campaign finance

Johnson Picks Corporate Lobbyist as Chief of Staff

The first major decision any newly-elected member of Congress makes is who will serve as his or her chief of staff. The personnel choice says a lot about the member’s personality and priorities. Off-the-charts extremist Congressman-Elect Allen West, for instance, chose off-the-charts extremist radio host Joyce Kauffman (before the “liberal left” raised some concerns about her role inciting a school shooting plot). It should come as no surprise, then, that Wisconsin Senator-Elect Ron Johnson, whose pro-corporate policies earned him plenty of corporate cash on the campaign trail, has picked a corporate lobbyist to lead his team in Washington.

Johnson’s pick, reports Express Milwaukee, is Don Kent, who after a gig at the Department of Homeland Security in the Bush Administration, “became a lobbyist at Navigators Global, where he ‘heads up the Homeland Security practice.’”:

Johnson’s choice of Kent shows that he’s trying to ingratiate himself with big defense contractors, Big Pharma and anti-worker groups.

Navigator Global’s clients include AgustaWestland North America, the world’s largest helicopter manufacturer; the Coalition of California Growers, which was fighting a bill that would make it easier for workers to organize; the Computer and Communications Industry Association, which was fighting an effort that would allow some taxpayers to file their state tax returns for free; the Council of Insurance Agents and Brokers, when then-New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer was investigating the industry; Pfizer; and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, which wanted to block the reimportation of Canadian drugs to bring down costs for consumers.

Plenty of people—including members of Congress—go in and out of the revolving door between Capitol Hill and K Street. But Johnson’s choice makes a clear statement about the difference between him and his predecessor, Russ Feingold. Feingold has been one of the Senate’s strongest champions of clean elections and transparent government, and wrote the campaign finance law that was largely gutted by the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United. In the first election after Citizens United, Johnson benefitted from a flood of outside money, some from pro-corporate groups, to unseat Feingold.

It’s one of the first signs that the corporate interests that funded Tea Party candidates across the country are going to get what they paid for.

Via The Awl
 

PFAW

Secret Money in 2010 Election Doubled All Outside Group Spending in Last Midterm

The rapid growth and increased prominence of outside groups attempting to influence voters in the 2010 midterm election was apparent to all Americans who saw the deluge of campaign spending and TV ads this year. But the matter of who actually financed such groups is far less clear, as the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision made it much easier for groups to raise secret money from individuals and corporations to advance their political agendas. A new report by Public Citizen, Disclosure Eclipse, details how 2010 became a watershed moment for groups who do not publicly disclose the sources of their funding:

Of 308 outside groups, excluding party committees, that reported spending money on this year’s elections, just 116 (53.9 percent) provided any information about the sources of their funding, according to Public Citizen’s analysis of Federal Election Commission (FEC) data.

Of the 10 top spending groups, only three provided information about their founders. These top 10 groups – which collectively spent $138.5 million, equal to 52 percent of the $266.4 million spent by all outside groups in the 2010 to influence this years election – disclosed the sources of only 27.1 percent, of the money they spent.

Groups not disclosing any information about their funders collectively spent $135.6 million to influence this year’s elections. That was almost exactly double the $68.9 million grand total spent by outside groups in 2006, the most recent midterm election cycle.

Although the Supreme Court’s opinion in Citizens United lauded the virtues of disclosure, the effect that decision and the court’s earlier retrenchment of campaign finance regulations in 2007 has been less disclosure.



Such disclosure, [Justice] Kennedy wrote, would enable citizens to “see whether elected officials are ‘in the pocket’ of so-called moneyed interests.”

But, even for independent expenditures, no provision requires the type of disclosure that Kennedy discussed. The plain rules of [Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act] require such disclosures, but the FEC has gutted them.

In 2010, as mentioned above, only 70 percent of 30 top spending groups provided any information about their funding sources. These groups disclosed only 55.4 percent of their independent expenditures.

People For the American Way’s Citizens Blindsided: Secret Corporate Money in the 2010 Elections and America’s New Shadow Democracy report shows how undisclosed money is flowing into groups with a specifically pro-corporate political agenda. Members of Congress who supported measures to reform Wall Street and the health insurance system found themselves in the crosshairs of shadowy organizations which did not reveal their donors to the public. As this Public Citizen analysis demonstrates, Supreme Court rulings and the resulting FEC actions dismantled campaign finance rules to the point where secret money took off in the 2010 election, mostly to the benefit of pro-corporate politicians and causes.

 

PFAW

Justice Alito Confronted at GOP-Related Fundraiser

ThinkProgress’s Lee Fang went out to a high-profile, high-price fundraiser for the right-wing magazine the American Spectator last night, and confronted one of the gala’s distinguished guests: Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito.

The Spectator is more than merely an ideological outlet. Spectator publisher Al Regnery helps lead a secretive group of conservatives called the “Conservative Action Project,” formed after President Obama’s election, to help lobby for conservative legislative priorities, elect Republicans (the Conservative Action Project helped campaign against Democrat Bill Owens in NY-23), and block President Obama’s judicial appointments. The Spectator’s gala last night, with ticket prices/sponsorship levels ranging from $250 to $25,000, featured prominent Republicans like RNC chairman Michael Steele, hedge fund billionaire Paul Singer (a major donor to Republican campaign committees and attack ad groups), and U.S. Chamber of Commerce board member and former Allied Capital CEO William Walton. Among the attendees toasting Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN), the keynote speaker for the event, was Supreme Court Justice Sam Alito.

It’s not the first time Alito has attended the Spectator dinner. In 2008, Alito headlined the Spectator’s annual gala, helping to raise tens of thousands of dollars for the political magazine. According to Jay Homnick, a conservative who attended the 2008 Spectator gala, Alito spent much of his speech ripping then Vice President-elect Joe Biden as a serial plagiarizer.

As Alito entered the event last night, I approached the Justice and asked him why he thought it appropriate to attend a highly political fundraiser with the chairman of the Republican Party, given Alito’s position on the court. Alito appeared baffled, and replied, “it’s not important that I’m here.” “But,” I said, “you also helped headline this same event two years ago, obviously helping to raise political money as the keynote.” Alito replied curtly, “it’s not important,” before walking away from me.

This is hardly the first time that Justices on the Court’s far-right majority have been caught in ethically questionable hobnobbing with GOP political figures. Last month, it was reported that Justices Scalia and Thomas had attended a meeting with GOP officials arranged by the Tea Party-funding billionaire Koch brothers. The Huffington Post’s Sam Stein discussed the ethical implications of the Justices’ attendance:

"There is nothing to prevent Supreme Court justices from hanging out with people who have political philosophies," said Steven Lubet, a professor of law at Northwestern University who teaches courses on Legal Ethics.

But the Koch event appears more political than, say, the Aspen Ideas festival. In its own invitation, it was described as a "twice a year" gathering "to review strategies for combating the multitude of public policies that threaten to destroy America as we know it." In addition, it's not entirely clear what the two Justices did at the Koch event. A copy of the invitation that served as the basis for the Times's report was posted by the liberal blog Think Progress. It provided no additional clues. A call to the Supreme Court and an email to a Koch Industries spokesperson meanwhile were not immediately returned.

What complicates the report, as Gillers notes, is that the Supreme Court, very recently, handed down a major decision on campaign finance law that Koch Industries quickly utilized. Citizens United overturned existing law by ruling that corporations could spend unlimited amounts of money on federal elections. Koch has always been an active political and philanthropic giver. And its checks have been sent to Democrats as well as Republicans (though weighted more heavily to the latter). This cycle, however, the company has become one of the premier bankrollers of conservative causes, and earned the enmity of Democrats for doing so.

Perhaps what’s even more troubling than Supreme Court justices’ participation in overtly political strategizing and fundraising events is that they don’t seem to see why anyone would find their participation problematic. When Alito told Fang, “It’s not important that I’m here,” he probably believed what he was saying. From someone who exercises judgment for a living, that’s downright baffling.

Maybe the problem with the Corporate Court is not that they’ve allowed their views to be swayed by right-wing and corporate interests…but that they’ve never seen those interests as anything outside of the mainstream.
 

PFAW

The Most Outrageous Ads of the Election

This election cycle has experienced a massive flood of political spending following the dramatic weakening of campaign finance laws in cases such as Citizens United and SpeechNow. According to Political Correction, between August 1st and October 29th, the ten biggest right-wing groups, many of which are backed by contributions by corporations and don’t publicly disclose their donors, have spent about $100 million to air 109,826 ads. Many of the conservative candidates and organizations have been employing false claims and polarizing smears in their ads meant to foment cultural divisions and discredit progressive legislation. Here are just a handful of the most outrageous and irresponsible ads used this election year:

Anti-Muslim Rhetoric

The Right Wing has used the Park51 Community Center as a way to provoke fear, stoke divisions, and promote intolerance. The debate surrounding the community center has been riddled with attacks on religious freedom and baseless claims that the project’s organizers have ties to extremist groups, and the right has attempted to make the community center in Lower Manhattan an election issue in places like Iowa and North Carolina.

American Future Fund:

Renee Ellmers (Republican nominee, NC-02)

Anti-Health Care Reform

The recently passed health care reform law has been hammered by outside groups and conservative politicians with numerous dishonest and misleading attacks. Independent fact checkers have confirmed that the law does not use taxpayer funds to pay for abortion or drugs like Viagra for sex offenders. Other false and deceptive claims include allegations that the reform law establishes death panels, creates an army of IRS agents to arrest people without coverage, cuts Medicare benefits, and leads to the government takeover of the health care system.

American Action Network:

Susan B. Anthony List & CitizenLink (Focus on the Family Action):

Anti-Immigrant Extremism

Conservative politicians are taking cues from the Right Wing Playbook on Immigration Reform by attempting to portray Latinos in America as violent criminals who threaten White Americans. While smearing Comprehensive Immigration Reform and the DREAM Act, such anti-immigrant ads unfairly depict Latinos as invaders, gangsters, and welfare-beneficiaries. Even Sharron Angle tried to distance herself from her campaign’s ads by claiming that they are not Latinos but could actually be “terrorists” from Canada.

Sharron Angle (Republican nominee, NV-SEN):

Sen. David Vitter (Republican nominee, LA-SEN):

PFAW

Public Continues to Demand Campaign Disclosure and Spending Caps

A new New York Times/CBS News survey confirms the findings of other polls taken after the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United: Americans want greater transparency and stronger reforms in the political system. According to the poll, “nearly 8 in 10 Americans say it is important (including 6 in 10 who say “very important”) to limit the amount of money campaigns can spend.” This includes majorities of Democrats, independents, and even Republicans. In addition, “more than 7 in 10 of the public said spending by groups not affiliated with a candidate should be limited by law, and just 2 in 10 said it shouldn’t.”

Support for campaign transparency is so high that one must wonder if the only Americans who oppose disclosure rules are Republicans in Congress and pro-corporate lobbyists. The Times/CBS poll found that a staggering 92% of Americans believe “it is important for campaigns to be required by law to disclose how much money they have raised, where the money came from and how it was used.” Such findings corroborate the results of a Hart Research poll taken on behalf of People For the American Way, which found that 89% of voters favor “legislation that would require greater disclosure by corporations of their spending to influence elections,” and that a majority of Democrats, independents, and Republicans wants not only disclosure laws but also “limits on how much corporations can spend to influence the outcome of elections.”

The business community is increasingly calling for substantial campaign finance reform as well, as seen in a survey of business leaders conducted by the Committee for Economic Development. The poll found that 77% of business leaders “believe that corporations should disclose all of their direct and indirect political expenditures, including money provided to third party organizations to be spent on campaign ads.”

Despite the vast support of Americans and even business leaders for more openness and transparency in the political process, Republicans and corporate lobbyists continue to oppose commonsense proposals like the DISCLOSE Act. The obstructionist Republican minority in the Senate voted in lockstep to keep the DISCLOSE Act from passing, and recently the chairman of the Republican National Committee, Michael Steele, deceptively denied the very-existence of active political groups that do not disclose their donors.

Steele later said that “if people are that bothered by” the lack of transparency in Congress, “then the Congress needs to change it.” As People For the American Way’s President Michael B. Keegan pointed out:

The glaring problem with Steele's supposed embrace of transparent elections is that just a couple of months ago, people were "bothered by" hidden corporate spending in elections, the majority in Congress did draft a law to make that spending transparent...but Steele's party united to stop the law in its tracks just before the midterm elections.

Steele's bumbling and disingenuous response was infuriating, but it served as a perfect illustration of why Republicans have done everything they can to allow unfettered, undisclosed corporate influence in our elections. With the system as it is, Steele can watch corporate interest groups spend millions of dollars to help elect Republican candidates, and nobody is held accountable to voters.

The post-Citizens United landscape -- where corporations are allowed to spend unlimited amounts from their treasuries to run ads for and against candidates, but aren't required to disclose that spending -- has been a boon to candidates who push a pro-corporate agenda. Michael Steele knows it. And so does every candidate who is benefiting from the influx of secretive spending. They know it, but they don't have to own up to it.

The Republicans in Congress continue to reject the beliefs of nine-in-ten Americans that support disclosure and campaign finance reform, and want to tie the hands of Congress from making even basic changes to increase transparency in the system.

PFAW

Local Chambers Want No Part in US Chamber of Commerce’s Political Games

As the US Chamber of Commerce becomes less of a trade association and more of a pro-GOP political outfit, local chambers have become increasingly disillusioned with the national branch’s partisan turn. According to the Washington Post, the US Chamber of Commerce leads among non-party groups in campaign spending in the election: of the over $31 million so far spent by the Chamber, 93% of that money has benefited Republicans.

Many local chambers seek to distance themselves from the national Chamber and its fervent partisanship and controversial lobbying practices. People For the American Way has documented how Chamber President Thomas Donohue uses hefty contributions from big corporations to fund their massive lobby campaign and political spending. While local chambers tend to work with small businesses, the US Chamber of Commerce concentrates on promoting the interests of large corporations, including foreign-owned businesses. Daniel Denvir of AlterNet reports that local chambers are upset about how the US Chamber of Commerce’s aggressive pro-corporate and pro-GOP political work is damaging their own interests:

According to the Times, though the Chamber claims to represent 3 million businesses and 300,000 members, “nearly half of its $140 million in contributions in 2008 came from just 45 donors.” (According to an article in Mother Jones, the real number of business members is more like 200,000.)

For many local affiliates, the U.S. Chamber trades on their good name, and then besmirches it. Aggressive U.S. Chamber attack ads in Connecticut, Washington and New Hampshire have upset local chambers that rely on working relationships with members of both parties.

“I now have a standard e-mail saying we’re not a chapter of the U.S. Chamber that I have to send out a couple of times a week,” Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce president Timothy Hulbert told Washington Monthly.

Earlier this month, the Greater Hudson Chamber of Commerce in New Hampshire disaffiliated from the U.S. Chamber. Executive vice-president Jerry Mayotte told the Nashua Telegraph, “We didn’t like the fact that the U.S. Chamber was supporting particular candidates. We don’t think it’s good business practice to do so.”



The U.S. Chamber does not seem to mind alienating local chambers of commerce. A major opponent of campaign finance reform, the U.S. Chamber operates much like the post-Citizen’s United political system: one dollar, one vote.

“The truth be told is that the American political system is a pay-to-play system,” says Jaffe. “The only thing we require is disclosure: who’s behind the issues advocated by the U.S. Chamber? Who’s influencing their voice? Is it good for planet earth, good for small business? Or is it only good for one company that’s paying a lot of money to influence it?”
PFAW

Timothy Egan Calls Out the Corporate Court

A classic claim of pro-corporate shills regarding Citizens United is that campaign finance reform is the equivalent to banning books and government censorship. As Chief Justice Roberts said, “we don’t put our First Amendment rights in the hands of FEC bureaucrats.”

But what Americans are experiencing this election year is the emergence of political organizations with secret sources of funding, an increase in corporate “Astroturfing” through front groups, and an avalanche of money to run misleading advertisements across the country.

In the New York Times, Timothy Egan points out how the astronomical amount of money poured into this election is actually drowning-out the voices of citizens and distorting the democratic process. Egan writes that the Court’s decision in Citizens United “will go down in infamy” for giving corporations the right to easily and secretly fund political groups “to bludgeon the electorate” by flooding the airways with deceptive ads:

Here’s what’s happened: Spending by interest groups in this fall’s senate races has gone up 91 percent from the same period in 2008, according to the Wesleyan Media Project. At the same time, spending by political parties has fallen 61 percent.

So corporations, whose sole purpose is to return money to shareholders, were given the legal right to be “natural persons” in our elections and are now overwhelming them. But political parties, which exist to promote ideas and governing principles, have seen their voices sharply diminished.

If the hell of Colorado’s current election season is what those isolated, black-robed kingmakers on the high court had in mind, you certainly didn’t see it in the nonsense of their decision.

“We should celebrate rather than condemn the addition of this speech to the public debate,” wrote Justice Antonin Scalia in his concurrence of Citizens.

I can’t find any celebrating in Colorado, except by broadcasters cashing the checks of big special interest groups. Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, by a large majority in the polls, agree on this: outside groups should not be allowed to dominate election spending.

The court missed the reality of what would happen once the floodgates were opened to the deepest pockets of the biggest players. They turned back a century of fine-tuning the democracy, dating to Teddy Roosevelt’s 1907 curbs, through the Tillman Act, against Gilded Age dominance of elections. They focused on a fantasy.

“The First Amendment protects more than just the individual on a soapbox or the lonely pamphleteer,” wrote Justice Roberts.

Come to Colorado, your honor. You will see that those iconic individuals don’t have a prayer in the post-Citizens-United world, let alone some broadcast time for the soapbox.

Here was the court’s prediction: “The appearance of influence or access will not cause the electorate to lose faith in our democracy.” Really? Perhaps the top complaint this year about the barrage of outside attack ads is that nobody knows who is behind them, which promotes the exact opposite of what the Roberts court predicted.

Celebrating yet? Get used to it. Though Republican-leaning special interests are currently outspending the other side by a 9-to-1 ratio, Democrats will soon follow Karl Rove’s lead and learn to bundle and hide wealthy contributors.

As ugly as 2010 has been, the next election cycle, for president in 2012, will bring us a John Roberts’s America that will make this year look like a town hall meeting from a Rockwell painting.
PFAW

Alaska’s New Super PAC: Brought to you by Federal Government Contractors

After extremist Republican Joe Miller upset incumbent Senator Lisa Murkowski in the GOP primary, many Alaskans panicked over the prospect of having a Senator that wants to greatly diminish the federal government’s role in Alaska. After Senator Murkowski announced a write-in bid to take on Miller and the Democratic nominee, Sitka Mayor Scott McAdams, a new organization emerged to back the incumbent: Alaskans Standing Together.

Alaskans Standing Together is a “Super PAC” which can raise unlimited amounts of funds from individuals and corporations, and must disclose its donors to the FEC. The group is solely dedicated towards supporting Senator Murkowski’s reelection campaign and criticizing both of her opponents. So far, Alaskans Standing Together has reported having nine donors: Native American Corporations that have contributed over $800,000 to the group. But these Native American Corporations are also federal contractors, and many of them openly claim that they receive much of their federal money as a result of the legislative efforts of Lisa Murkowski. The corporations say that such money is needed since outside organizations like the California-based Tea Party Express are running hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of ads promoting Joe Miller.

But as the Miller and Murkowski squabble over the non-party groups backing their campaigns, only Scott McAdams directly pointed to an important reason for the massive downpour in campaign cash:

The Democrat in the race, Scott McAdams, took a different approach, blaming the U.S. Supreme Court for opening up politics to unlimited corporate donations. If he's elected, McAdams said, he'd move to pass a campaign finance law backed by Democratic leaders in the Senate and President Barack Obama. He also seized on a claim the White House has been hammering in recent weeks: that unlimited corporate money has the potential to give foreign-owned corporations a say in U.S. elections.

"As a small state, Alaska can't afford to allow its elections to be overtaken by corporate spending," McAdams said. "Unfortunately, Sen. Murkowski has voted to allow corporations, including foreign corporate money, to continue to influence elections."

Outside independent expenditure groups are playing a major role in the Alaska Senate race -- and those across the country. In previous elections, such contributions wouldn't have been legal, but the recent Citizens United Supreme Court decision allows corporate and union donors to inject unlimited amounts of money into politics.

PFAW

American Future Fund’s Ethanol Industry Ties

In PFAW’s report “After Citizens United: A Look into the Pro-Corporate Players in American Politics,” we looked into the Iowa-based American Future Fund which is spending millions of dollars attacking Democrats across the country. The AFF was founded by former GOP staffer Nick Ryan, whose lobbyist firm has ties to Big Agriculture, especially Iowa’s large ethanol industry. The group’s director, Katherine Polking, also works for Ryan’s lobby firm, the Concordia Group, and the AFF paid Ryan’s firm $300,000 for consulting fees.

Now, the New York Times reports that while Ryan’s Concordia Group lobbies on behalf of the ethanol industry, Ryan’s American Future Fund received its seed money from Bruce Rastetter, the “chief executive of one of the nation’s larger ethanol companies, Hawkeye Energy Holdings.” As a 501c4 organization, the AFF does not have to disclose the sources of its funding, and in this case Rastetter’s lawyer confirmed his connections to the group. Now Ryan, a “lobbyist for four Rastetter businesses,” receives money to attack Democrats with ties to agriculture policy: “Of the 14 ‘liberal’ politicians singled out in a list [the AFF] released last month, nearly every incumbent sits on a panel with a say over energy or agriculture policy. Five sit on the Agriculture Committee; four others are on related committees with say. One candidate was a staff member on a related panel.”

When Bruce Braley, a Congressman in the crosshairs of AFF attacks, tried to visit the AFF, he “found only a rented mailbox.” The proliferation of shadowy, pro-corporate groups like the American Future Fund is a result of the substantial weakening of campaign finance laws:

The American Future Fund, organized under a tax code provision that lets donors remain anonymous, is one of dozens of groups awash in money from hidden sources and spending it at an unprecedented rate, largely on behalf of Republicans. The breadth and impact of these privately financed groups have made them, and the mystery of their backers, a campaign issue in their own right.

Through interviews with top Republican contributors and strategists, as well as a review of public records, some contours of this financing effort — including how donors are lured with the promise of anonymity — are starting to come into view.



The surge of anonymous money is the latest development in corporate America’s efforts to influence the agenda in Washington, following rules enacted several years ago banning large, unregulated gifts to political parties. Democrats first established so-called third-party groups that could legally accept unlimited money from business and unions, though most had to disclose donors. Now, as new laws and a major Supreme Court decision have removed barriers to corporate giving, Republican operatives have embraced the use of nonprofit issue groups that can keep donors’ identities secret.
PFAW

Kudlow to Corporate-Backed Groups: Disclose Your Funding

Yesterday, Think Progress dropped a campaign finance bombshell when it reported that the US Chamber of Commerce, which is spending tens of millions of dollars this year to run ads supporting GOP candidates in federal elections, is collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars from foreign owned businesses, including companies owned by foreign governments.

Reliable clean elections proponents, like Minnesota senator Al Franken, spoke out immediately for the FEC to investigate the Chamber’s finances. But the voices in support of campaign finance disclosure haven’t been coming only from the left.

CNBC host Larry Kudlow, a columnist for the conservative National Review, said today that groups like the Chamber and Karl Rove’s shadowy group Crossroads GPS should put their funding and spending records out in the open. According to fact sheet from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office, Kudlow said:

“Why not have the media posting of the contribution information on the Internet? That's all. And let everybody decide… Who, what, when, how, where, who got it? Put it up on the net and let free speech and free politics take its work… American Crossroads and Karl Rove and all them should post also.” [10/6/10]

We reported last week on several groups, including the Chamber of Commerce and Crossroads GPS, that are spending buckets of money to back pro-corporate candidates in this year’s elections, while under no obligation to disclose where their money is coming from. This spending is no small change—the Associated Press reported last week that right-wing, pro-corporate groups have outspent progressive groups 6-1 on television ads this year.

Kudlow’s call for disclosure from these big-spending groups should come as no surprise. Disclosure of campaign spending is a principle embraced by many prominent conservatives, including Justice Antonin Scalia. And when the Supreme Court’s conservative majority ruled in Citizens United v. FEC to allow corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money to influence elections, they did so with an important side note: they were in favor of “prompt disclosure” of the campaign spending.

Up against the reality of corporate-backed groups that will spend enormous amounts of money for their electoral benefit, however, congressional Republicans have been significantly less eager to embrace the idea of full disclosure than that of free spending.

The Chamber of Commerce, for one, seems to be solidly in the congressional Republican camp on the disclosure issue. Asked by the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent about Think Progress’s allegations, a spokeswoman for the Chamber responded with a tirade against the blog, denying that the Chamber spends foreign money on electioneering—but refusing to answer any questions on just how that money is kept separate.


 

PFAW

Chamber’s Foreign Funding Demonstrates the Need to Revisit Citizens United

Coming on the heels of a report by ThinkProgress on how the US Chamber of Commerce uses membership dues from foreign corporations to pay for political advertisements in American elections, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United is facing new scrutiny for opening up the floodgates of corporate spending. People For the American Way has spoken out against the Chamber’s practices of collecting “hundreds of thousands of dollars from foreign owned businesses, including companies owned by foreign governments,” and the editorial board of the New York Times is also sounding the alarm. The Times editors write that the election system is broken as a result of Citizens United and actions by Republicans in Congress and the FEC to weaken the remaining regulations of campaign finances:

Because the United States Chamber is organized as a 501(c)(6) business league under the federal tax code, it does not have to disclose its donors, so the full extent of foreign influence on its political agenda is unknown. But Tuesday’s report sheds light on how it raises money abroad. Its affiliate in Abu Dhabi, for example, the American Chamber of Commerce, says it has more than 450 corporate and individual members in the United Arab Emirates who pay as much as $8,500 a year to join.

Because of a series of court decisions that culminated in the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling earlier this year, these and similar 501(c) nonprofits have become huge players in the year’s election, using unlimited money from donors who have no fear of disclosure. (Not surprisingly, the chamber has been a leading opponent of legislation to require disclosure.) One such group, American Crossroads, organized by Karl Rove, announced on Tuesday a $4.2 million ad buy to support Republican candidates, bringing the group’s total spending to about $18 million so far.

The possible commingling of secret foreign money into these groups raises fresh questions about whether they are violating both the letter and spirit of the campaign finance laws. The Federal Election Commission, which has been rendered toothless by its Republican members, should be investigating possible outright violations of the Federal Election Campaign Act by foreign companies and the chamber.

Now, Minnesota Senator Al Franken is calling on the FEC to look into the Chamber’s finances, the Star Tribune reports:

Franken’s letter says that the Chamber’s mixing of funds under current FEC rules “is not per se illegal.” But he wrote that the company had to demonstrate that its foreign funds were not used for political purposes, and pushed the FEC to launch an investigation.

In addition, Franken’s letter asked the FEC to change its regulations allowing foreign companies to spend on elections — which is legal so long as the company is incorporated in the U.S. and creates a special election committee staffed by Americans.

 

PFAW

Chamber of Commerce uses Foreign Funding for Political Ads

In January President Obama in his Statue of the Union address warned Americans of the deleterious impact the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United would have on our political process:

With all due deference to separation of powers, last week the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that, I believe, will open the floodgates for special interests, including foreign corporations, to spend without limit in our elections. I don't think American elections should be bankrolled by America's most powerful interests or, worse, by foreign entities.

While Justice Alito and others criticized Obama’s assertion that “foreign corporations” will be allowed to spend money in elections, ThinkProgress looked into how the Chamber utilizes its foreign branches to raise money for the $75 million it plans to spend on the 2010 election:

A ThinkProgress investigation has found that the Chamber funds its political attack campaign out of its general account, which solicits foreign funding. And while the chamber will likely assert it has internal controls, foreign money is fungible, permitting the Chamber to run its unprecedented attack campign. According to legal experts consulted by ThinkProgress, the Chamber is likely skirting longstanding campaign finance law that bans the involvement of foreign corporations in American elections.


In recent years, the Chamber has become very aggressive with its fundraising, opening offices abroad and helping to found foreign chapters (known as Business Councils or “AmChams”). While many of these foreign operations include American businesses with interests overseas, the Chamber has also spearheaded an effort to raise money from foreign corporations, including ones controlled by foreign governments. These foreign members of the Chamber send money either directly to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, or the foreign members fund their local Chamber, which in turn, transfers dues payments back to the Chamber’s H Street office in Washington DC. These funds are commingled to the Chamber’s 501(c)(6) account which is the vehicle for the attack ads.
PFAW

Surprise, Surprise: Wisconsin Voter Caging Stems Back to Koch Brothers' Corporate Agenda

Last week, we wrote about a voter suppression plan concocted by GOP and Tea Party-affiliated groups in Wisconsin meant to keep young and minority voters from the polls this November.

Think Progress dug further into the issue, and traced much of the plan—both the sinking of a proposed Wisconsin law that would have prevented voter caging efforts like this, and the coordinated caging effort itself—back to the network of the billionaire Koch brothers, who have provided the money behind much of the Tea Party movement. (The Kochs are also the main funder of Americans For Prosperity, one of the groups cited in the voter caging plan):

[I] appears that a network of Koch-backed groups killed a proposed Wisconsin law to protect voters, which then cleared the way for an overlapping set of Koch-backed groups to move with an alleged voter suppression plan. What’s more, Koch-funded AFP is currently attempting to further influence the outcome of the election by airing millions of dollars in attack ads targeting Democratic U.S. House and Senate members in Wisconsin and other states.

Laurence Lewis at Daily Kos reminds us of the motivation behind the Kochs’ generous political spending:

The Koch machine also is a leading financier of climate denialism, which must make sense to oil industry billionaires who clearly don't care about the science of climate change. Of course, ending regulation, taxes, and campaign finance laws would make the brothers effective royalty, with no possible means for those interested in the public good to check their dangerous and rapacious greed. And as Mayer points out, the 1980 Libertarian platform on which David Koch ran for vice president called for the abolition of Social Security and the minimum wage. After all, who cares about the tens of millions of people that rely on one or both when you're a billionaire who doesn't have such a need and apparently doesn't care about the needs of others?

Koch Industries has essentially declared war on the Obama administration. In Wisconsin, Koch-affiliated groups have essentially declared war on democracy. And all Wisconsin voters should know about it. And they should consider why a couple of oil billionaires who are not from Wisconsin seem to want to use any possible means to control Wisconsin's election. And Wisconsin voters should consider why organizations affiliated with these brothers are so determined to defeat Wisconsin Democrats, this November. After all, there is no evidence that these oil billionaires care about the general well-being of the general public, and there is particularly no evidence that they care about the well-being of the people of Wisconsin.

Well-funded corporate interests like the Kochs, who want to avoid government regulation, resist funding essential social services, and pretend that climate change doesn’t exist, have a lot at stake in keeping progressives like Russ Feingold out of the Senate. So much so, apparently, that they’ll do what it takes to drive progressive voters away from the polls.
 

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Yesterday’s Big Wins for Young Progressive Candidates

Gustavo Rivera, a young progressive candidate endorsed by the PFAW Action Fund, won a big victory yesterday in a New York state senate district in the Bronx, ousting the current Senate Majority Leader in the Democratic primary. Rivera won a decisive victory over Pedro Espada, who threw the state senate into a dysfunctional mess last year when he briefly switched over to the Republican Party.

Rivera, 34, is a strong progressive—he’s pro-choice, supports marriage equality, and is a leader on ethics reform and fair wages. In a heavily Democratic district, he’s a solid bet to head to Albany next year, where he’ll bring some much-needed new ideas.

Several other PFAW Action Fund-endorsed candidates are also bringing a progressive agenda to November’s elections after making it through yesterday’s primaries. In New York, Clarkstown Town Clerk David Carlucci, who has focused his campaign on campaign finance and ethics reform became the Democratic nominee for an open state senate seat, and Aravella Simotas of Astoria, who is a staunch advocate of LGBT equality, health care access, and public education, also won a Democratic primary for a seat in the State Assembly.

In Maryland, eight PFAW Action Fund candidates won primaries, including Victor Ramirez, who ousted a less progressive incumbent incumbent in the race for a state senate seat in Prince George’s County. Judd Legum of Maryland—a progressive activist who founded the Center for American Progress’s Think Progress blog—won a spot as a Democratic nominee for a state House seat. He’ll face off against a Republican incumbent with a history of fighting marriage equality. In Bethesda, Ariana Kelly, a longtime advocate for equal pay, the right to choose, marriage equality, public education, and environmental conservation, won a competitive Democratic primary for a seat in the House of Delegates.

The PFAW Action fund supports progressive candidates under the age of 35.
 

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Today’s GOP “More Extreme” than Bush?

Remember when GOP candidates were doing everything they could to distance themselves from President George W. Bush? Well, the GOP is still moving away from Bush…moving to his right. The Huffington Post’s Sam Stein talked with David Axelrod, President Obama’s strategist, about the upcoming elections:

"I saw that [Alaska GOP Senate candidate] Joe Miller said that he would abolish Social Security if he had the chance and he is not alone," said chief adviser David Axelrod. "This is akin to what [Nevada GOP Senate candidate] Sharron Angle has said in Nevada and also a number of these other Republicans. So, this could go one step beyond the policies of the Bush administration to something more extreme than we have seen."

And it’s not just new faces like Miller and Angle who are moving the Republican part to the right - even key players in the party’s center have moved rightward since President Obama’s inauguration (just look at Maverick McCain’s shifting stands on immigration reform, campaign finance, and religious freedom).

Axelrod is far from an impartial observer, but he makes a good point: this year’s Tea Party-fueled Republican Party is looking a lot more extreme than the right-wing administration Americans rejected two years ago.

But what happens if the political pendulum does swing and extreme-right Republican candidates are faced with acting on their promises? It’s hard to believe that abolishing Social Security, repealing Health Care Reform, and denying citizenship to thousands of children will actually be an effective strategy for governing, let along a long-term political success.
 

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Disclosure Laws Under Attack

Even after the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision rolled back longstanding state and federal laws that attempted to limit corporate influence in democracy, opponents of any type of campaign finance rules have redoubled their efforts to weaken transparency in elections. Two right-wing political organizations and a business group recently sued to block the state of Minnesota from enforcing campaign disclosure and donation laws. They are seeking an injunction to prevent the implementation of the state's rule for corporations to disclose their political activities. In addition, they "seek to overturn prohibitions on corporations contributing directly to campaigns and parties." Currently, as a result of Citizens United, corporations can fund advocacy groups who can support and oppose certain candidates, but not the candidates themselves. If their lawsuit is successful, corporate financing of campaigns would expand to even greater levels.

Due to the state's current disclosure rules, donations from companies such as Target and BestBuy to the right-wing group MN Forward came to light. Without the DISCLOSE Act, organizations involved in federal elections are already able to conceal their donors, and President Obama recently warned against "a flood of attack ads run by shadowy groups with harmless-sounding names." "They don't want you to know which interests are paying for the ads," Obama said; "The only people who don't want to disclose the truth are people with something to hide."

If the plaintiffs in Minnesota (which includes a for-profit business and two conservative non-profits: the Taxpayers League of Minnesota and Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life) are successful, not only would corporations be allowed to hide their political financing from the public, but may even be able to directly contribute to the campaigns of candidates for public office.

It is already extremely difficult, especially without the DISCLOSE Act, to discover corporate financing of political groups. As a report by the Washington Post explains:

Long-standing IRS regulations require some groups to reveal their donors, and that is why the agency suddenly finds itself with what some might see as a more crucial watchdog role, stepping in to monitor disclosure in the absence of the FEC. But the IRS rules also have long-standing loopholes and, with limited resources and enforcement tools, the nation's tax collector is not set up to be a campaign regulator.

"The chances of the IRS being able to catch a violation of the tax law around campaigns is virtually nil," said Marcus S. Owens, a lawyer with Caplin & Drysdale who directed the agency's tax-exempt organizations division for 10 years. "Certainly if it happens, it's going to be well after the election has already ended."

As the assault on the remaining campaign disclosure laws intensifies, spending in elections is about to climb to new heights. Borrell Associates predicts that the Citizens United decision will lead to $400 million in new ads this election season, and that "political ad spending will reach $4.2 billion this year, double the $2.1 billion the firm estimated was spent in 2008."

But the most serious opponents of the effort to shed light on corporate financing in elections are obstructionists in the Senate: the Republicans who vote lock-step to prevent the DISCLOSE Act from coming up for an up-or-down vote. President Obama's call for the Senate to reconsider the DISCLOSE Act, which already passed the House, reminds us that the fight against the enormous corporate clout in our democracy is not over:

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What Citizens United has to do with Rod Blagojevich

Last night, a federal jury in Chicago convicted Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich on just one of 24 counts of political corruption. On the rest of the counts, the jury was hopelessly deadlocked.

Scott Turow, the bestselling novelist who started his career as a US Attorney prosecuting political corruption cases in Chicago, writes in the New York Times that whatever the fuzziness of fact in the Blagojevich case, what is even fuzzier is the way our legal system deals with political corruption. The influence of big money is everywhere in our political process—and the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United opened the door for less showy, but equally problematic, versions of the corruption that Blagojevich is accused of.

Indeed, in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the court decided that such organizations could spend as much as they wished at any time, assuming there was no direct coordination with the candidate. In doing so, the court overturned its own precedents and refused to distinguish the free speech rights of corporations and unions in any way from those of actual people.

The problem with this logic is that corporations have a legal duty not to spend money unless it is likely to improve profits. Unions, too, are expected to make only contributions that will benefit members. As a result, no idealistic patina of concern about good government or values-driven issues can burnish these payments.

The future of other campaign finance restrictions looks bleak. Thirty-four years ago, when the Supreme Court first declared in Buckley v. Valeo that the First Amendment protected election spending, it nonetheless approved contribution limits “to prevent ... the appearance of corruption.” In Citizens United, the Roberts Court gave short shrift to any concern about appearances. Limits on direct contributions to candidates appear likely to be the next campaign safeguard to fall.

In any case, the bevy of ways in which donors can get around current spending laws, combined with the Supreme Court’s elastic approach to the First Amendment, have left our campaign finance system as little more than a form of legalized influence-buying. Only those as naive as Wanda Brandstetter or as crass and ham-handed as Rod Blagojevich find themselves subject to prosecution, while others wise enough to say less out loud find snug protection in the First Amendment, no matter how bald their desire to influence government actions.

We see daily examples of this sort of dynamic happening in elections—take the Florida governor’s race--where any causal relationships between campaign cash and policy decisions can never be fully sorted out. It’s a dangerous thing for democracy…and one, as Turow points out, we aren’t going to fix without a Constitutional amendment.
 

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The Target Story and Disclosure

Target’s misguided donation to a pro-corporate, anti-gay Minnesota gubernatorial candidate has (with good reason) caused quite an uproar recently. But the dominant narrative – that Target will serve as a cautionary tale warning other big corporations against getting involved in politics – isn’t quite right.

As an NPR story yesterday made clear, the lesson of the Target story for many like-minded corporations is: don’t get caught.

Target gave to a group that is legally bound to identify its contributors. That's why Target's contribution became known.

Many other groups don't have to disclose a thing. So a company can channel its money — and its message — through a business association or an advocacy group, and outsiders will never know.

"Given all these different ways that you can spend your money without generating a national news story, certainly I think a lot of corporate executives are saying this is just a reminder to use all those other tools that we have in our tool kit," says Robert Kelner, a campaign finance lawyer in Washington.

The DISCLOSE Act, which was brought down by Republican obstruction earlier this summer, is likely to return to the Senate in September. Its passage would oblige all corporations to be transparent about their political involvement, making the Target story a true cautionary tale.

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Failure to Disclose

While banks and insurance companies are heavily betting on Republicans this election year, we may never know what companies are behind third-party ads pushing for corporate-friendly policies and politicians. Since forty-one Republican senators voted in lock-step to block the DISCLOSE Act ("Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light On Spending in Elections"), the bill hasn't yet had an opportunity to receive an up-or-down vote in the Senate.

The DISCLOSE Act, which the House passed in June, would prohibit corporations that are foreign-owned or receive federal dollars from engaging in electoral activity, and would mandate that third party political groups publicize their donors and include disclaimers on advertisements. So far, however, the obstructionists in the Senate have derailed this drive for transparency in politics by blocking a vote on DISCLOSE. Unless the Senate leadership is able to break through this obstructionism when Congress comes back from its August recess,third party groups will have free license to spend handsomely on elections without releasing a single source of their funding.

A recent Fortune article points out why the DISCLOSE Act is needed, as even Goldman Sachs, which says it will not directly contribute to political organizations, "can publicly say it won't fund political ads, and still go right ahead doing it privately." As Tory Newmyer maintains: "[T]rade associations and other non-profit groups can now spend freely on ads attacking or supporting specific candidates. And because those groups don't always have to identify their funders, they provide a safe vehicle for corporations looking to launder their involvement in dicey election contests."

Due to a state law, the business-backed independent expenditure political committee Minnesota Forward was forced to publicly list its donors. However, when advocates found out that companies such as Target and BestBuy were behind a group that supports a gubernatorial candidate with a horrendous record on gay-rights and consumer protection, they encountered severe pushback from customers and advocates.

But while Target and BestBuy got caught, other corporations and affiliated groups learned from their mistakes. Dirk Van Dongen, the head of the National Association of Wholesaler Distributors, believes that the boycotts of Target won't stop other businesses from becoming involved in electoral activity, "noting that businesses can give anonymously to trade association and other non-profit campaign efforts."

In fact, Target did not promise to stop making political contributions, but would simply send them through a "review board" in the future. David Schultz, a campaign finance specialist at Hamline University, predicts that corporations, "exclusively driven by the Citizens United case," will increase their electoral spending by as much as 50% this year.

Corporate review boards do little to mitigate the impact of the new rules allowing for anonymous political engagement on the part of corporations. As Senator Chuck Schumer rightly maintains:

Allowing corporate and special interests, now because they have so much money, to pour that money into our political system without even disclosure, without even knowing who they are or what they are saying or why they are saying it, they are taking politics away, government away from the average person because of the influence of such large amounts of dollars.

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Senators Set the Record Straight on Just Who the “Activist” Justices Are

A recent PFAW poll revealed that the vast majority of Americans are intensely concerned about the growing corporate influence in our country and disagree with the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United. Judging from numerous remarks made during last week’s Senate hearings on Elena Kagan’s confirmation to the Court, it seems that many of our elected representatives feel the same way. Though Republicans attempted to vilify Kagan (and Thurgood Marshall!) with accusations of judicial activism, Democrats fired back, pointing out that in fact it is the conservative Court majority that has employed such activism in going out of its way to side with corporate America. Senators used the floor debate to decry the Roberts Court’s record of favoring corporations over individuals and its disregard for Congressional intent and legal precedent:

Senator Schumer:

The American people are reaping the bitter harvest from new laws that have been made and old precedents that have been overturned. Put simply, in decision after decision, this conservative, activist Court has bent the law to suit an ideology. At the top of the list, of course, is the Citizens United case where an activist majority of the Court overturned a century of well-understood law that regulated the amount of money special interests could spend to elect their own candidates to public office.

Senator Gillibrand:

Narrow 5-to-4 decisions by a conservative majority have become the hallmark of the Roberts Court. These decisions have often been overreaching in scope and have repeatedly ignored settled law and congressional intent. For example, in the Citizens United case, the Court not only disregarded the extensive record compiled by Congress but abandoned established precedent.

Senator Franken:

[A]bove the entrance of the U.S. Supreme Court are four words, and four words only: ‘Equal Justice Under Law.’ When the Roberts Court chooses between corporate America and working Americans, it goes with corporate America almost every time, even when the citizens of this country, sitting in a duly appointed jury, have decided it the other way. That is not right. It is not equal justice under the law.

Senator Leahy:

It is essential that judicial nominees understand that, as judges, they are not members of any administration . . . Courts are not subsidiaries of any political party or interest group, and our judges should not be partisans. That is why . . . the recent decision by five conservative activist Justices in Citizens United to throw out 100 years of legal developments in order to invite massive corporate spending on elections for the first time in 100 years was such a jolt to the system.

Senator Whitehouse:

On the Roberts Court, one pattern is striking, the clear pattern of corporate victories at the Roberts Court. It reaches across many fields—across arbitration, antitrust, employment discrimination, campaign finance, legal pleading standards, and many others. Over and over on this current Supreme Court, the Roberts bloc guiding it has consistently, repeatedly rewritten our law in the favor of corporations versus ordinary Americans.”

Senator Cardin:

Well, this Supreme Court, too many times, by 5-to-4 decisions by the so-called conservative Justices, has been the most activist Court on ruling on the side of corporate America over ordinary Americans.

Senator Dorgan:

What I have seen recently and certainly in the case of Citizens United—and I believe it is the case in Ledbetter v. Goodyear—the Supreme Court too often these days divides into teams. By the way, the team that seems to be winning is the team on the side of the powerful, the team on the side of the big interests, the team on the side of the corporate interests. That ought not be the way the Supreme Court operates.

 

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