In a week in which the Supreme Court turned a blind eye to the reality of money corrupting politics, a story out of Arizona provides a clear example of the insidious influence of the private prison industry and its campaign contributions.
Arizona has been at the forefront of bad prison policy and big profits for private prison companies. People For the American Way’s 2012 report, “Predatory Privatization: Exploiting Financial Hardship, Enriching the One Percent, Undermining Democracy,” explored how Arizona officials’ political and ideological commitment to prison privatization overrode good policy and common sense. Unbelievably, faced with evidence that privately run prisons were costing taxpayers more, not less, than state-run prisons, some legislators moved to stop the state from collecting the data.
This February, we wrote about Politico’s coverage of the private prison racket. “Companies that manage prisons on our behalf have abysmal records,” author Matt Stroud asked, “So why do we keep giving them our business?” One answer is that the industry spends a fortune on lobbying and campaign contributions.
This week’s story shows how those investments can pay off. According to the Arizona Republic, House Appropriations Committee Chairman John Kavanaugh tried to slip a last-minute $900,000 earmark for private prison giant GEO Group into the state budget. The company is already expected to get $45 million this year under contracts with the state that guarantee the company at least a 95 percent occupancy rate, “virtually ensuring the company a profit for operating its prisons in Arizona.” The state Department of Corrections said the extra money isn’t needed, but Kavanaugh heard otherwise from the company’s lobbyists. GEO executives gave Kavanaugh more than $2,500 in 2012.
The good news is that the Senate Appropriations Committee dropped the extra funding “following an uproar of criticism from Arizonans.”
Within hours of the Supreme Court issuing its decision in McCutcheon v. FEC, People For the American Way organized a rapid response protest, the first of over 140 that are taking place across the country today.
The protest featured key movement leaders from Congress and a wide range of advocacy organizations, all of whom were outraged about the Roberts Court’s disregard for democratic safeguards, like those gutted in McCutcheon v. FEC.
Emceed by People For the American Way’s Diallo Brooks and concluded by People For’s Drew Courtney, the rally featured Senator Bernie Sanders [VT], Representative Keith Ellison [MN-5], and Representative Ted Deutch [FL-19], as well as Jotaka Eaddy of the NAACP, Michael Russo of US PIRG, Steve Cobble of Free Speech For People, Nick Nyhart of Public Campaign, George Kohl of Communication Workers of America, Miles Rappaport of Common Cause, Erich Pica of Friends of the Earth, and Courtney Hight of the Sierra Club.
Speakers highlighted the problem of “big money” dominating the political process, and discussed the range of solutions--from enacting disclosure and public financing laws to amending the Constitution--that are available to solve it.
As the Supreme Court heard arguments today in McCutcheon v. FEC – a campaign finance case in which the Court will decide whether to strike down overall limits on direct political contributions – a great crowd of PFAW and allies rallied outside the Court in support of getting big money out of politics. From students and small business owners to members of Congress – including Senator Bernie Sanders and Representatives Ted Deutch, Jim McGovern, and John Sarbanes – people from all backgrounds came together in support of protecting the integrity of our democracy.
PFAW Executive Vice President Marge Baker kicked off the speeches by painting a picture of the “people versus money” nature of the case:
Inside the court – right now – one wealthy man is asking for permission to pour even more money directly into political campaigns. But we’re here, too, and we have a different ask. We’re asking the justices to protect the integrity of our democracy. We’re asking them to protect the voices and the votes of ‘We the People’….We’re here today saying loud and clear: our democracy is not for sale.
Also speaking at today’s rally was Montgomery County Council Vice President Craig L. Rice, Maryland State Director of affiliate PFAW Foundation’s Young Elected Officials Network. Rice spoke about the effect of campaign finance laws on young political candidates:
As a young minority elected official, let me tell you: this [case] is extremely troubling….Young minority candidates throughout this country are routinely outspent and therefore denied the ability to serve in elected roles….Money should not determine who serves in office.
Howard University student Brendien Mitchell, a fellow in affiliate PFAW Foundation’s Young People For program, talked about the importance of being able to hear the political voices of young people in the midst of voter suppression efforts and massive spending by the wealthy in our democracy:
What about the freedom of young Americans who cannot donate grandiose sums of money to political candidates?....We gather to say that this is our country. And that in a case of money versus people, the answer should be apparent: the people.
One of the highlights of the day was hearing from Moral Monday demonstration leader Rev. Dr. William Barber, II, president of the North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP and a member of PFAW’s African American Ministers in Action. Rev. Barber highlighted the millions of dollars Art Pope has poured into conservative projects and campaigns in his home state of North Carolina:
We [in North Carolina] know firsthand that when you undermine laws that guard against voter suppression, and you undo regulations on the ability for corporations and individuals to spend unchecked amounts of money to influence and infiltrate and literally infect the democratic process, it has extreme impacts.
Extreme impacts – and not only on the electoral process itself, but also on a whole host of issues shaping the lives of everyday Americans. Whether you care most about protecting voting rights, preserving our environment, or workers getting paid a livable wage, a political system where the super-rich can make six-digit direct political contributions harms us all.
And that’s why organizations and activists with focuses ranging from civil rights to environmental protection to good government issues came together today with a common message: our democracy is not for sale.
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.
Few Americans would argue that they want to see more big money flowing into our political system.
Yet yesterday the Republican National Committee asked the Supreme Court to strike down limits on the total amount an individual donor can contribute to campaigns in a single election cycle, filing an opening brief in what is sure to be a high-profile Supreme Court case. If the RNC and the Republican donor who together filed the case in Shaun McCutcheon, et al. v. Federal Election Commission are successful, the limit on aggregate individual contributions per cycle could jump from $117,000 to $3 million.
As PFAW noted in February, this case threatens to be the next stage in the ongoing attack on our country’s democracy. By calling for a gutting of our country’s campaign finance reform regulations, Republicans are ignoring the majority of Americans who believe there is already far too much big money being poured into our elections.