Elections

Scalia’s Selective Originalism

Earlier this week, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia told an audience of law students that the Constitution does not protect against sex discrimination. In a great column for Time today, Adam Cohen outlines what has gone so wrong with the trend toward vehement--but inconsistent--Constitutional originalism that Scalia represents:

The Constitution would be a poor set of rights if it were locked in the 1780s. The Eighth Amendment would protect us against only the sort of punishment that was deemed cruel and unusual back then. As Justice Breyer has said, "Flogging as a punishment might have been fine in the 18th century. That doesn't mean that it would be OK ... today." And how could we say that the Fourth Amendment limits government wiretapping — when the founders could not have conceived of a telephone, much less a tap?

Justice Scalia doesn't even have consistency on his side. After all, he has been happy to interpret the equal-protection clause broadly when it fits his purposes. In Bush v. Gore, he joined the majority that stopped the vote recount in Florida in 2000 — because they said equal protection required it. Is there really any reason to believe that the drafters — who, after all, were trying to help black people achieve equality — intended to protect President Bush's right to have the same procedures for a vote recount in Broward County as he had in Miami-Dade? (If Justice Scalia had been an equal-protection originalist in that case, he would have focused on the many black Floridians whose votes were not counted — not on the white President who wanted to stop counting votes.)

Even worse, while Justice Scalia argues for writing women out of the Constitution, there is another group he has been working hard to write in: corporations. The word "corporation" does not appear in the Constitution, and there is considerable evidence that the founders were worried about corporate influence. But in a landmark ruling earlier this year, Justice Scalia joined a narrow majority in striking down longstanding limits on corporate spending in federal elections, insisting that they violated the First Amendment.

The view of the Constitution that Scalia champions—where corporations have rights that the Constitution’s authors never imagined, but women, minorities, and working people don’t—has become a popular political bludgeon for many on the Right. GOP senators pilloried now-Justice Elena Kagan during her confirmation hearings for offenses such as thinking Congress has the right to spend money, arguing the case against giving corporations the same free speech rights as human beings, refusing to judge according to a subjective view of “natural rights,” and admiring the man who convinced the Supreme Court that school segregation was unconstitutional.

An avowed allegiance to the original intent of the Constitution has become a must-have for every right-wing candidate. The talking point sounds great, but it hides the real priorities behind it. Anyone who needs reminding of what the fidelity to the Constitution means to the Right needs just to look to Scalia.

 

PFAW

Barbara Boxer: Supporting the DISCLOSE Act and the Voters' Right to Know

The U.S. Senate is currently debating the DISCLOSE Act. Passage of the DISCLOSE Act is essential if we are to mitigate the damage done to American democracy by Citizens United. This deeply flawed opinion has led to the unleashing of extraordinary corporate influence on elections at all levels in our country. In spite of this - or perhaps because of it - Republican obstructionists cynically sidetracked the DISCLOSE bill with a filibuster in July.

Senator Barbara Boxer, speaking in support of the bill, correctly stated that "the people have a right to know" who's spending millions to influence our elections.

Contrast that with her opponent, Carly Fiorina, who was pleased to accept the endorsement of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber not only opposes DISCLOSE, it is one of the main front groups that well-heeled corporations are using to hide their electoral activities.

It's really simple: The people's right to know vs. a corporation's right to skulk and hide. Kudos to Sen. Boxer for choosing the people.

PFAW

“The Money’s Flowing,” But From Where?

Michael Luo and Stephanie Strom of The New York Times profiled the rapid growth of political organizations that can receive unlimited contributions but do not have to disclose their donors. 501(c)(4) groups* have become more numerous, and unlike 527’s, do not have to reveal the sources of their funding, which is “arguably more important than ever after the Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case earlier this year that eased restrictions on corporate spending on campaigns.”

“I can tell you from personal experience, the money’s flowing,” said Michael E. Toner, a former Republican F.E.C. commissioner, now in private practice at the firm Bryan Cave.

The growing popularity of the groups is making the gaps in oversight of them increasingly worrisome among those mindful of the influence of money on politics.

“The Supreme Court has completely lifted restrictions on corporate spending on elections,” said Taylor Lincoln, research director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch, a watchdog group. “And 501(c) serves as a haven for these front groups to run electioneering ads and keep their donors completely secret.”

Almost all of the biggest players among third-party groups, in terms of buying television time in House and Senate races since August, have been 501(c) organizations, and their purchases have heavily favored Republicans, according to data from Campaign Media Analysis Group, which tracks political advertising.

These organizations are considered “social welfare” groups that are legally allowed to lobby on certain issues, but until Citizens United, were not permitted to explicitly urge voters to vote for or against a candidate. “As a result, rarely do advertisements by 501(c)(4) groups explicitly call for the election or defeat of candidates,” Luo and Strom write, “Instead, they typically attack their positions on issues.” That has changed dramatically since Citizens United, as seen in the rise of organizations like American Crossroads GPS. 501 (c)6 groups that are “business associations” like the US Chamber of Commerce and Americans for Job Security are “spending heavily in support of Republicans.”

But with weak and ineffective regulatory oversight, many of these political organizations disguised as “social welfare” groups can continue to hide their donors from the public eye:

In fact, the I.R.S. is unlikely to know that some of these groups exist until well after the election because they are not required to seek the agency’s approval until they file their first tax forms — more than a year after they begin activity.    

"These groups are popping up like mushrooms after a rain right now, and many of them will be out of business by late November,” Mr. Owens said. “Technically, they would have until January 2012 at the earliest to file anything with the I.R.S. It’s a farce.”    

Social welfare nonprofits are permitted to do an unlimited amount of lobbying on issues related to their primary purpose, but there are limits on campaigning for or against specific candidates.

I.R.S. officials cautioned that what may seem like political activity to the average lay person might not be considered as such under the agency’s legal criteria.



* People For the American Way is a 501(c)(4) organization.

 

 

PFAW

So Much for "Prompt Disclosure"

When the Supreme Court decided earlier this year to allow corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money to influence elections, the justices in the majority (save Justice Clarence Thomas) took care to note that “prompt disclosure” of political spending would allow citizens to hold candidates, and their funders, accountable. It’s a nice idea…but things haven’t exactly worked out that way.

Instead, Public Citizen reported last week, in the first election after Citizens United, groups funneling money to political activities have increasingly been hiding where their money comes from.

Only 32 percent of the organizations broadcasting electioneering communications in the 2010 primary season revealed in their filings with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) the identities of donors funding their advertisements, according to Public Citizen’s analysis of FEC filings. In contrast, nearly 50 percent revealed their donors in the 2008 election cycle, and close to 100 percent did so in the 2004 and 2006 cycles. Electioneering communications are campaign ads run shortly before elections that focus on candidates but don’t expressly urge a vote for or against them.

Only 10 percent of Republican groups disclosed their funders, in contrast to 50 percent of Democratic groups.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. As Target learned the hard way this summer, shareholders, consumers, and voters aren’t particularly keen on large corporations bankrolling political campaigns. Funneling money through secretive groups allows corporate political spenders to have the best of both worlds: they can fund the campaigns of candidates favorable to them, and never have to be held accountable.

An attempt this summer to patch up the loophole that allows corporations to keep their election spending secret ran up against stiff opposition from corporate lobbyists and a unified filibuster from the GOP. President Obama summed up the result in his weekly radio address Saturday:

What is clear is that Congress has a responsibility to act. But the truth is, any law will come too late to prevent the damage that has already been done this election season. That is why, any time you see an attack ad by one of these shadowy groups, you should ask yourself, who is paying for this ad? Is it the health insurance lobby? The oil industry? The credit card companies?

But more than that, you can make sure that the tens of millions of dollars spent on misleading ads do not drown out your voice. Because no matter how many ads they run – no matter how many elections they try to buy – the power to determine the fate of this country doesn’t lie in their hands. It lies in yours. It’s up to all of us to defend that most basic American principle of a government of, by, and for the people. What’s at stake is not just an election. It’s our democracy itself.

This fall, the Senate will have another chance to bring the DISCLOSE Act to a vote. As the New York Times pointed out yesterday, the vote should be a no-brainer for moderate senators like Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine:

The Citizens United decision, paradoxically, supported greater disclosure of donors, but Senate Republicans have filibustered a bill that would eliminate the secrecy shield. Just one vote is preventing passage. That act is coming back for another Senate vote. The two Republican senators from Maine, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, might want to read a recent poll by the Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, which showed that 80 percent of the state’s voters support public disclosure.

In a poll we commissioned in June, 85% of Americans said that corporations already have too much influence over the political process. Voters want information. Will Congress provide it?
 

PFAW

Obama Speaks Out, Again, on Citizens United

While addressing a fundraiser in Connecticut for Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who is running against self-funding multimillionaire Linda McMahon, President Obama laid into the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision and its devastating consequences. With the possibility of the Senate passing a new version of the DISLCOSE Act, which would mitigate the Supreme Court’s ruling by requiring political organizations to publicly disclose its financial backers, President Obama reminded us again on why Citizens United is so dangerous to democracy:

This is a tough election season. People are hurting and they are understandably frustrated. And a lot of them are scared. And a lot of them are anxious. And that means that even when people don't have ideas, if they've got enough money behind them, they may be able to convince some folks that, you know what, just cast a protest vote, throw the bums out. That's a mentality that has an appeal. And you can't blame folks for feeling that way sometime. But that's not a future for our country, a country that's more divided, that's more unequal, that's less dynamic, where we're falling behind in everything from investment in infrastructure to investment in R&D. That's not a vision for the future.

And if that's not a future you accept for this nation, if that's not the future you want for your kids and for your grandkids, then we are asking you for help in this election.


Because if you don't think the stakes are large -- and I want you to consider this -- right now, all across the country, special interests are planning and running millions of dollars of attack ads against Democratic candidates. Because last year, there was a Supreme Court decision called Citizens United. They're allowed to spend as much as they want without ever revealing who's paying for the ads. That's exactly what they're doing. Millions of dollars. And the groups are benign-sounding: Americans for Prosperity. Who's against that? Or Committee for Truth in Politics. Or Americans for Apple Pie. Moms for Motherhood. I made those last two up.


None of them will disclose who's paying for these ads. You don't know if it's a Wall Street bank. You don't know if it's a big oil company. You don't know if it's an insurance company. You don't even know if it's a foreign-controlled entity. In some races, they are spending more money than the candidates. Not here because here the candidate is spending a lot of money. They're spending more money than the parties. They want to take Congress back and return to the days where lobbyists wrote the laws. It is the most insidious power grab since the monopolies of the Gilded Age. That's happening right now. So there's a lot of talk about populist anger and grassroots. But that's not what's driving a lot of these elections.


We tried to fix this, but the leaders of the other party wouldn't even allow it to come up for a vote. They want to keep the public in the dark. They want to serve the special interests that served them so well over the last 19 months.


We will not let them. We are not about to allow a corporate takeover of our democracy. We're not about to go back to the days when special interests took advantage of Main Street families. We're not going to go back to the days when insurance companies wrote the rules that let you languish without health care because you had a preexisting condition. We're not going to go back to the exact same agenda we had before I took office.

PFAW

The Citizens United Fallout Reaches Ohio

Since the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC, state-level laws regulating corporate election spending have been crumbling. Today, yet another bit the dust:

An agreement between Ohio elections officials and an anti-abortion group voids a state ban that kept businesses and unions from funding pre-election broadcast ads in support of specific candidates.

The Wednesday agreement in U.S. District Court in Columbus settles part of a 2008 lawsuit brought by Ohio Right to Life Society Inc. against the Ohio Elections Commission and Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner. It follows a January U.S. Supreme Court decision that strikes down a similar federal ban.
 

PFAW

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.
 

PFAW

The DISCLOSE Act's Second Chance

As Congress returns to work this month, the Senate will likely have another chance to vote on the DISCLOSE Act, legislation meant to mitigate the damage of Citizens United by requiring full disclosure of corporate spending in elections.

The House passed the DISCLOSE Act in June. In July, it sank in the Senate, when not a single Republican was willing to break a filibuster on the bill. Moderate Republicans Scott Brown, Susan Collins, and Olympia Snowe, despite previous support for clean election legislation, all sided with their party to kill the bill.

In the Washington Post today, E. J. Dionne writes that the support of those three senators is key to the passage of the DISCLOSE Act—though the pressure they face to oppose it is greater than ever:

As moderate Republicans, Snowe and Collins are undoubtedly looking over their right shoulders, fearful that they may go the way of Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Bob Bennett. This helps explain why they went south during negotiations over the health-care bill.

But repairing Citizens United is not an ideological question, although some cast it that way. Fiscal conservatives should be as worried as anyone about corporations using their newfound power to extract expensive special benefits from the government. Even conservatives who opposed campaign reform in the past have always insisted that they favor disclosure of campaign contributions. Disclosure is now more important than ever.

Snowe, Collins and Brown have made their careers by touting their independence. But that claim doesn't come cheap. This is the issue on which their promissory note is due.

This election cycle has already produced plenty of examples of corporations funneling money through front groups to support or smear candidates. In an ideal world, every member of Congress would stand up to corporate lobbyists and support a bill that would throw light on that murky political strategy. But at the very least, a disclosure bill should have the active support of those who profess to be independent campaign reformers.
 

PFAW

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.
 

PFAW

Corporate Groups take aim at Hodes in New Hampshire

What happens when a principal leader in the fight for greater corporate accountability runs for higher office? He becomes the target of a tremendous and misleading assault by new corporate-backed groups that have gained new prominence in the wake of Citizens United.

As one of the first leaders to introduce a Constitutional Amendment to overturn the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision Citizens United, New Hampshire Congressman and Senate candidate Paul Hodes understands the risks posed by swelling corporate power. He has also signed the Pledge to Protect America’s Democracy, which asks candidates to give Congress back the right to curtail electoral spending by corporations.

Pro-corporate organizations such as the Chamber of Commerce and the American Action Network have started to pummel Hodes with ads in order to tear down his run for the open Senate seat vacated by Sen. Judd Gregg, one of Wall Street’s champions in Congress. The Chamber of Commerce, which has pledged to spend $75 million altogether in the 2010 elections, has already committed $1 million to criticize Hodes over the airwaves. Political Correction describes the Chamber of Commerce’s anti-Hodes advertisement as “deeply dishonest” and responsible for employing grandiose and embellished allegations regarding health care reform.

The American Action Network has spent $500,000 against the Congressman, which is unsurprising since the organization is led by a mix of Wall Street moguls and their advocates. Their ads in the New Hampshire race have come under such scrutiny that even a former Republican state senator who is supporting GOP frontrunner Kelly Ayotte co-wrote an op-ed which claims that the group’s ad campaign against Hodes is filled with “gross inaccuracies” that “corrode public confidence in the political process, and are completely contrary to the national interest.”

According to Democracy 21, even though these groups are spending large sums attacking progressive champions like Paul Hodes, they have not disclosed their donors to the FEC. Kenneth Doyle of the good-government group writes that the Chamber “provided no information in their FEC reports about where they get the millions of dollars used to pay for their political advertising.” Like the Chamber, the American Action Network “provided no information about any donors supporting the group’s campaign efforts.” Consequently, New Hampshire voters may never know which corporations or individuals are behind the enormous endeavor to vilify Paul Hodes and his effort to rein in corporate clout in government and abuses on Wall Street.

PFAW

So-called 'Ground Zero Mosque' -- Mayor Bloomberg on Daily Show says it's all about the elections

"This is plain and simple people trying to stir up things to get publicity, and trying to polarize people so that they can get some votes." (Discussion of Cordoba House project begins around 2:00 mark.)

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PFAW

48 Congressional Candidates have signed the Pledge to Protect America’s Democracy—Find Out Where Your Candidates Stand

Last month, we started asking candidates for Congress to sign a pledge to support a constitutional amendment to reverse the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United, and stop unlimited corporate spending in elections.

Today, we’re announcing the first batch of signers. 48 House and Senate candidates from across the country have signed the Pledge to Protect America’s Democracy—you can find out who’s signed, who’s refused and who’s on the fence using our handy candidate map. Then you can call the candidates in your state who haven’t signed yet and urge them to fight against corporate influence in elections.

Public Citizen, our partner in the campaign, put together this video about the pledge and why it matters:
 

PFAW

Anti-Muslim Rhetoric Having a Sadly Unsurprising Effect

From TPM:

The New York Police Department has confirmed to TPM that a cab driver in Manhttan was allegedly stabbed by a passenger who asked if the cabbie was Muslim, and says the incident is being treated as a hate crime. The suspect has been charged with attempted murder and other crimes.

Unfortunately, hateful rhetoric leading to violence is all too common and does not come as a shock. Let's hope that as the Right ratchets up the hate leading up to November's elections, the violence does not become widespread.

Read PFAW's statement on the Muslim community center in lower Manhattan.

UPDATE: The stabbing victim has issued a statement (article contains description of the attack) through the NYC taxi union.

"I have been here more than 25 years," Ahmed H. Sharif said in a statement. "I have been driving a taxi more than 15 years. All my four kids were born here. I never feel this hopeless and insecure before. Right now, the public sentiment is very serious (because of the Ground Zero Mosque debate.) All drivers should be more careful."

"While a minority of has-been politicians spew ignorance and fear, it's the working person on the street who has to face the consequences," added NYTWA [the drivers' union] Executive Director Bhairavi Desai. "This kind of bigotry only breeds more violence and makes taxi drivers all the more vulnerable on the streets where there are no bully pulpits or podiums to hide behind."

PFAW

New Groups Taking Advantage of Concealed Election Spending

Can we have the DISCLOSE Act now? USA Today reports that more than a dozen groups have been organized since June to take advantage of the lax election spending rules left by the Citizens United decision earlier this year…and most of them aren’t going to tell us who’s funding them:

In many cases, the public will not know who has funded the ads until long after they have aired.

"This is the new order of political finance," says Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks money in politics. Outside groups can "sling mud with hidden money."

Since June 1, at least 15 organizations have launched these operations to influence congressional races, according to filings with the Federal Election Commission.

In Mother Jones, Peter Stone explains one reason why corporate interests are jumping through hoops to influence elections without being noticed:

You might wonder: Given that Citizens United allowed companies, say General Motors or Aetna, to get involved in elections directly, why would they need to go through groups like BIPAC or the US Chamber of Commerce? The problem, says Larry Noble, a former general counsel at the FEC, is that the decision is so unpopular many companies may not want to be seen as taking advantage of it. (In the wake of President Obama's attack on the Citizens United ruling in the State of the Union address—he noted that it would allow special interests and "foreign corporations to spend without limits in our elections"—80 percent of Americans told pollsters they disagreed with the ruling.)

Then, there’s also the powerful example of Target, which taught corporations that it’s ok to give money to political causes—as long as you don’t get caught.
 

PFAW

WI-Senate, Ron Johnson's extremism takes aim at cultural center

Ron Johnson, Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Wisconsin running to unseat Sen. Russ Feingold, has been on a tear lately, apparently trying to out-crazy himself at every turn.

Yesterday I read that he was pushing an absurd theory of global warming being caused by sun spots -- part of his personal war on climate science. See, Johnson is a pro-corporate extremist who wants no regulation on polluters or protections for the environment that might get in the way of short-term profits for his corporate buddies. So, naturally, he has taken the view, "I absolutely do not believe in the science of man-caused climate change. It's not proven by any stretch of the imagination."

In the same TPM post by Eric Kleefeld, Johnson is quoted downplaying global warming by saying, "There's a reason Greenland was called Greenland, it was actually green at one point in time. And it's been, since, it's a whole lot whiter now." Ugh... *smacks forehead*

Now, Johnson's jumping into the Cordoba House/Park51 fracas.

From Steve Singiser at DailyKos:

"Those folks are trying to poke a stick in our eye," Johnson said. "I just hope the zoning officials and the city, the state revisit that, rezone that piece of property."

The Republican candidate for U.S. Senate continued: "If they don't do it I hope the construction workers in New York show their outrage and say we are not going to do that."

Pretty cheeky of a multi-millionaire to demand that an industry where unemployment is as high as 20 percent should voluntarily refuse work in order to buttress a right-wing talking point.

 

Right now the polls have Johnson running neck and neck with Sen. Feingold... One more example of just how real the threat is of right-wing extremism on the march in this year's elections.

PFAW

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:

PFAW

The Price of Justice

The Brennan Center for Justice, Justice at Stake, and the National Institute on Money in State Politics released a startling report today on the skyrocketing cost of state Supreme Court elections. The amount of money spent on state judicial races in the 38 states that have them has more than doubled in the 2000-2009 decade compared to the decade before, the report finds—and most of it has come from big spenders with big agendas, such as the Chamber of Commerce and trial lawyers’ groups.

The sway of big money over judicial elections, the report argues, is only likely to intensify in the post-Citizens United world, where big spenders will be able to pour more money into judicial races while “using shell organizations to keep their role out of the public eye.”

Take the case of Louis Butler, a Wisconsin Supreme Court justice who was nominated to fill a vacancy in the court in 2004, and four years later ran for a full term. Shortly after losing the election in 2008, Butler described his experience in a panel discussion at Georgetown. NPR reports:

"Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce decided at that point that: 'OK, we've had this court for all these years, we never had to worry about how the court voted. We get this new guy on the court, and all of a sudden we lose these three cases,' " Butler said. " 'He's gotta go.' "

And go he did, with the help of ads that tried to portray Butler, a former public defender, as soft on crime. One ad sponsored by the manufacturers and commerce group, the state's largest business lobby, began this way: "When our children go to school, they need to be safe. In our homes and neighborhoods, we need to be safe. Our sheriffs and district attorneys are on the front lines, protecting us. And you know what? Our judges need to know they also must protect us."

Executives at Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the state's largest business advocacy group, say they were only protecting themselves when they spent $1 million on television ads against Butler. James Buchen, an executive at Wisconsin Manufacturers, said the court under Butler had ruled to expand punitive damage awards and malpractice claims under a fragile 4 to 3 majority.

President Obama has since twice nominated Butler to a federal judgeship—and Senate Republicans have twice sent his nomination back.

Corporate courts—whether elected or appointed—don’t happen by accident. And after Citizens United, the fight to keep courts from having pro-corporate biases has become even harder.
 

PFAW

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.
 

PFAW

Muslim Republicans to GOP: Stop Preaching Intolerance

It’s not just the Left that’s appalled by the GOP’s increasingly blatant exploitation of animosity toward Muslim Americans in the hopes of political gain in November. Today, in a letter to the Republican leadership, six prominent Muslim conservatives asked their party to quit stoking intolerance of Muslims in its continued attack on the proposed Islamic community center in lower Manhattan.

While we share the desire of all in our party to be successful in the November elections, we cannot support victory at the expense of the U.S. Constitution or the Arab and Muslim community in America. As President Lincoln so eloquently stated in his famous speech: "a house divided against itself cannot stand."

Muslim Republicans probably never expected Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the leader of the proposed community center, to come under attack from their party. After all, in years past many prominent Republicans, including George W. Bush, considered Rauf to be an important ally in the Muslim community and a valuable asset in the war against terrorism. But that was then. Now, the GOP leadership seems happy to label Rauf a radical if it suits their political purposes.

For more of the right’s blatant hypocrisy on Rauf and the “Ground Zero Mosque,” see this hilarious clip from yesterday’s Daily Show:

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PFAW

Monitoring Corporate Spending

Since Citizens United, as we’ve noted, corporations have been taking advantage of their permission slip to spend unlimited amounts on elections. Now Bill de Blasio, the public advocate for the City of New York, is making it easier to track which corporations are getting involved in politics.

This week, de Blasio launched a website that breaks major corporations into three categories: those that have pledged to stay out of politics, those that have not pledged to stay out of politics, and those prepared (like Target) to spend money in politics. He also makes it easy for web surfers to contact corporations and encourage them not to spend on elections.

De Blasio’s public spirited website is a great tool, but citizens shouldn’t be expected to spend every election monitoring corporate machinations. Ultimately, we need a constitutional amendment to reverse Citizens United. That’s why we’re asking all federal elected officials and candidates to sign our pledge to support an amendment. Has your representative signed the pledge?

PFAW