If you’re curious why many House Republicans are on board with an unhinged plan to threaten a government shutdown or default over demands to “defund” Obamacare, you should follow the money. That’s what the New York Times editorial board argued in a compelling op-ed Tuesday.
Far-right groups such as the Club for Growth are striking out at Republicans who refuse to take this reckless stance, wielding their considerable funds to “inflict political pain” on those who do not share their extremist position. And they are titillating their Tea Party supporters with political fantasies in order to get them to send in even more money, so they can ramp up their attack on Republicans who don’t toe the line. In “The Money Behind the Shutdown Crisis,” the editorial board wrote:
These groups, all financed with secret and unlimited money, feed on chaos and would like nothing better than to claim credit for pushing Washington into another crisis. Winning an ideological victory is far more important to them than the severe economic effects of a shutdown or, worse, a default, which could shatter the credit markets.
[…] Brian Walsh, a longtime Republican operative, recently noted in U.S. News and World Report that the right is now spending more money attacking Republicans than the Democrats are. “Money begets TV ads, which begets even more money for these groups’ personal coffers,” he wrote. “Pointing fingers and attacking Republicans is apparently a very profitable fund-raising business.”
And as more money pours into these shadowy groups, their influence – and thus their potential for inflicting further damage on our democracy – grows. With fewer effective campaign finance regulations left standing in the post-Citizens United landscape, there is little that can stop these groups from using their money to bully elected officials.
But the functioning of our government is not a game. And though for these fringe groups making an ideological point may seem more important than keeping our government from shutting down or defaulting, Americans are tired of having our basic economic security called into question over political posturing.
As the Times editorial board put it:
It may be good for their bank accounts, but the combination of unlimited money and rigid ideology is proving toxic for the most basic functioning of government.
It was a big week for lifting the veil – at least a little – on the secretive world of conservative groups funding political campaigns. On Wednesday we wrote about new reports on two of the Right’s shadowy front groups which have been able to disguise the transfer of large sums of money to organizations supporting Republican causes and candidates.
Then Politico brought us a look inside what they call “the Koch brothers’ secret bank,” a previously unknown group called Freedom Partners which gave a quarter billion dollars in 2012 to sway public debate further to the right. Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei report:
The group, Freedom Partners, and its president, Marc Short, serve as an outlet for the ideas and funds of the mysterious Koch brothers, cutting checks as large as $63 million to groups promoting conservative causes, according to an IRS document to be filed shortly…
The group has about 200 donors, each paying at least $100,000 in annual dues. It raised $256 million in the year after its creation in November 2011, the document shows. And it made grants of $236 million — meaning a totally unknown group was the largest sugar daddy for conservative groups in the last election, second in total spending only to Karl Rove’s American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, which together spent about $300 million. [emphasis added]
Though you likely have not heard of Freedom Partners before, you’ve heard of the groups it funds – including the NRA, Americans for Prosperity, Heritage Action for America, and Tea Party Patriots. According to their newly-launched website, Freedom Partners is “promoting the principles of a free market and free society” by advocating against scourges like “cronyism in America.”
This, from one of the biggest spenders in the last election.
Other than the Koch brothers, who are the donors behind this massively influential group? At this point, it’s hard to know. Despite the group’s president’s insistence that “our members are proud to be part of [the organization],” Freedom Partner’s membership page does not list a single one. It’s yet another example of the need for legislation like the DISCLOSE Act, which would shed light on the major donors behind the secretive outside groups attempting to shape our elections – and our country.
In today’s legal landscape, “following the money” is tricky – but a new report released yesterday shows why this work is critical to anyone who cares about progressive change. The latest digging from the Center for Responsive Politics’ Open Secrets blog has uncovered new information about a multi-tiered money laundering operation through which tax-exempt groups funnel millions to groups supporting right-wing causes and candidates.
Operating behind a thick veil of secrecy, groups like TC4 Trust and the Center to Protect Patient Rights – which Open Secrets describes as “‘shadow money mailboxes’ – groups that do virtually nothing but pass grants through to other politically active 501(c)(4) organizations” – are able to hide both their donors and their recipients. By funneling grants through “sub-units,” which are owned by the larger groups but have different names, groups like TC4 Trust put millions into the pockets of 501(c)4 organizations supporting Republican causes in the 2012 elections, such as the advocacy arm of Focus on the Family.
As Open Secrets reports,
[T]heir financial ties run far deeper than previously known. The groups, TC4 Trust and the Center to Protect Patient Rights – both of which have connections to the billionaire industrialist Koch brothers – have been playing a high-stakes game of hide-the-ball, disguising transfers of millions of dollars from one to the other behind a veil of Delaware limited liability corporations.
The source of political advocacy matters. This latest example of dark money donor groups obscuring the links of their money trail underscores the urgent need for legislation like the DISCLOSE Act. This act would bring some basic transparency to the electoral system and require outside groups spending money in elections to disclose their donors – including the original source of donations. The measure, which was blocked by Senate Republicans in both 2010 and 2012, is a common-sense solution that would help the American people understand who is trying to influence their political opinions and their votes.
Yesterday Ben Cohen (co-founder of Ben & Jerry’s) and Edward Erikson had a great op-ed at CNN.com connecting the student debt crisis with the broader issue of big money’s influence in our political system:
But the education system isn't broken -- it's “fixed.” If we're serious about tackling the issue of affordable education and student debt, we need to strike at the root of the problem -- the influence of money in politics.
Private corporations like Sallie Mae -- which own 15% or $162.5 billion dollars of total student debt -- rake in private-island-purchasing profits while students suffer.
Indeed, from student debt bills to workers’ rights legislation to environmental protections, policies that protect everyday Americans will continue to face uphill battles until we can limit the influence of wealthy special interests in our democracy.
Cohen and Erikson point out:
It's time to dam the deluge of cash and corporate influence in Washington once and for all….Thanks to the leadership by groups like People for the American Way, Move to Amend, Common Cause, Free Speech for People and Public Citizen, 16 states have passed referendums calling on Congress to take action and over 150 members of Congress support the amendment strategy. (emphasis added)
And with so much amendment momentum at the state and local level, PFAW and allies are shifting our focus to Congress. As part of our “160 Summer” campaign, money in politics groups are working toward a goal of getting 160 members of Congress to sponsor an amendment resolution limiting the deluge of big money pouring into our elections by overturning Citizens United. Has your representative already voiced their support?
As Cohen and Erikson put it, “This is our future and our fight to win.”
With little over a month before the Supreme Court hears oral arguments in McCutcheon v. FEC, a money in politics case that some are calling the next Citizens United, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg spoke out this week on the damage that Citizens United v. FEC continues to cause to our democracy.
Discussing the infamous 2010 Supreme Court decision that paved the way for unlimited corporate spending to influence our elections, Ginsburg told Greg Stohr of Bloomberg News:
“You take the limits off and say, ‘You can spend as much as you want,’ and people will spend and spend,” she said. “People are appalled abroad. It’s a question I get asked all the time: Why should elections be determined by how much a candidate can spend and why should candidates spend most of their time these days raising the funds so that they will prevail in the next election?”
It’s a great question, and one with a clear answer – they shouldn’t.
Justice Ginsburg is not alone in her concerns about the damage done to our democratic system. A 2012 Brennan Center national poll found that nearly seven in ten respondents agree that “new rules that let corporations, unions and people give unlimited money to Super PACs will lead to corruption.”
And this is not the first time Justice Ginsburg has publicly commented on the Citizens United decision. Early last year, Justices Ginsburg and Breyer released a statement in conjunction with a Court order in a campaign finance case out of Montana stating that:
Montana’s experience, and experience elsewhere since this Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Comm’n, make it exceedingly difficult to maintain that independent expenditures by corporations “do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.” A petition for certiorari will give the Court an opportunity to consider whether, in light of the huge sums currently deployed to buy candidates’ allegiance, Citizens United should continue to hold sway.
It is also not the first time she has commented on the Roberts Court more generally. In an interview with the New York Times this weekend, Ginsburg called the current court “one of the most activist courts in history.”
In October, the high court will hear arguments in a case considering similar issues, McCutcheon v. FEC, for which People For the American Way Foundation submitted an amicus brief. In this case, the Supreme Court could take the damage of Citizens United one step further by eliminating the caps on how much money an individual can contribute – in total – in each two-year campaign cycle. It other words, the court would be striking down another protection against wealthy special interests overpowering our political system, allowing even more big money to flow into our elections.
Just what our democracy needs. PFAW Foundation Executive Vice President Marge Baker noted last month:
Protecting the legitimacy of our political system, and restoring the faith of the American people in that system, is vital to a working democracy.
And as Justice Ginsburg highlighted this week, elections shouldn’t be determined by who has the biggest wallet.
Following the approval of House Joint Memorial 6 by a 17-13 vote in the Oregon Senate today, Oregon became the 16th state to call for an amendment to the Constitution overturning the 2010 Citizens United decision and related cases.
The passage of HJM6, first introduced in January by Representative Brian Clem, is the result of a grassroots mobilization effort by the people of Oregon. In 2012 alone, 12 Oregon cities and counties passed local resolutions urging state and federal legislators to call for a constitutional amendment taking back our democracy from corporations and special interests. The mobilization at the state level was led by Oregonians for Restoring Constitutional Democracy, a coalition that gathered signatures and endorsements in support of HJM6.
The joint memorial urges Congress to propose a constitutional amendment “clarifying the distinction between the rights of natural persons and the rights of corporations” and recognizing “that Congress and state legislatures may regulate all moneys raised and spent for political purposes.”
Rep. Jules Bailey, speaking to the Oregon House last week, urged his fellow representatives to support the measure, saying, “When we confuse the monolith with the individual, then a piece of our humanity dies. Let us ask Congress to undo this mistake.” The measure passed the House by a vote of 48-11 on June 21st before being sent to the Senate.
With each additional state joining the movement to overturn Citizens United and related decisions, the will of the American people becomes clearer. We will not let our elections be bought and sold. We will not let corporate power subvert the will of the people.
Now that the smoke has cleared, it appears that the IRS scandal that has consumed right-wing media for weeks is not much of a scandal at all. The original story that the IRS was unfairly targeting conservative groups has dramatically shifted thanks to new documents revealed by the Associated Press showing that the tax agency also targeted groups with liberal keywords in their name, such as “progressive” and “occupy.”
While the IRS may have exhibited some poor judgment, the agency was not waging partisan warfare. Nor was it carrying out any of the false right-wing conspiracy theories outlined yesterday by Right Wing Watch.
PFAW president Michael Keegan argued last month that the lesson being pulled from the blunders of the IRS was the wrong one. While conservatives across the nation cried scandal and used IRS activity to condemn big government, Keegan wrote,
“The danger of this frame is that it will discourage the IRS from fully investigating all nonprofit groups spending money to influence elections. And it will distract from the core problem behind the IRS's mess: the post-Citizens United explosion of undisclosed electoral spending.”
The recent revelation that the IRS was targeting liberal groups as well as conservative ones confirms this message. Unharnessed and unaccountable spending is the real problem – not oversight.
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.
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.
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.”
In Los Angeles, California, a group of specialists in media, advertising and entertainment, joined by business people, lawyers, and civic activists have founded an organization that is running advertisements based solely on the need to amend the Constitution to fix our political campaign finance system. The group, Fix Our America, has begun the process of running the following advertisement on airwaves in California, and is seeking to run more ads in other media markets across the country:
These advertisements are boosting the amendment dialogue in California, a state that has witnessed much grassroots amendment activity yet is still in need of deep reform. Just days ago, Los Angeles voters approved Ballot Measure C, which called for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United, with 77% of the vote; last year, the California state legislature passed an amendment resolution “to restore constitutional rights and fair elections to the people”; and since the Citizens United decision came down in January 2010, over 75 California municipalities have called on Congress and the states to pass and ratify an amendment to overturn Citizens United.
California does not stand alone. The amendment movement is well underway and gaining momentum in states across the country. Fix Our America is yet another example of the American people joining together in protest of the fundamental threat that corporate and special interest campaign spending poses to our democratic institutions. In the words of Fix Our America’s Declaration of Principles Statement, “Americans deserve the best. Instead, we have been saddled with a system that … leaves all of us at the mercy of those who buy legislation and policy to suit their narrow interests.” The time has come to fix that.
Amid Congressional hearings and an unending stream of pointed fingers, what is the real takeaway from the unfolding IRS mess? United Steelworkers President Leo Gerard has the answer, arguing that our country needs to rethink the role of corporate money in our elections by passing a Constitutional amendment overturning the Citizens United decision.
In an In These Times article Tuesday, Gerard called for such an amendment, writing that
“while every politician in Washington is cursing the carbuncle, hardly one has complained of the cancer killing the patient. Allowing unlimited, unaccounted-for corporate spending in elections is a malignancy threatening the life of the republic.”
PFAW President Michael Keegan has also spoken out about the danger of allowing the IRS misdeeds to be held up as an example of the perils of oversight writ large.
In a Huffington Post piece last week, he noted,
“The danger of this frame is that it will discourage the IRS from fully investigating all nonprofit groups spending money to influence elections. And it will distract from the core problem behind the IRS's mess: the post-Citizens United explosion of undisclosed electoral spending.”
As both writers remind us, the IRS should never base its work on the political leanings of applicant groups. But where our real focus should lie in this national dialogue is on how to strengthen transparency and accountability in all electoral spending.
The state of New York has become an embarrassing example of what can happen when money is allowed to rule politics. Earlier this month, for instance, two state lawmakers were arrested on corruption charges. It's a story that has become all too familiar in Albany, where a pervasive culture of corruption has led to the convictions of at least 13 state elected officials in the last ten years.
But New York and its governor, Andrew Cuomo, now have an opportunity to shed the state's pay-to-play image and lead the nation in fighting corruption. Good government advocates are pushing for the state to adopt a public financing system based on one that has met with success in New York City. The plan, which would provide matching funds for small donors, would help give candidates without big party or corporate backing the chance to compete in statewide elections. It would allow more voices to be heard in the political process and ensure that elected offices won't be handed to the highest bidder.
The Syracuse Post-Standard, in endorsing the measure, wrote, "There will always be more pressing spending priorities for taxpayer money. But when those priorities are thrown out of whack by the influence of big money on our politicians, something fundamental has to change." And all too often in New York, the priorities of voters are being superseded by the priorities of big campaign donors.
Shortly after the latest scandal, Gov. Andrew Cuomo introduced a bill to increase the penalties on state lawmakers accused of graft. That measure is useful, but on its own is not enough to change the culture in Albany. The public financing proposal, which would provide a meaningful solution to the problem of big money in New York politics, needs the governor's active support. So far, although supportive, Gov.Cuomo has not expended the energy in support of the measure needed for it to pass. He now has the chance to weigh in more forcefully and distinguish himself as a national leader on clean elections. With his full-throated endorsement, the measure would have a strong chance of becoming law, and New York could go from being one of the clearest examples of corrupt government to become a national model of reform.
Since the Supreme Court's outrageous Citizens United decision, which unleashed unlimited and unaccountable corporate spending into national politics, Americans have become increasingly wary of big-money influence in elections. A poll late last year found that 90 percent of Americans thought there was too much money in politics -- true bipartisan agreement! 84 percent agreed that "corporate money drowns out the voices of ordinary people." That's a lot of distrust from almost everybody in this country.
As a national movement to overturn Citizens United gains support, states and cities are leading the way with innovative and popular good government measures. New York, with Gov. Cuomo's support, could go from being a symbol of corruption to having some of the strongest clean elections laws in the country. That would be quite an enduring legacy.
The West Virginia Legislature has approved a resolution calling on Congress to propose a constitutional amendment overturning the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. FEC and related cases. This makes West Virginia the twelfth state to call for such an amendment.
People For the American Way has been working with activists in West Virginia to help rally support for the resolution. As PFAW Legislative Representative Calvin Sloan noted in a recent action alert, many West Virginians already understood the need to get big money out of politics:
“West Virginia has already seen the drastic need for a constitutional amendment to enact free and fair elections. In 2010, West Virginia’s congressional races attracted more than $15 million from outside groups such as American Crossroads and FreedomWorks, organizations that can, in the wake of Citizens United, raise and spend unlimited amounts of money in our elections.”
As a West Virginian, I am especially proud to see this resolution pass in my home state. While the states that have called for an amendment are diverse – stretching from Hawaii to Rhode Island – protecting the integrity of our democratic process is a core American value. As one West Virginia delegate pointed out,
“One of government's roles within this great democracy is making sure everyone has a voice.”
West Virginians are now formally joining the proliferation of voices across the country calling for a democracy of, by, and for the people.
Members of the Task Force on Election Reform introduced three voter empowerment bills at the beginning of the 113th Congress in January. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi created The Task Force to develop electoral reform legislation under the D.A.R.E. initiative (Disclose, Amend, Reform, and Empower).
The objective of the Task Force on Election Reform is to combine the best parts of reform bills into one effective piece of legislation that will help strengthen the voices of average Americans and increase the participation of small-donor contributors in our elections.
The three bills that were introduced are:
The Fair Elections Now Act (H.R. 269) was introduced by Rep. John Yarmuth (D-KY) along with 52 co-sponsors. Among other provisions, the bill matches small-dollar donation 5-to-1 and requires participating candidates to limit contributions to $100. The bill was referred to the House Committee on House Administration on January 15, 2013.
The Grassroots Democracy Act (H.R. 268) was introduced by Rep. John Sarbanes (D-MD) with 36 co-sponsors. The bill matches small contributions 10-1 for candidates who limit contributions to $100 and 5-1 for those that follow the normal contribution limit. The act also provides a $25 tax credit to help voters make small-dollar donations to the participating candidates. The bill was referred to the Subcommittee on Communication and Technology on January 18, 2013.
The Empowering Citizens Act (H.R. 270) was introduced by Rep. David Price (D-NC) and Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) with 13 co-sponsors. The bill matches the first $250 of a contribution 5-to-1 and cuts the contribution limits in half to $1,250 for participating candidates. The legislation also aims to mitigate the effects of Citizens United, by providing a broader definition of coordination so that super PACs and political non-profits cannot function as arms of candidates’ campaigns. The bill was referred to the Committee on House Administration to the Committee on Ways and Means to decide which committee it belongs in on January, 15 2013.
The members of the Task Force on Election Reform are Congresswoman Donna F. Edwards, Congressman Theodore E. Deutch, Congressman John Larson, Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur, Congressman James P. McGovern, Congressman Rush D. Holt, Congressman Adam B. Schiff, Congressman Chris Van Hollen, Congressman Ed Perlmutter, Congressman John A. Yarmuth, Congressman Kurt Schrader, Congressman George Miller, Congressman David E. Price, Congressman Robert A. Brady, Congresswoman Susan A. Davis, Congressman Raul M. Grijalva, Congressman Keith Ellison, Congressman John P. Sarbanes, and Congressman Rick Nolan.
All members of the Task Force on Election Reform support amending the Constitution to overturn Citizens United and related cases.