So one of the most important responsibilities of a President is to nominate qualified men and women to serve as judges on the federal bench.
And Congress has a responsibility, as well. The Senate is tasked with providing advice and consent. They can approve a President’s nominee or they can reject a President’s nominee. But they have a constitutional duty to promptly consider judicial nominees for confirmation.
Now, throughout my first term as President, the Senate too often failed to do that. Time and again, congressional Republicans cynically used Senate rules and procedures to delay and even block qualified nominees from coming to a full vote.
As a result, my judicial nominees have waited three times longer to receive confirmation votes than those of my Republican predecessor. Let me repeat that: My nominees have taken three times longer to receive confirmation votes than those of my Republican predecessor. These individuals that I nominate are qualified. When they were given an up or down vote in the Senate -- when they were finally given an up or down vote in the Senate, every one of them was confirmed. So this is not about principled opposition. This is about political obstruction.
Despite that, some Republicans recently have suggested that by nominating these three individuals, I’m somehow engaging in -- and I’m quoting here -- in “court-packing.” (Laughter.) No -- people laugh, but this is an argument I’ve made. For those of you who are familiar with the history of court-packing, that involved Franklin Delano Roosevelt trying to add additional seats to the Supreme Court in order to water down and get more support for his political agenda. We’re not adding seats here. We’re trying to fill seats that are already existing. Each of the past five Presidents has seen at least three of their nominees confirmed to the D.C. Circuit. Since I’ve been President, obstruction has slowed that down to one.
Right now, there are three open seats on a critical court. I didn’t create these seats. I didn’t just wake up one day and say, let’s add three seats to the District Court of Appeals. These are open seats. And the Constitution demands that I nominate qualified individuals to fill those seats. What I am doing today is my job. I need the Senate to do its job.
For more background on the D.C. Circuit, see PFAW’s Marge Baker’s piece in the Huffington Post yesterday, “Five Things Republicans Don’t Want You to Know About the D.C. Circuit.”
When the Senate unanimously confirmed Sri Srinivasan to the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit last month, Republicans patted themselves on the back for cooperating in a relatively efficient confirmation process. But, by any objective standard, Srinivasan’s confirmation process wasn’t that efficient at all. In fact, Republican obstruction of Srinivasan started when they delayed a hearing on his nomination for ten months, from June 2012 to April of this year.
But Sen. Chuck Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, is now pushing an alternate history of this delay on Srinivasan’s nomination. In a floor speech the day Srinivasan was confirmed, Grassley insisted that Sen. Patrick Leahy, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, “made no effort to schedule a hearing on this nominee until late last year.”
In a press release this week, Sen. Leahy explained why this argument is just plain false. In fact, he wrote, it was Senate Republicans who kept insisting that Srinivasan’s hearing be pushed back:
By July 19, 2012, I had determined that the paperwork on the Srinivasan nomination was complete and the nominee could be included in a hearing. It has been my practice as Chairman of the Judiciary Committee to give the minority notice and allow consultation before scheduling a nomination for a hearing. At that time, the next July hearing had been discussed as one devoted to the nominee to head the Antitrust Division at the Department of Justice, a nomination that itself had been delayed and to which there was Republican opposition. During the August recess, my staff asked Senator Grassley’s about holding the hearing on the Srinivasan nomination in September. They raised objections and concerns about proceeding with the D.C. Circuit nomination at that time but agreed to proceed with four district nominees and a Court of International Trade nominee.
In November, 2012, after the American people reelected President Obama, we raised the need for a hearing on the D.C. Circuit nomination anew. Republicans objected, again, in spite of the precedent of holding a hearing for one of President Bush’s D.C. Circuit nominees during a similar lame duck session. Instead, they wanted to proceed only with district court nominees during the lame duck. Republicans insisted that the Srinivasan hearing be put off until the new Congress and the new year. In deference to the Republican minority, I held off. They agreed that he would be included at the first nominations hearing of the 113th Congress.
Then, in early January of this year, when called upon to hold up their end of the bargain, Republicans balked.
This isn’t just a matter of settling a complicated Senate score. Instead, Sen. Leahy is pointing out yet another incident of Sen. Grassley’s twisting the truth about judicial nominees and the judicial nominations process in an attempt to cover for slowing down Senate business and ultimately the business of the federal courts. As Leahy says in his statement:
Those erroneous Record statements have me wondering whether I should be so accommodating to Republican scheduling demands given that they forget their demands in their efforts to avoid responsibility and blame others.
With all eyes on Illinois today for a possible marriage equality vote, the Illinois General Assembly took another important action – they called for a constitutional amendment to overturn the 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. FEC. Following on the heels of West Virginia and Maine last month, today’s action makes Illinois the fourteenth state to call for such a resolution.
The Rock River Times reports:
“The effort in Illinois was bipartisan, underscoring what poll data have shown: People of all political stripes are deeply concerned about corporations having too much influence over our democratic process. A measure calling for a constitutional amendment was on ballots across Illinois in November, and was supported by three-quarters of voters.”
Indeed, in Illinois and across the country, Americans of all “political stripes” are making clear that they do not want a democracy ruled by corporate spending. And with each additional state that goes on record supporting the movement to reclaim our democracy from wealthy special interests, that momentum grows even stronger.
Between buying elections, billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch shop for big pieces of American media and culture. And, hey, why not?
We already knew of the Kochs' efforts to buy Tribune Company, the parent of the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune, among other major newspapers. Then, last week, The New Yorker's Jane Mayer took a thoughtful, in-depth look at the machinations that led New York's PBS station, WNET, to pull from the air a documentary critical of David Koch, one of the station's biggest funders. The story raises plenty of questions about the extent to which the public owns public media and the role of money in the arts and culture (see anything at Lincoln Center's David H. Koch Theater lately?). But it also provides a rare intimate look at what happens when big money begets massive influence, often without a dime changing hands.
Mayer describes the fate of two documentary films. One took on income disparities in America by profiling the inhabitants of one tony Park Avenue building - including David Koch. Under pressure, WNET aired the film but, in a highly unusual concession, offered Koch airtime to rebut it after it aired. The second film, "Citizen Koch," made by the very talented, Academy Award nominated team of Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, explored the influence that Koch and others like him have on our elections in the post-Citizens United world. But in the face of Koch's wrath, the film's distributor, a public television player with a history of gutsy moves, uncharacteristically lost its stomach for the fight and dumped the film entirely. Regardless, Koch decided to not give a hoped-for gift after the first film aired. Without lifting a finger or even taking out his checkbook, Koch cast a pall over the documentary film world.
The process that led to "Citizen Koch" being pulled from the airwaves illustrates exactly the point that Lessin and Deal's film makes: money can not only buy action in our democracy, it can also buy silence. As former Republican presidential candidate Buddy Roemer points out in the film, "Sometimes it's a check. Sometimes it's the threat of a check. It's like having a weapon. You can shoot the gun or just show it. It works both ways."
Koch and his brother Charles, both billionaire industrialists, pledged to spend a whopping $400 million on the 2012 elections, the overwhelming majority of it on behalf of Republican candidates. But that doesn't just mean that Republicans are jumping to please the brothers--it means that many of those in positions of influence, regardless of their political leanings, need to take into account whether or not it's worth the trouble of unnecessarily antagonizing the Kochs. Just as the public is unlikely to hear about the film PBS didn't run, it's almost impossible to know about the principled progressive stands that our allies in government decided not to take.
Koch's billions are a formidable political weapon, even without owning any influential newspapers. Thanks to the Supreme Court's ruling in Citizens United, it's a more powerful weapon than ever, and we know it's having an impact even when they don't choose to deploy them. The result is a distorted government that responds to the whims of billionaires more easily than the needs of ordinary Americans.
As activists work to undo the damage being done by Citizens United, one of our main challenges is reminding voters of the dangerous, invisible effects that decision has on the country. It's a remarkable irony that by trying to hide a film about the danger of money in politics, the Kochs may have made it clearer than ever before.
Today, for the fourteenth time, Exxon Mobil shareholders voted down a resolution supporting an LGBT-inclusive equal employment opportunity statement. With 94% of the largest companies in America already prohibiting sexual orientation-based discrimination and 78% prohibiting gender identity-based discrimination, Exxon Mobil is way behind. Exxon has even gone out of its way to avoid implementing this type of policy. Though Mobil Oil had non-discrimination policies in place protecting workers on the basis of sexual orientation, Exxon rescinded them over a decade ago when they bought the company.
Exxon Mobil’s refusal to change their outdated policy underscores the need for employment non-discrimination laws that protect LGBT workers. Though most Americans believe that LGBT employees are already protected, in much of our country employers can still fire someone because of who they are or who they love.
PFAW Communications Director Drew Courtney recently pointed out that on the question of whether it’s okay to fire someone for being LGBT,
“few Americans still think that’s a live question. Overwhelming majorities of Americans support the passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which would make it illegal to fire someone for being gay or transgender.”
But Exxon Mobil hasn’t yet gotten that memo.
It was the tiring but rewarding work of democracy in action.
PFAW Legislative Representative Calvin Sloan recently joined PFAW members and ally organizations Common Cause Delaware and Public Citizen in meeting with Delaware Senators and Representatives, asking them to sign a letter calling for a Constitutional amendment reversing the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. Going “door to door” in the state legislature, the advocates held meetings with lawmakers about the importance of reclaiming our democracy from corporations and wealthy special interests. By the end of the day, the advocates were exhausted but buoyed by the positive responses they had received from public officials on both sides of the aisle.
“The United States of America’s elections should not be permitted to go to the highest bidder, and yet this is the risk that rises from the ashes of the Citizens United decision. This risk must be abated.”
From grassroots advocacy in Delaware to tracking money in politics legislation across the country, PFAW continues to speak out about that risk. And as President Michael Keegan wrote in an action alert last month,
“Our national movement to get unlimited corporate and special interest money out of our elections is growing stronger by the day.”