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.”
The Washington Post reports today that Sheldon Adelson – the casino magnate who spent, with his wife, more than $92 million in the 2012 elections – is in the market for a 2016 GOP presidential candidate to support.
After throwing reams of money at losing candidate Newt Gingrich in the last election, Adelson is now looking for someone he believes will be seen as electable by a country with swiftly changing demographics. He is already being wooed by GOP presidential hopefuls:
The change in attitude comes amid early jockeying by a lengthy list of aspiring Republican presidential contenders to win the affections of the billionaire, who is in the beginning stages of assessing the field.
“The bar for support is going to be much higher,” said Andy Abboud, Adelson’s top political adviser and an executive at the Adelson-run Las Vegas Sands Corp. He added, “There’s going to be a lot more scrutiny.”
This strategy would favor more established 2016 hopefuls such as former Florida governor Jeb Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Ohio Gov. John Kasich. All four will descend this week on Adelson’s luxury hotel in Las Vegas, the Venetian, for an important step in what some are calling the “Sheldon Primary.”
Funny, I don’t remember learning about the “Sheldon Primary” in my high school civics class. But in our Super PAC-filled, post-Citizens United world of unlimited election spending, this seems to be the reality of how candidates who have a real shot are chosen. As Harvard law professor and activist Lawrence Lessig puts it,
We have a general election, but only after the funders have had their way with the candidates who wish to run in that general election.
With Adelson essentially interviewing potential candidates, it begs the question: will our presidents be working for the people who elected them, or will they increasingly serve as the puppets of billionaire benefactors?
When a tiny fraction of the country’s wealthiest people are able to hand-pick candidates, it’s doubtful that we’ll have a government that focuses on the priorities of everyday Americans. A democracy simply doesn’t work if the voices of those of us who aren’t having swanky private dinners with presidential hopefuls are drowned out by the few who are.
During a speech to a packed audience at the University of Washington on Monday, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor was asked by a student what problems need to be fixed in order to see more women and people of color in government.
Sotomayor’s answer, as reported by The Seattle Times, was simple: “Money.”
“Money,” Sotomayor said to laughter. “No, seriously. Look at what’s happening in politics. What’s talking the loudest is money.” For more minorities and women to gain more of a foothold in government decisions, “we’re going to have to work the political system at the highest level,” she said.
Justice Sotomayor is right. Today our country is represented by leaders who, as a whole, look little like the electorate they are supposed to represent and serve. Women are a majority of the population, and yet only make up 20% of the Senate and 18% of the House, putting us 83rd in the world for women’s political representation. We have only one openly LGBTQ person and only a handful of people of color in the US Senate – in 2012 there were no African Americans. This picture is not only problematic in itself, but it also has broad implications for policy outcomes.
It’s true that we have also seen some promising developments in political representation in recent years. The 113th Congress is the most diverse in history, with a record number of women and minorities elected, as well as a number of firsts. As the policy director for the Young Elected Officials Network, I am heartened by the changing faces of leadership at all levels of government, and what this means for our country both symbolically and substantively. But, like Justice Sotomayor, I’m also concerned that our country’s money in politics problem is standing in the way of further progress.
Much has been said lately about the impact of money in politics on political representation. At The Atlantic’s Shriver Report summit on women and poverty in January, former Speaker Nancy Pelosi noted,
If you reduce the role of money in politics and increase the level of civility in debate, more women will run for office… We say to women, we want you to go raise 12 million dollars, and by the way, subject yourself to 10 million dollars in negative publicity.
The influence of money in politics not only fuels corruption and the elevation of special and powerful interests, but it exacerbates the imbalance of power as a whole in our country by creating barriers to political representation for communities who are already marginalized. It perpetuates a system where the country is led by people who don’t understand the daily lived and embodied experiences of their constituents.
On Capitol Hill, we see the effects of this imbalance play out each day. From thwarted gun violence prevention efforts to legislation attacking women’s reproductive health voted on by committees and panels made up entirely of men, we continue to have elected leaders who side against the demonstrated wishes of its voters and with the moneyed interests.
We must pursue reforms that transform our electoral processes, even the playing field for all candidates, and restore the power to the people by reducing the outsized influence of big money and protecting the rights of voters. All indications show that we get better results for everyone when there’s diversity in governing bodies.
It’s both common sense, and a matter of basic human rights.
We can file this under news that should shock no one: a new study has found that members of Congress and their top staffers are significantly more likely to meet with political donors than with other constituents.
The study – carried out by researchers at Yale and UC Berkeley in partnership with CREDO Action – sought to answer the question, just how much do donations buy access to elected officials in our political system?
Matea Gold at the Washington Post explains the experiment:
Last summer, a group of CREDO fellows e-mailed congressional offices seeking meetings to discuss the measure, sending one of two different form letters.
The first e-mail had the subject line: “Meeting with local campaign donors about cosponsoring bill.” The body of the e-mail said that about a dozen CREDO members “who are active political donors” were interested in meeting with the member of Congress in his or her home district to discuss the legislation.
The second e-mail stripped out the donor references and instead said “local constituents” were looking to meet the member of Congress.
…The e-mails went out to 191 members of Congress – all members of the same political party – who had not already co-sponsored the bill….The results: Only 2.4 percent of the offices made the member of Congress or chief of staff available when they believed those attending were just constituents, but 12.5 percent did when they were told the attendees were political donors. [emphasis added]
Huffington Post’s Amanda Terkel notes that the study could have implications for court cases like the infamous Citizens United v. FEC, which paved the way for unlimited corporate political spending. In the majority Citizens United opinion, Justice Kennedy argued that “independent expenditures do not lead to, or create the appearance of, quid pro quo corruption. In fact, there is only scant evidence that independent expenditures even ingratiate.”
Terkel points out that the new study may debunk the claim that there isn’t evidence that “independent expenditures,” such as those made to a super PAC rather than directly to a candidate, can curry favor with elected officials:
In this experiment, the lawmakers knew nothing about the donors, such as whether they had donated to their campaign in particular, or how much they gave and when. In fact, they could simply have been a donor to a super PAC.
Even so, the Supreme Court’s too-narrow understanding of “corruption” as tit-for-tat exchanges (for example, political bribes) may limit the study’s implications for Citizens United and cases like it. But it does throw into stark relief how problematic the Court’s frame for understanding political corruption continues to be. When money can buy access to elected officials, we have a serious democracy problem.
Weighing into one of the most watched Senate races this election cycle, Bill Clinton spoke at a campaign event in Louisville on Tuesday putting his political weight behind Alison Lundergan Grimes, who is challenging Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Clinton took the opportunity to call out Republican obstruction in government, alluding to the “dumb way” the GOP has tried to run the country:
In the end that’s really what Alison is telling you: ‘Send me to Washington and I’ll do something that makes sense and if there’s a problem with it, I’ll fix it.’ And the other … choice is to just pout if … your party is not in the White House, and make as many problems as you can, stop anything good from happening, and if you can’t stop it at least badmouth it. And then … when there’s a problem do everything you can to make sure the problem is never fixed. … It’s a dumb way to run a country.
Speaking before Clinton, Democratic Rep. John Yarmuth held the Minority Leader accountable for his horrible record of big money in politics, putting it pithily:
[He] is the one who says money is speech. If you have money, he’ll listen.
Thanks to some tax-return digging, ProPublica found this week that the Karl Rove-connected Crossroads GPS actually spent at least $11 million more on political activities last year than they told the IRS. ProPublica’s Kim Barker reported:
New tax documents, made public last Tuesday, indicate that at least $11.2 million of the grant money given to the group Americans for Tax Reform was spent on political activities expressly advocating for or against candidates. This means Crossroads spent at least $85.7 million on political activities in 2012, not the $74.5 million reported to the Internal Revenue Service.
But what’s an extra $11 million spent on political activities, right? Wrong. Tax-exempt 501(c)(4) social welfare groups are limited in the amount of political spending they can do while maintaining their exempt status. And these developments about Crossroads GPS only underscore the need for more robust government oversight of political spending.
Unfortunately, this is an effort that has been made much more difficult in the wake of recent Supreme Court rulings. As Michael Keegan noted in May, the 2010 Citizens United v. FEC decision opened the door to an explosion of spending by c(4) groups like Crossroads GPS because it allowed them to run political ads as long as they weren’t using the majority of their money for electoral work.
Moreover, dark money groups sometimes attempt to underreport the political spending that they do undertake, which has not been helped by the IRS’s past reluctance to issue “bright lines” around what must be counted as political spending.
But that may change soon. The Treasury Department and the IRS are expected to issue guidance today specifying what “candidate-related political activity” entails and how much of it 501(c)(4) social welfare groups are allowed to do.
It was a big week for lifting the veil – at least a little – on the secretive world of conservative groups funding political campaigns. On Wednesday we wrote about new reports on two of the Right’s shadowy front groups which have been able to disguise the transfer of large sums of money to organizations supporting Republican causes and candidates.
Then Politico brought us a look inside what they call “the Koch brothers’ secret bank,” a previously unknown group called Freedom Partners which gave a quarter billion dollars in 2012 to sway public debate further to the right. Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei report:
The group, Freedom Partners, and its president, Marc Short, serve as an outlet for the ideas and funds of the mysterious Koch brothers, cutting checks as large as $63 million to groups promoting conservative causes, according to an IRS document to be filed shortly…
The group has about 200 donors, each paying at least $100,000 in annual dues. It raised $256 million in the year after its creation in November 2011, the document shows. And it made grants of $236 million — meaning a totally unknown group was the largest sugar daddy for conservative groups in the last election, second in total spending only to Karl Rove’s American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, which together spent about $300 million. [emphasis added]
Though you likely have not heard of Freedom Partners before, you’ve heard of the groups it funds – including the NRA, Americans for Prosperity, Heritage Action for America, and Tea Party Patriots. According to their newly-launched website, Freedom Partners is “promoting the principles of a free market and free society” by advocating against scourges like “cronyism in America.”
This, from one of the biggest spenders in the last election.
Other than the Koch brothers, who are the donors behind this massively influential group? At this point, it’s hard to know. Despite the group’s president’s insistence that “our members are proud to be part of [the organization],” Freedom Partner’s membership page does not list a single one. It’s yet another example of the need for legislation like the DISCLOSE Act, which would shed light on the major donors behind the secretive outside groups attempting to shape our elections – and our country.
Mitch McConnell sure can pick the issues he takes a stand on. Despite being a true master of gridlock and inaction, he’s been very willing to take steps to erode campaign finance regulations: in May, he continued his long-standing opposition to sound campaign finance regulation by filing an amicus brief with the Supreme Court arguing for fewer federal limits on campaign donations, and last month the court granted him permission to participate in the upcoming oral argument of the case, McCutcheon v. FEC. Given that 90% of voters think there’s already too much money in politics, one might ask why McConnell’s advocating such an unpopular position so strongly.
Perhaps it’s unsurprising, then, that McConnell’s views are catching up with him. A poll released Tuesday by the Public Campaign Action Fund highlights what a terrible strategy this is for a candidate already facing a tough path to reelection: 53% of Kentucky voters had “very serious doubts” about his support for unlimited contributions, with 46% supporting his opponent Alison Lundegran Grimes to McConnell’s 40%. It was already clear that spending by wealthy special interests in politics is extremely unpopular, but it’s very encouraging to see indications that those who support unlimited spending might pay an electoral price for it. McConnell might think it’s worth it to continue taking these unpopular positions if corporations will keep spending on elections like his, but maybe he’s miscalculated here. It’s up to Kentucky voters to prove him wrong.
In today’s legal landscape, “following the money” is tricky – but a new report released yesterday shows why this work is critical to anyone who cares about progressive change. The latest digging from the Center for Responsive Politics’ Open Secrets blog has uncovered new information about a multi-tiered money laundering operation through which tax-exempt groups funnel millions to groups supporting right-wing causes and candidates.
Operating behind a thick veil of secrecy, groups like TC4 Trust and the Center to Protect Patient Rights – which Open Secrets describes as “‘shadow money mailboxes’ – groups that do virtually nothing but pass grants through to other politically active 501(c)(4) organizations” – are able to hide both their donors and their recipients. By funneling grants through “sub-units,” which are owned by the larger groups but have different names, groups like TC4 Trust put millions into the pockets of 501(c)4 organizations supporting Republican causes in the 2012 elections, such as the advocacy arm of Focus on the Family.
As Open Secrets reports,
[T]heir financial ties run far deeper than previously known. The groups, TC4 Trust and the Center to Protect Patient Rights – both of which have connections to the billionaire industrialist Koch brothers – have been playing a high-stakes game of hide-the-ball, disguising transfers of millions of dollars from one to the other behind a veil of Delaware limited liability corporations.
The source of political advocacy matters. This latest example of dark money donor groups obscuring the links of their money trail underscores the urgent need for legislation like the DISCLOSE Act. This act would bring some basic transparency to the electoral system and require outside groups spending money in elections to disclose their donors – including the original source of donations. The measure, which was blocked by Senate Republicans in both 2010 and 2012, is a common-sense solution that would help the American people understand who is trying to influence their political opinions and their votes.
Yesterday Ben Cohen (co-founder of Ben & Jerry’s) and Edward Erikson had a great op-ed at CNN.com connecting the student debt crisis with the broader issue of big money’s influence in our political system:
But the education system isn't broken -- it's “fixed.” If we're serious about tackling the issue of affordable education and student debt, we need to strike at the root of the problem -- the influence of money in politics.
Private corporations like Sallie Mae -- which own 15% or $162.5 billion dollars of total student debt -- rake in private-island-purchasing profits while students suffer.
Indeed, from student debt bills to workers’ rights legislation to environmental protections, policies that protect everyday Americans will continue to face uphill battles until we can limit the influence of wealthy special interests in our democracy.
Cohen and Erikson point out:
It's time to dam the deluge of cash and corporate influence in Washington once and for all….Thanks to the leadership by groups like People for the American Way, Move to Amend, Common Cause, Free Speech for People and Public Citizen, 16 states have passed referendums calling on Congress to take action and over 150 members of Congress support the amendment strategy. (emphasis added)
And with so much amendment momentum at the state and local level, PFAW and allies are shifting our focus to Congress. As part of our “160 Summer” campaign, money in politics groups are working toward a goal of getting 160 members of Congress to sponsor an amendment resolution limiting the deluge of big money pouring into our elections by overturning Citizens United. Has your representative already voiced their support?
As Cohen and Erikson put it, “This is our future and our fight to win.”
With little over a month before the Supreme Court hears oral arguments in McCutcheon v. FEC, a money in politics case that some are calling the next Citizens United, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg spoke out this week on the damage that Citizens United v. FEC continues to cause to our democracy.
Discussing the infamous 2010 Supreme Court decision that paved the way for unlimited corporate spending to influence our elections, Ginsburg told Greg Stohr of Bloomberg News:
“You take the limits off and say, ‘You can spend as much as you want,’ and people will spend and spend,” she said. “People are appalled abroad. It’s a question I get asked all the time: Why should elections be determined by how much a candidate can spend and why should candidates spend most of their time these days raising the funds so that they will prevail in the next election?”
It’s a great question, and one with a clear answer – they shouldn’t.
Justice Ginsburg is not alone in her concerns about the damage done to our democratic system. A 2012 Brennan Center national poll found that nearly seven in ten respondents agree that “new rules that let corporations, unions and people give unlimited money to Super PACs will lead to corruption.”
And this is not the first time Justice Ginsburg has publicly commented on the Citizens United decision. Early last year, Justices Ginsburg and Breyer released a statement in conjunction with a Court order in a campaign finance case out of Montana stating that:
Montana’s experience, and experience elsewhere since this Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Comm’n, make it exceedingly difficult to maintain that independent expenditures by corporations “do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.” A petition for certiorari will give the Court an opportunity to consider whether, in light of the huge sums currently deployed to buy candidates’ allegiance, Citizens United should continue to hold sway.
It is also not the first time she has commented on the Roberts Court more generally. In an interview with the New York Times this weekend, Ginsburg called the current court “one of the most activist courts in history.”
In October, the high court will hear arguments in a case considering similar issues, McCutcheon v. FEC, for which People For the American Way Foundation submitted an amicus brief. In this case, the Supreme Court could take the damage of Citizens United one step further by eliminating the caps on how much money an individual can contribute – in total – in each two-year campaign cycle. It other words, the court would be striking down another protection against wealthy special interests overpowering our political system, allowing even more big money to flow into our elections.
Just what our democracy needs. PFAW Foundation Executive Vice President Marge Baker noted last month:
Protecting the legitimacy of our political system, and restoring the faith of the American people in that system, is vital to a working democracy.
And as Justice Ginsburg highlighted this week, elections shouldn’t be determined by who has the biggest wallet.