The movie tracks the effects of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling that lifted a century-long ban on corporate election spending by looking at the standoff in Wisconsin between state employees and GOP Governor Scott Walker. During his election and recall campaigns, Walker was bankrolled by billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch, demonstrating the torrent of unlimited, anonymous political spending by corporations and billionaires that was unleashed through this Supreme Court decision. As the film follows this story, it also shows the fracturing of the Republican Party and proves how Citizens United fundamentally changed how our democracy works.
After a successful Kickstarter campaign to raise funding, and even losing its public television distributor, the movie finally comes to theatres this summer. The process that led to it being pulled from public television airwaves illustrates exactly what “Citizen Koch” depicts—that money buys not only action, but also silence. As Buddy Roemer, whose presidential run is chronicled in the film, stated, “Sometimes it's a check. Sometimes it's the threat of a check. It's like having a weapon. You can shoot the gun or just show it. It works both ways.”
People For the American Way hosted the DC premiere of the documentary film “Citizen Koch” at the Washington’s West End Cinema Friday night to a sell out crowd. Friday’s premiere was followed by a panel discussion with one of the documentary’s Academy Award-nominated filmmakers Tia Lessin, along with PFAW’s director of outreach and partner engagement Diallo Brooks and PFAW president Michael Keegan. After the screening, the audience participated in a question and answer session on the effects of big money in politics and what different organizations and mobilized citizens are doing to reverse the effects of Supreme Court decisions like Citizens United and McCutcheon.
As the news of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s surprising loss last night to Tea Party challenger David Brat sinks in, Brat’s anti-immigrant extremism is increasingly coming into the spotlight. Today Right Wing Watch wrote that Brat actively sought out the endorsement of ALIPAC, an anti-immigrant hate group whose leader has suggested that violence may be necessary to quell President Obama’s supposed war on “white America.” Brat campaigned on the claim that a vote for Cantor was “a vote for amnesty.”
But there is another aspect to the race also worth paying attention to: Brat’s focus on corruption in Washington. This morning our friends at Public Campaign pointed out that Brat, who was vastly outspent by Cantor, consistently made speaking out against political corruption a part of his campaign. In his victory speech, Brat said to supporters: “What you proved tonight was dollars don’t vote — you do.”
The overwhelming majority of Americans (92 percent of voters, according to a November 2013 poll) think it’s important for elected officials do more to reduce money’s influence on elections — a statistic we often highlight in our work for urgently-needed campaign finance reforms. What last night’s news brings to the foreground is the obvious fact that this 92 percent cannot possibly reflect Americans of only one political leaning. A commitment to fighting corruption and the outsized influence of big money in politics is a deeply-held belief of people of all political stripes, whatever their other beliefs may be.
This morning Politico proclaimed, “Big money couldn’t save Eric Cantor.” And despite Brat’s extremism, there is something hopeful about the fact that people can fight back against the tidal wave of cash flooding our electoral system. To be sure, this outcome is the exception rather than the rule. More than nine times in ten, the better-financed congressional candidate wins. In the post-Citizens United and post-McCutcheon campaign finance landscape, to pretend that money doesn’t matter hugely in the outcome of elections — and in who has access to and influence over politicians once the election is over — is to be willfully blind.
But it’s also important to be reminded that when voters set their minds to it, they still have the power to reshape our nation — for good or ill.
Nearly two years ago, President Obama caused a splash by expressing support for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United during a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” session. Asked during the online forum what he was going to do to “end the corrupting influence of money in politics,” President Obama put the spotlight on the movement for a constitutional amendment by explicitly mentioning the amendment strategy:
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).
A new book released this week by POLITICO reporter Ken Vogel shows that President Obama had been privately discussing an amendment months before his public comment in August 2012. Vogel’s book describes President Obama telling Democratic donors in February of that year:
“Now, I taught constitutional law…I don't tinker with the Constitution lightly. But I think this is important enough that citizens have to get mobilized around this issue, and this will probably be a multiyear effort. After my reelection, my sense is that I may be in a very strong position to do it.”
The fact that President Obama was sharing support for an amendment even earlier than previously known underscores the importance of the issue to our nation’s president. In addition to President Obama, 44 U.S. senators, 123 U.S. representatives, and more than 1,700 state legislators have gone on record in support of an amendment to get big money out of politics.
The day after Sen. Tom Udall’s proposed constitutional amendment to get big money out of politics was considered at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Sen. Udall joined People For the American Way activists, supporters, and staff members on a member telebriefing to discuss the amendment and what Americans can do to support it.
Sen. Udall noted in his introduction that together we have come a long way in the movement to get big money out of politics, due in part to the work of People For the American Way. He said that in the last few years, our nation’s campaign finance laws have come under increasing attack. There are only two ways, Sen. Udall said, to have lasting reform on this issue: either the Court can reverse itself, or we can amend the Constitution to overturn cases like Citizens United v. FEC and McCutcheon v. FEC. Sen. Udall pointed out that elections should be about the quality of ideas, not the size of bank accounts.
When asked by a participant to address the false claim pushed by Sen. Ted Cruz and other right-wing politicians and activists that this amendment is an attack on the First Amendment, Sen. Udall explained: “This is about restoring the First Amendment so it applies equally to all Americans.” He pointed out that our access to constitutional rights and our ability to participate in the democratic process should not be based on our net worth.
Sen. Udall urged activists on the call to voice their support at every opportunity they have. Specifically, he encouraged advocates to get a copy of the amendment and urge their local officials to support it by passing resolutions. Despite the lengthy process of amending the Constitution, Sen. Udall asked participants not to be discouraged; with a strong grassroots movement, he said, we can make it happen.
PFAW executive vice president Marge Baker also fielded questions from participants on the call. She urged activists to connect campaign finance reform to the issues most important to them and their communities, whether that’s fighting for health and safety on the job, defending the environment, or protecting voting rights. On voting rights, Baker pointed out that the Supreme Court’s attacks on campaign finance laws go hand in hand with their attacks on the right to cast a vote; both have the effect of disempowering average Americans in our democracy. This is why, Baker pointed out, we must take on the Supreme Court and reclaim our political system – making it a democracy truly of, by, and for the people.
You can listen to the call here:
Before yesterday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on a proposed campaign finance constitutional amendment had even begun, advocates from People For the American Way and partner organizations had already delivered a powerful message from the American people. Carrying signs saying “Restore the First Amendment” and “Amend the Constitution to #GetMoneyOut,” activists rolled in stacked boxes of more than two million petitions in support of an amendment to get big money out of politics.
In his opening remarks, Sen. Patrick Leahy noted that these petitions serve as a “tangible reminder that Americans are calling on Congress to act.”
In an rare move that underscored the importance of the proposed amendment, both Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell testified at the hearing. Sen. Reid issued a call to action for the amendment, urging Americans to work together to restore the basic principle of one American, one vote. “Our involvement in government should not be dependent on our bank account balances,” he said.
Sen. McConnell, on the other hand, used the platform to claim that the proposed amendment is about shutting people up, calling it the “latest proposal to weaken the First Amendment.” Later, Sen. Ted Cruz continued to push the false claim that the amendment would “repeal the free speech protections of the First Amendment” and “muzzle” Americans.
But other witnesses were quick to debunk this myth, including constitutional law expert Jamie Raskin, who is also a senior fellow at People For the American Way. In his testimony, Raskin noted:
[E]ven as our huge majorities of Americans support reclaiming our democracy, opponents of the Amendment are waving the flag of the First Amendment, as if political democracy and free speech are enemies. But the Citizens United era has nothing to do with free speech and everything to do with plutocratic power. Citizens United did not increase the rights of a single citizen to express his or her views with speech or with money. Before the decision, all citizens, including CEOs, could express themselves freely, make contributions, and spend all the money they had to promote their politics. They could band together with the help of the corporation and form a PAC. All Citizens United did was confer a power on CEOs to write corporate treasury checks for political expenditures, without a vote of the shareholders, prior consultation or even disclosure.
In terms of real world consequences, Raskin went on to note, these damaging Supreme Court decisions did not “expand the political freedom of citizens but… reduce[d] the political power of citizens.”
North Carolina State Senator Floyd McKissick described some of those real world effects, noting that he can divide his time in the state legislature into two distinct periods: “before Citizens United, and after”:
Suddenly, no matter what the race was, money came flooding in. Even elected officials who had been in office for decades told me they’d never seen anything like it. We were barraged by television ads that were uglier and less honest than I would have thought possible. And they all seemed to be coming from groups with names we had never even heard of. But it was clear that corporations and individuals who could write giant checks had a new level of power in the state.
On the floor of the Senate today, Majority Leader Harry Reid called for a constitutional amendment to counter the outsized role of big money in our electoral system. Senate leaders are not wasting any time in moving forward; Sen. Leahy announced today that the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on the amendment early next month. The Senate action on an amendment – which 16 states and more than 550 cities and towns have already gone on record in favor of – serves as a significant step forward in the growing movement to put the power in our democracy back in the hands of the people.
Every American should have the same ability to influence our political system. One American, one vote. That’s what the Constitution guarantees. The Constitution does not give corporations a vote. And the Constitution does not give dollar bills a vote…
…[T]he flood of special interest money into our American democracy is one of the glaring threats our system of government has ever faced. Let’s keep our elections from becoming speculative ventures for the wealthy and put a stop to the hostile takeover of our democratic system by a couple of billionaire oil barons.
Read People For the American Way Executive Vice President Marge Baker’s statement on the upcoming hearing here.
2014 is looking to be a bumper year for election spending. After the Citizens United ruling in 2010, that year’s midterms became a test case for how the newly-minted Super PACs and newly-empowered “dark money” groups would use their strength. They must have liked what their spending bought them, because this year they are back with a vengeance.
According to Open Secrets, spending by outside groups as of May 6th in this election cycle has approximately tripled from the amount outside groups spent in the same time period leading up to the 2010 midterms (leaping from $16.6 million in 2010 to $72.7 million in 2014). In 2006, this number was $2.5 million – that’s a twenty-nine-fold increase in just two midterm cycles. At this rate, outside spending on this year’s midterms is set to far outpace even outside spending in the 2008 presidential election cycle.
The influence of outside spending groups has increased so much that in some races they are spending far more than the candidates themselves. Forty-nine percent of all election spending on this year’s midterms so far has come from outside spending groups. In hotly contested races, the proportion is even higher. In the North Carolina U.S. Senate race – which is the most expensive so far this cycle – 90 percent of all spending has come from outside groups, 58 percent of which are “dark money” groups not required to disclose their donors like Super PACs do.
The new era of “big money” election spending disproportionately benefits conservative candidates. Seventy-two percent of donors who had maxed out their aggregate contribution limits before the Supreme Court struck down those limits in April had contributed only to Republicans. Forty-five percent of these donors were in the finance industry. In addition, Americans for Prosperity, the Koch brothers-linked “dark money” group, accounts for nearly one third of all independent expenditures on television advertising so far in this election cycle.
In the wake of the Supreme Court’s McCutcheon decision, just as reformers predicted, the Republican Party is forming “super joint fundraising committees” that pool large checks from big donors and – now unrestrained by aggregate contribution limits – redirect that money to long lists of candidate campaigns.
The consequences of the influx of “big money” into our elections are clear for the vast majority of Americans who can’t afford to write large check to candidates: they’re being squeezed out of the process. According to the Brennan Center, in current “high-dollar” federal races, only nine percent of funds have come from donations of $200 or less.
Simply put, these trends are disturbing. Even before Citizens United, it was becoming clear that money played an outsized role in our politics. The continued ability of corporations, special interests and wealthy individuals to spend limitlessly on elections calls into question the health of our democracy. The concentration of power away from the voters and towards the donor class creates the specter – and very real threat – of a Congress wholly populated by those elected by dollars, not votes.
A new analysis by a campaign finance watchdog group has revealed that wealthy donors could have flooded Wisconsin with $6 million each to candidates in 2010 and 2012 elections if the state’s $10,000 aggregate annual limit had not existed.
The Money Out/Voters In Wisconsin Coalition, of which PFAW is a member organization, highlighted the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign’s findings at a press conference last week reacting to the United States Supreme Court’s recent decision in McCutcheon v. FEC, which was announced early last month. In McCutcheon, the court struck down aggregate federal limits on the amount wealthy donors can give to candidates, political parties, and political action committees per election cycle.
Wisconsin Democracy Campaign’s analysis found that without Wisconsin’s state limit of $10,000, in 2012 millionaire and billionaire donors could have given an estimated 680 times more, at least $6.8 million each to candidates in about 4,700 state and local elections, 386 PACs and 157 political committees. In 2010, the comparable number is as high as $6.1 million.
Most notably, Money Out/Voters In Wisconsin and Wisconsin Democracy Campaign noted that only about 299 individuals gave $10,000 or more to state candidates in 2010 and 2012—about .005 of 1% of Wisconsin’s 2012 population. That number included 173 people who don’t even live in Wisconsin.
Check out the video of the press conference here:
Big news for our democracy: This morning at a Senate Rules Committee hearing on “dark money,” Sen. Chuck Schumer announced that the Senate will vote this year on a constitutional amendment that would put the power of regulating the raising and spending of money in elections back in the hands of Congress and the states.
The Hill reports:
“The Supreme Court is trying to take this country back to the days of the robber barons, allowing dark money to flood our elections. That needs to stop, and it needs to stop now,” said Senate Rules Committee Chairman Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who announced the plan.
“The only way to undo the damage the court has done is to pass Senator Udall’s amendment to the Constitution, and Senate Democrats are going to try to do that,” he said.
Adding fuel to the amendment efforts, Majority Leader Harry Reid recently signed on as a cosponsor of Sen. Udall’s proposed constitutional amendment. Sen. Reid is among the senators People For the American Way has reached out to urging cosponsorship.
In the wake of this month’s McCutcheon v. FEC decision and a recent study that found the US to be an oligarchy rather than a democracy, efforts to reclaim our political system from the outsized influence of wealthy interests are more essential than ever. Sen. Reid’s support and the newly announced Senate vote plans highlight the growing momentum of this movement, with over 150 members of Congress, 16 states, more than 550 cities and towns, and even our nation’s president already on record in support of an amendment.
As former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens said at the committee hearing this morning, “Unlimited campaign expenditures impair the process of democratic self-government.” You can add your name to PFAW’s petition and tell other members of Congress to support a constitutional amendment to restore government by the people.
On Monday, People For the American Way joined ally organizations in the New York for Democracy Coalition in Albany to urge state lawmakers to call for a constitutional amendment to overturn decisions like Citizens United v. FEC and McCutcheon v. FEC. If successful, New York would become the 17th state to go on record in support of such an amendment, joining a rapidly growing nationwide movement to reclaim our democracy.
People For the American Way’s legislative representative Calvin Sloan joined Nick Reisman on Capital Tonight to discuss the efforts underway in New York – and across the country – to fight back against the outsized influence of big money in our political system.
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.