Two days ago, President Obama sat down for a live “Ask Me Anything” session on the popular social news website Reddit. Of the ten questions President Obama was asked, one pertained to money in the politics:
What are you going to do to end the corrupting influence of money in politics during your second term?
Although not specifically asked about the amendment strategy, President Obama raised the issue in his answer:
Money has always been a factor in politics, but we are seeing something new in the no-holds barred flow of seven and eight figure checks, most undisclosed, into super-PACs; they fundamentally threaten to overwhelm the political process over the long run and drown out the voices of ordinary citizens. We need to start with passing the Disclose Act that is already written and been sponsored in Congress - to at least force disclosure of who is giving to who. We should also pass legislation prohibiting the bundling of campaign contributions from lobbyists. Over the longer term, I think we need to seriously consider mobilizing a constitutional amendment process to overturn Citizens United (assuming the Supreme Court doesn't revisit it). Even if the amendment process falls short, it can shine a spotlight of the super-PAC phenomenon and help apply pressure for change. [Emphasis added]
President Obama already had, through spokespeople, acknowledged his support of constitutional remedies to overturn Citizens United; he had not however done so himself, until now. The very fact that the sitting U.S. President is speaking seriously about the use of constitutional remedies to overturn Citizens United shows how far the movement has come. The movement has clearly made its move to the mainstream.
To date, here is what PFAW and our allies have accomplished:
- 1,951 public officials are now in support of constitutional remedies
- 96 House Representatives; 29 Senators
- 14 amendment resolutions introduced in the 112th Congress
- Over 275 cities and towns have passed resolutions supporting an amendment
- 7 State Legislatures have passed resolutions (HI, NM, VT, MD, RI, CA, and MA)
Yesterday, House Democrats held a press conference highlighting the need to clean up the election system through what they are calling the DARE initiative. (To note, this is the same initiative Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi presented and spoke about in length at PFAW’s 30th Anniversary celebration this past June.) The acronym stands for the following:
D – Disclose
A – Amend
R – Reform
E – Elect
In just a short period of time, the impact of the Supreme Court’s egregious ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which opened the floodgates to corporate and special interest spending in our elections, has been felt nationwide. In response, a growing chorus of activists and organizations are mobilizing to overturn the decision by amending (the A in DARE) the Constitution. As evidenced by the press conference, public officials are responding to this movement. Nearly 2,000 are already on record in support of amending the Constitution to overturn Citizens United, including 92 Representatives in the House.
In attendance of the press conference were Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, House Democratic Caucus chairman Rep John B. Larson (D-CT.), U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes (D-MD.), U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA.), U.S. Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI), U.S. Rep. James Clyburn (),U.S. Rep Dennis Kucinich (D-OH), as well as Nick Nyhart, President and CEO of Public Campaign.
Nyhart outlined three critical steps needed to remedy this: full disclosure, small donor and citizen-led funding of elections, and the ability to limit donations from large corporate entities.
Recently Republicans and Democrats clashed on the Disclose Act, which would have required the disclosure of all major donors in the election process. Leader Pelosi expressed her concern that dark money is “suffocating the airwaves and suppressing the vote.”
Not so long ago, disclosure was a bi-partisan issue. Congressman Van Hollen made this clear, quoting Senate Minority Leader McConnell’s (R-KT) statement from 2000 endorsing such reforms: “Why would a little disclosure be better than a lot of disclosure?”
Expressing his passion about the issue, Congressman Dennis Kucinich, motioning toward the Capitol building, told reporters, “in post-production you might want to include a ‘For Sale’ sign in front of that.” Kucinich stated, “Let’s be candid, the system is for sale.” The outgoing congressman urged immediate action on removing the corrupting influence of dark money, lest we lose our republic to the influence of special interests. This government must remain in the hands of the people - or as Mr. Nyhart put it, remain “Of, by, and for the many… not the money.”
[Dylan Hewitt, Amelia Coffey, and Michael Jameson contributed to this post]
Two weeks ago, Senate Democrats filed cloture on the Republican-led filibuster of the DISCLOSE Act, and failed to achieve the necessary 60 votes to bring the bill to the floor. Thus the DISCLOSE Act died once again, as it did in 2010, at the hands of Republican Senators who prefer obstruction and dark money over functionality and transparency. And unless there is an abrupt, unexpected reversal of the tide in the Senate, those who wish to bring a higher level of accountability to our democracy will, in the short term, have to explore alternative routes to bring about such reforms.
Those alternative routes exist in the federal agencies that interpret laws passed by Congress, but that so far have done a poor job in doing so correctly.
For confirmation of this, one need only look at the significant dilution of the McCain-Feingold Act of 2002, which had strict provisions requiring outside groups – including 501(c)(6)’s & 501(c)(4)’s – who participate in electioneering communications (any communication about a clearly identified candidate on satellite, T.V., or radio within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of a general election to a relevant targeted audience) to disclose their donors. The Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling upheld this part of the law, with eight of the nine justices in agreement.
However, transparency would take a back seat with the Federal Elections Commission’s interpretation of the law, in which a loophole to disclosure was written into their regulations. That FEC regulation only requires disclosure of donors for 501(c)(4)’s and 501(c)(6)’s if those donors specifically earmark their donations for the purpose of electioneering communications. Thus as long as a donor does not require specifics for an organization on how to use their donation, disclosure of the donor’s identity is not legally required. Yet the disclosure provisions of McCain Feingold were not written – and were never meant to be interpreted – this way.
On April 2, 2012 Congressman Chris Van Hollen of Maryland’s 8th District won a lawsuit he filed against the FEC challenging the agency’s interpretation of the law. D.C. District Court Judge Amy Jackson found that the FEC had severely watered down existing legal requirements to disclose donors in campaign-related ads, stating “…Congress did not delegate authority to the FEC to narrow the disclosure requirement through agency rulemaking.” While Judge Jackson’s ruling is supposed to restore the statutory requirement that requires greater disclosure of the donors who provide funding for electioneering communications, it remains unclear that it will be implemented. Paul Ryan, FEC program director and associate legal counsel at the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center has assessed, “Unfortunately, it’s highly unlikely that this dysfunctional commission will heed the court’s order anytime soon.” Implementation will also be delayed further due to appeals from conservative groups.
Had Congress’ law had been implemented accurately, full disclosure would have been the reality of the 2010 congressional races, which instead were marred by over $135 million in undisclosed spending; and which continues to mar the current election cycle.
Another party at fault is the IRS, which has sat idly by as a number of overtly politically-based 501(c)(4)’s have engaged in an overabundance of election activity when they are supposed to be first and foremost social welfare organizations. It seems obvious to all that the primary activity of organizations like Crossroads GPS and American Action Network is to engage in political advocacy and spend hundreds of millions of dollars influencing elections. Due to IRS inaction on the issue, the donors of these organizations need not be publicly disclosed.
In June the IRS finally initiated steps to to investigate some of these organizations taking advantage of tax exempt status while at the same time being overly engaged in election processes, in particular Crossroads GPS. However it is unlikely that any actions or penalties will be taken or applied in the near future leaving these huge, undisclosed, tax-exempt pools of money to flood our electoral process for the foreseeable future.
Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, IRS regulations that implement Internal Revenue Code distort the intent of the law. As noted by Democracy 21 and the Campaign Legal Center in a letter to IRS commissioners:
The Internal Revenue Code provides that section 501(c)(4) groups must engage "exclusively" in social welfare activities. … The regulations implementing this provision state, however, that "social welfare" organizations must be "primarily engaged" in social welfare activities.
If, as Congress intended, 501(c)(4) groups could achieve their tax-exempt status only by “exclusively” engaging in social welfare activities, the Crossroad GPS’s of the world would instantly have their (c)(4) statuses revoked. Instead, as we’ve witnessed with the tax-exempt status of the American Legislative Exchange Council, the big money players are able to indirectly charge the American taxpayer for their lobbying and political activity by not paying their fair share, benefitting their entrenched interests and not the country as a whole.
We must not give up on transparency in our democracy, especially if our electoral process is to remain awash in unlimited spending under the Citizens United ruling. In the not so distant past this was the dream of Republicans and Democrats alike. In his 2002 memoir “Worth Fighting For,” John McCain, a former champion of transparency, wrote “By the time I became a leading advocate of campaign finance reform, I had come to appreciate that the public's suspicions were not always mistaken. Money does buy access in Washington, and access increases influence that often results in benefiting the few at the expense of the many.” We await a return to this sober analysis by the GOP, and by the agencies who implement the laws Congress passes; the foundations of our republic are dependent on it.
Last week, the Constitution Subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee of the U.S. Senate held hearings entitled, “Taking Back Our Democracy: Responding to Citizens United and the Rise of Super PACs,” which examined the devastating Citizens United decision, and the need to amend the Constitution to overturn it. As acknowledged by the hearings’ participants – and as evidenced by the overflow crowd who came to see the hearing in person, as well as the 1.9 million petition signatures calling for an amendment that were delivered to the committee and on display in the room – these hearings were held in response to the growing grassroots movement across the country in support of constitutional remedies, and demonstrated a form of bottom-up democratic participation seldom witnessed in Washington.
As noted by the Executive Vice President of PFAW, Marge Baker, “… by holding these hearings, our elected representatives are honoring the millions of Americans who are calling for a Constitution that ensures that “We the People” means all the people, not just the privileged few.”
The first panel of the hearings featured testimony from Senator Max Baucus, Senator Tom Udall, Senator Bernie Sanders, and Representative Donna Edwards, all of whom have introduced amendment resolutions in the 112th Congress. Although their approaches differ, one theme remained consistent throughout their testimonies: since legislative remedies alone cannot undo the damage wrought by Citizens United, the amendment strategy must be employed to take back our democracy.
In his opening remarks, Senator Durbin, who chairs the Constitution Subcommittee, echoed the thoughts of many of his colleagues – currently 28 U.S. Senators are in support of an amendment, as are 92 U.S. Representatives – by stating, “After much deliberation, with some hesitation, I have reached the conclusion that a constitutional amendment is necessary to clean up our campaign finance system once and for all.”
Indeed, although we strongly advocate for an amendment that would restore the American people’s ability to regulate election spending, People For The American Way agrees that the amendment process should not be taken lightly. As we noted in the written testimony we submitted for the hearings:
Amending the United States Constitution is not something we recommend lightly, but the danger caused by the Roberts Court’s distortion of the First Amendment requires us to take corrective action. Some who are genuinely concerned about the threat to our democracy might nevertheless be reluctant to tamper with perhaps the greatest legal document in world history. As an organization that deeply respects the Constitution, we understand that reluctance, and we address this section of our comments to those of that view.
The American people, as shown by polling PFAW conducted on the issue, understand better than their elected representatives the need to support constitutional remedies to overturn Citizens United. The second panel of the hearings reflected this sentiment. It featured testimony from former Louisiana Governor and 2012 GOP presidential candidate Charles ‘Buddy’ Roemer and the celebrated legal scholar Professor Lawrence Lessig. As Professor Lessig stated in his testimony, “simply, the people have lost faith in their government,” and therefore deep reform is now necessary. Testifying at the request of the ranking Republican member of the subcommittee, Senator Lindsey Graham, was senior fellow of the Cato Institute, Ilya Shapiro. He opposed not only the amendment proposals in the hearings, but also the DISCLOSE Act, which Republicans recently blocked from coming to a vote in a highly partisan filibuster.
In a piece published last week, Senior Fellow of People For the American Way Professor Jamie Raskin stated, “The American people have been forced several times to amend the Constitution to reverse the damage caused by the Supreme Court when it acts in collusion with the enemies of social justice and popular democracy.” Professor Raskin then cited the Dred Scott decision, Minor v. Hapersett, and Breedlove v. Suttles all as cases that solidified unjust and undemocratic judicial systems; and all of which were later overturned by constitutional amendment.
It is up to the American people to ensure that Congress continues to examine the amendment strategy, and that Citizens United is added to that list. Video highlights of the hearings are featured below, while individual testimonies can be found on PFAW’s YouTube Page.
Justice Antonin Scalia gave a TV interview last night on CNN in which he reminded Americans of his right-wing ideology. Since Mitt Romney has said he would nominate Supreme Court Justices like Scalia if elected president, the interview also served as a warning to Americans of what's at stake this November. Talking Points Memo summarizes some of the interview's highlights:
Scalia defended Citizens United, which took elections from the people and handed them to often-secretive powerful interests that drown out the voices of non-millionaires. He added, however, that people are "entitled" to know who is financing the messages they are bombarded with.
In an era when Roe v. Wade has already been watered down, Scalia repeated his belief that women have no constitutional right to abortion at all. "[M]y only point is the Constitution does not say anything about it. It leaves it up to democratic choice." (That would be news to those who adopted the Ninth Amendment specifically to counter future assertions that the rights specifically mentioned in the Constitution are a ceiling, not a floor.)
Scalia also stated his opinion that torturing an innocent person taken from a battlefield isn't cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by the Eighth Amendment. "I don't think the Constitution addressed torture, it addressed … punishment for crimes."
CNN adds another highlight:
When asked if he had ever broken the law, the justice said, "I've had a few speeding tickets, though none recently."
Let's hope for his sake that the traffic stop didn't lead to an unwarranted and humiliating strip search, as occurred to Albert Florence. When Florence challenged the strip search as unconstitutional, Scalia was part of the conservative 5-4 majority that denied his claim.
Do we really want a president who looks to Antonin Scalia as a model to emulate?
Add this to the good news/bad news mix from the Supreme Court's healthcare decision: Because of the good news (Chief Justice Roberts voted to uphold the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act), we get the bad news that his standing among the nation's Democrats has significantly increased. This collective amnesia about who John Roberts is and what he has done is disturbing, especially since the direction of the Court is one of the most important issues upon which Democrats should be voting in November.
A new Gallup Poll shows wild fluctuations in Democrats and Republicans' assessment of Chief Justice John Roberts since their last poll in 2005, a change Gallup attributes to his role in upholding the Affordable Care Act. Roberts' approval rating among Republicans has plummeted 40 percentage points from 2005, falling from 67% to 27%. In contrast, his favorability among Democrats has risen from 35% to 54%. That the healthcare decision is a catalyst of this change is supported by a PEW Research Center poll last week showing that between April and July, approval of the Supreme Court dropped 18 points among Republicans and rose 12% among Democrats.
Yes, John Roberts upheld the ACA, but only as a tax. At the same time, he agreed with his four far right compatriots that it fell outside the authority granted Congress by the Commerce Clause, leaving many observers concerned that he has set traps designed to let the Court later strike down congressional legislation that should in no way be considered constitutionally suspect. He also joined the majority that restricted Congress's constitutional authority under the Spending Clause to define the contours of state programs financed with federal funds.
Just as importantly, Roberts's upholding the ACA does not erase the past seven years, during which he has repeatedly been part of thin conservative majority decisions bending the law beyond recognition in order to achieve a right wing political result. John Roberts cast the deciding vote in a number of disastrous decisions, including those that:
Oh, and then there's that little 5-4 Citizens United opinion that has upended our nation's electoral system and put our government up to sale to the highest bidder.
With a rap sheet like that – and this is hardly a complete a list – no one should be under the illusion that John Roberts is anything but a right-wing ideologue using the Supreme Court to cement his favorite right-wing policies into law.
Next term, Roberts is expected to lead the judicial front of the Republican Party's war against affirmative action and the Voting Rights Act. Whether he succeeds may depend on whether it is Mitt Romney or Barack Obama who fills the next vacancy on the Supreme Court.
Although he voted to block the Senate from considering the DISCLOSE Act yesterday, Senator John McCain is usually a supporter of campaign finance reform. In an interview on PBS Newshour, McCain said that the astronomical contributions of Mitt Romney’s major financier, casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson, are particularly problematic because those contributions amount to foreign money influencing U.S. elections:
MCCAIN: Mr. Adeleson [sic], who gave large amounts of money to the Gingrich campaign and much of Mr. Adeleson’s casino profits, that go to him, come from this casino in Macau.
WOODRUFF: Which says what?
MCCAIN: This which says that obviously, maybe in a round-about way, foreign money is coming into an American campaign, political campaigns.
Regardless of where Adelson acquired his billions, a new report by ProPublica and PBS reveals that Adelson’s business dealings may have been improper or even illegal under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, complete with shady dealings with the Chinese mob and crooked politicians. As Think Progress summarizes, Adelson’s operation in Macau may have been made possible because of payments to Chinese organized crime figures:
Among the junket companies under scrutiny is a concern that records show was financed by Cheung Chi Tai, a Hong Kong businessman.
Cheung was named in a 1992 U.S. Senate report as a leader of a Chinese organized crime gang, or triad. A casino in Macau owned by Las Vegas Sands granted tens of millions of dollars in credit to a junket backed by Cheung, documents show.
Cheung did not respond to requests for comment.
Another document says that a Las Vegas Sands subsidiary did business with Charles Heung, a well-known Hong Kong film producer who was identified as an office holder in the Sun Yee On triad in the same 1992 Senate report. Heung, who has repeatedly denied any involvement in organized crime, did not return phone calls.
Because Nevada gambling authorities forbid doing any business with organized crime, Sands’s Las Vegas gambling licenses could hang in the balance. (Adelson and his company refused to comment for the PBS story.) But Adelson has other issues with his China operations.
Sheldon Adelson has pledged to give up to $100 million to unseat President Obama. But according to one of Adelson’s friends, he could spend far more than that: “We think ‘$100 million, wow!’ But it’s a meaningless amount of money to [Adelson].”
The system we have today allows for single individuals to give as much potentially money – clean or dirty – as they want to buy an election. This isn’t how democracy is supposed to work. Some sunlight is beginning to shine through on how Mitt Romney is benefitting from Sheldon Adelson’s shadowy dealings, but the extent of unaccountable money in our elections runs even deeper. Without a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United, the people will be unable to stop secret contributions by special interests, no matter where the money comes from.
The DISCLOSE 2012 Act is a simple and seemingly-unobjectionable proposal that would require outside groups spending money in elections to disclose their donors and help inform the American people as to who is trying to sway their votes. Yet the proposal faces a slim (read: zero) chance of passage in the Senate this week. It even had partisan support when it was introduced first introduced in 2010 as a response to the Supreme Court’s flawed Citizens United decision, and Republican support for general campaign-related expenditures dates back many years.
Not anymore. The Huffington Post notes that there are 14 Republican senators serving since 2000 who previously voted for disclosure, but today would rather protect the anonymity of wealthy special interests and corporations than shed light on the funders of today’s endless barrage of attack ads.
These Senators have been whipped into line by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (who was undoubtedly whipped into line by wealthy special interests and corporations who write big checks to Republicans, and would prefer to continue to do so in secret). Senator McConnell himself has flip-flopped on the issue:
Sen. McConnell in 2000: “Why would a little disclosure be better than a lot of disclosure?”
Sen. McConnell in 2012: “[Disclosure is] a cynical effort to muzzle critics of this administration and its allies in Congress.”
The Sunlight Foundation has put together a video “depicting” other Republicans’ contradictory statements on the DISCLOSE Act. Watch it here:
Today, Monday July 16th 2012, the U.S. Senate will vote on whether to end the filibuster of the DISCLOSE Act, and more likely than not, the effort to bring the popular bill to a final floor vote will fail. Yet the DISCLOSE Act is a bill so fundamentally logical and conspicuously necessary for the health of our democracy, it is mind boggling that even one U.S. Senator would dare to not support it - let alone label it so extreme that the Senate should not even be allowed to vote on it.
The bill is about transparency, and the American people’s right to know who’s funding the campaign ads that are flooding our airwaves and influencing our opinions.
Here’s a brief history on how we got here:
On January 21st, 2010, the Supreme Court issued its landmark ruling in Citizens United v. FEC, overturning key provisions of the McCain-Feingold Act, creating a new campaign finance system in which corporations and unions could use treasury funds to influence elections.
Three months later, the D.C. Court of appeals struck down federal law limiting contributions to entities engaged in independent expenditures in the case SpeechNOW v. FEC. To reach their decision, the lower court relied upon the rationale put forth in Citizens United, particularly that “independent expenditures … do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.” The Roberts Court declined to consider an appeal of the lower court’s ruling in SpeechNOW, and thus ushered in the era of the super PAC.
Yet anonymous spending was not supposed to be the result of these rulings.
In the opinion of Justice Kennedy, writing for eight of the nine justices on the Court, it was assumed that disclosure requirements were constitutionally permissible and would serve as a check in this new I.E. spending reality.
With the advent of the Internet, prompt disclosure of expenditures can provide shareholders and citizens with the information needed to hold corporations and elected officials accountable for their positions and supporters.
… citizens can see whether elected officials are ‘in the pocket’ of so-called moneyed interests.
… disclosure permits citizens and shareholders to react to the speech of corporate entities in a proper way. This transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages.
But that transparency has not been codified into law. At present, there is no law or statute that requires entities that make independent expenditures to disclose to the general public the identities of those who gave money to the entity specifically for political ads and other spending.
Following Citizens United in 2010, Congress came close to mandating disclosure when the House passed the DISCLOSE act. The bill had strong majority support in the Senate, so the Republicans filibustered it. Unfortunately, the effort to end the filibuster failed in the Senate by one vote. It died on the Senate floor with a 59 to 39 split on a cloture motion, presciently extending what historian Robert Caro wrote about the Senate of the late 1950’s to the present day, that “For almost a century, [the Senate] had not merely embodied but had empowered, with an immense power, the forces of conservatism and reaction in America.”
Yet disclosure should not be a conservative issue or a liberal issue. This is a democratic issue, with the fundamentals of our democracy at stake. In 2012 America however, Republican political partisanship and hunger for power at all costs have taken precedent over the need for reform; and Republican Senate leadership is holding firm. Issues vital to the health of our democracy - whether they be voting rights or campaign finance rules - are now warped into partisan issues.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and opponents of the DISCLOSE act are desperate to find ways to discredit it and justify their unjustifiable opposition.
Take for example, McConnell’s piece in the USA Today, "Disclose Act is un-American," where he writes:
The Supreme Court, in Citizens United v. the FEC, correctly ruled that Congress may not ban political speech based on the identity of the speaker. (sic)
The Disclose Act would make this and any future administration's ability to punish and intimidate its political enemies even easier. It is the Democrats' attempt to get around the court by compelling certain targeted groups to disclose the names of their donors, while excluding others, such as unions, from doing the same.
While Senator McConnell cries out "un-American" and "unions" to scare his base - like Senator McCarthy once cried out "communists" on the Senate floor - the facts are irrefutable. Under the bill’s provisions, unions are treated equally to for-profit corporations. Case closed.
Furthermore, supporting the DISCLOSE Act is not a political power grab; however to reject it is, since the majority of the undisclosed money is benefiting the Republican party. So it goes for the bill’s opponents. Take reality and turn it on its head.
McConnell then declares:
This bill calls for government-compelled disclosure of contributions to all grassroots groups, which is far more dangerous than its proponents admit.
The Supreme Court addressed this issue in 1958 in NAACP v. Alabama, ruling that forced disclosure of the NAACP's member lists by Alabama would discourage people from freely associating with a cause or group.
Once again, McConnell has to obfuscate the truth to hide the fact that he has no real argument.
The bill requires organizations (corporations, unions, super PACs, non-profits) to report within 24 hours of making an election expenditure of $10,000 or more. Donors that give $10,000 or more to the organization would be made public, unless they specify that their contributions to the organization cannot be used for election spending. The idea that every grassroots group will have to turn in their membership lists to the evil federal government is a scare tactic, and unsubstantiated.
The bill is designed to remove the added layer of anonymity ‘speakers’ are currently hiding behind by donating to nondescript (c)(4) and (c)(6) organizations that – unlike for-profit corporations, advocacy groups, and unions – do not operate in the public sphere, and whose purpose generally is unknown to the public.
One would imagine that halting this egregious process would be a quick fix. But one would also imagine the same for voting on judicial nominations, or extending the debt ceiling, or allowing Americans to cast a vote on Election Day. Unfortunately, that’s not how 2012 America functions.
The most unbelievable part of McConnell’s and Republican obstruction is that this DISCLOSE act is a watered-down version of its original. The 2010 provisions that would have required funders to “Stand By Their Ads” has been removed, as have the prohibition on electoral advocacy participation by corporations that received TARP funds. The bill will not be effective until 2013, so would not even affect this election cycle. But in the end, it’s definitely a step in the right direction and should be a no brainer for any elected official committed to the integrity of our elections.
Yet we are bound to hear the absurd cry of “union carve-out” tonight on the Senate floor when the bill is debated, and all the other diversionary arguments. The obstructionists need straw men, since without them, there could only be silence.
Next week, the Senate will vote on the DISCLOSE Act, which would bring much needed transparency to the corporate and special interest money that allows the wealthiest few to take over our airways and coöpt our elections. Since the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, corporations have been able to spend freely from their treasuries to overpower the voice of the American people.
While a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United or a change to the composition of the Supreme Court are the only ways to completely reverse that decision, the DISCLOSE Act is a strong step in the right direction.
It’s not a new idea. First introduced in 2010 in response to Citizens United, the bill would require groups airing election ads to disclose the source of the money. Because ads can be misleading, it is essential to for voters to know who is behind them in order to properly evaluate the constant inundation of political messages. It is a simple step to increase transparency in our elections.
Of course, the GOP blocked it.
Republicans in Congress weren’t always opposed to disclosure. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell once said, way back in 2000, “Why would a little disclosure be better than a lot of disclosure?” Yet after Citizens United, he’s dramatically changed his tune, calling disclousre “a cynical effort to muzzle critics of this administration and its allies in Congress.”
The Republicans’ change in tune isn’t surprising, considering that outside spending overwhelmingly favors the GOP.
Mitt Romney raised a lot of money this weekend at a gala fundraiser in the Hamptons, where guests such as the Koch brothers paid up to $50,000 to attend. But according to the Huffington Post, one particular presence that weekend was not on the official guest list: Karl Rove.
Rove was in town to speak at a luncheon promoting his super PAC, American Crossroads, and his affiliated nonprofit group. Because American Crossroads spends its contributors’ unlimited donations on ads supporting Mitt Romney (or attacking President Obama), the Romney campaign and Rove are prohibited by law from “coordinating” with each other.
As far as the law is concerned, however, “coordination” is defined narrowly at best. With the Romney event unable to sponsor Rove’s luncheon, Solamere Capital, a private equity firm founded by Romney’s son Tagg along with Romney’s chief fundraiser Spencer Zwick, footed the bill. Many of the attendees at Rove’s luncheon, scheduled the day before the official retreat weekend, were also at the campaign fundraiser. As one fundraiser who was at the retreat noted, “It was not a coincidence that the Solamere conference took place in the same city just before the retreat began.”
Thanks to Citizens United, corporations and wealthy individuals and special interests can bypass the $2,500 maximum that campaign committees can accept and instead give unlimited amounts to super PACs like American Crossroads, which in turn spent about $300 million this year to support the GOP. Although in its flawed ruling the Court may have intended such outside groups to be independent, the facts just don’t support that notion:
"This kind of activity [by Rove] is the last thing the Supreme Court had in mind when it ruled that spending by an outside group had to be 'totally independent' and 'wholly independent' from a candidate the group is supporting with expenditures," Fred Wertheimer, the president of Democracy 21, said in an interview. "The FEC lives in a pure fantasy world in the way it attempts to define coordinated activities as not being coordinated activities."
Citizens United has left us in quite a campaign finance mess – and a constitutional amendment to overturn that decision and related cases is the only path forward to fairer and more transparent elections.
Under the banner of United For the People, a new web platform launched today to collect and amplify the growing grassroots movement in America that is calling for a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court’s flawed 2010 decision in Citizens United and restore the balance of influence in our elections to the people.
At www.peoplestestimony.com, the American people, good government organizations and elected officials can record a short video about how their lives are affected by money in politics and the outsized influence in our elections enjoyed by corporations and wealthy special interests – and what we can do about it.
Here is one such video, by PFAW staff:
To see the rest, and to find out how to submit your own video, visit www.peoplestestimony.com.
At their annual conference in Orlando, the U.S. Conference of Mayors unanimously passed a resolution in opposition to the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United, which opened the floodgates to unlimited corporate and special interest spending on elections. Citing Justice John Paul Stevens and the dissenters in the Citizens United case, the mayors’ resolution declares the need to “broaden the corruption rationale for campaign finance reform to facilitate regulation of independent expenditures regardless of the source of the money for this spending, for or against a candidate.” Finding compelling “fundamental interests” in “creating a level playing field and ensuring that all citizens, regardless of wealth, have an opportunity to have their political views heard,” the Conference of Mayors resolves that corporations should not receive the same legal rights as natural persons and that “urgent action” be taken to reverse the impacts of Citizens United in opening the door to unlimited independent campaign expenditures by corporations that undermines “free and fair elections and effective self-governance.”
The resolution calls on other communities, jurisdictions and organizations to pass similar resolutions. So far over, over 250 municipalities have already passed resolutions calling for amending the Constitution to overturn Citizens United and related cases and returning the power to influence our elections to the people. And more than 1600 public officials have gone on record in support of constitutional remedies to overturn the decision. More than 100 organizations have come together under the umbrella of United For the People to press for amending the Constitution to address the harm caused by Citizens United and related cases.
Here’s a quick recap of the Supreme Court’s decisions during the past week: Unions are now further disadvantaged and despite some important changes to the state’s immigration law, racial profiling remains a viable option for Arizona law enforcement.
On June 21, the Supreme Court issued its decision on Knox v. Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1000. The case dealt with a labor policy several states have, known as agency shops, in which employees are not required to become members of the union representing their place of employment, but must pay dues since they benefit from the work the union does. At the point in which all employees working at an establishment that has a union presence are receiving higher wages, more vacation days, and overall better working conditions, it is only fair that all employees pay union dues and not free-ride off of just the union members who pay.
However, in the case of public sector unions, the Supreme Court held a generation ago that non-members have the right to opt out of having their dues used for political activity by the union, effectively weakening the union’s ability to operate on its members’ behalf. In Knox, the Court criticized the balance struck in 1986 and ruled that when the union has a mid-year special assessment or dues increase, it cannot collect any money at all from non-union members unless they affirmatively opt-in (rather than opt-out). This ruling addressed an issue that wasn’t raised by the parties and that the union never had a chance to address, furthering the Right Wing’s goal to hamper a union’s ability to collect dues and make it harder for unions to have a voice in a post-Citizens United political environment. To add insult to injury, Justice Alito let his ideological leanings shine through when he essentially claimed right-to-work laws are good policy.
After the Knox v. SEIU decision, the court released its ruling on the highly contentious 2010 Arizona anti-immigration law, known as S.B. 1070. In a 5-3 decision, the court struck down the majority of the southwestern state’s draconian immigration policy. The court ruled that much of the state’s law unconstitutionally affected areas of law preempted by the federal government, acknowledging the impracticality of each state having its own immigration policy. Oppressive anti-immigrant provisions were struck down, such as one criminalizing the failure to carry proof of citizenship at all times, and a provision making it illegal under state law for an undocumented immigrant to apply for or hold a job. The decision also recognized that merely being eligible for removal is not in itself criminal, and thus the suspicion of being eligible for removal is not sufficient cause for arrest.
Although the majority of S.B. 1070 was overturned by the Supreme Court this week, one component remains, at least for the moment. Officers can still check the immigration status of anyone stopped or arrested if they had “reasonable suspicion” that the individual may be undocumented. This keeps the door wide open for racial profiling. Arresting an individual is not the same as being convicted for a crime. Latinos and other minority groups can be stopped for a crime as simple as jaywalking and “appear” suspicious enough to warrant an immigration background check. By leaving this portion of the law, the US Supreme Court has, for the time being, allowed the potential profiling of thousands of Arizona residents, regardless of whether they are immigrants or US citizens, but has left open the ability to challenge the manner in which this provision is put into practice.
Any hope that the Supreme Court would reconsider the disastrous Citizens United decision was dashed this morning, when the Court in a 5-4 decision summarily reversed a Montana Supreme Court decision on campaign finance without even hearing oral arguments. Rather than acknowledge the obvious damage done to our democracy in the 2½ years since Citizens United was decided, the five arch-conservatives solidified the distorted electoral playing field they created that lets the powerful few overwhelm the rest of America in deciding our elections.
Citizens United struck down federal restrictions on corporate independent expenditures to support or defeat a candidate based on two premises: (1) the First Amendment gives corporations the same First Amendment right as people to make independent expenditures to influence elections; and (2) independent expenditures do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption. But late last year, the Montana Supreme Court upheld that state’s restrictions on corporate independent expenditures, citing its unique history of political corruption and the many factors that distinguish state and local races from the federal races at issue in Citizens United.
Although the U.S. Supreme Court quickly granted a request to stay that decision as likely at odds with Citizens United, two Justices pointed out the opportunity the Montana case raised to re-examine Citizens United’s faulty factual assumptions:
Montana's experience, and experience elsewhere since [Citizens United] 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.
Today, due to Citizens United and its progeny, political candidates’ top staffers go off to form purportedly independent “super PACs” to accept the multi-million dollar checks that the formal campaign cannot legally accept. Karl Rove and his allies are planning to raise $1 billion, much of it anonymously given, to impose Republican control over all levers of the federal government. Organizations like the Chamber of Commerce funnel millions upon millions of dollars from corporate coffers to buy up the airwaves, refusing to disclose to the American people who is paying for the political advertising they are bombarded with.
Even when wealthy donors hide their identity from the American people, they make themselves known to the candidates who benefit from their largesse. No one doubts their influence over the officials who they put into office – and who they could turn their millions of dollars against if crossed.
No one who has seen the transformation in our democracy in the past 29 months could possibly believe that “independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.” This basic factual assumption underlying Citizens United has been shown to be incorrect.
As Justice Breyer said in his dissent from the Court’s decision:
“[M]ontana’s experience, like considerable experience elsewhere since the Court’s decision in Citizens United casts grave doubt on the Court’s supposition that independent expenditures do not corrupt or appear to do so.”
The Montana case was the Court’s chance to right a terrible wrong and take our country off a dangerously anti-democratic path. History will remember this as a great opportunity lost to the American people.