Supreme Court

Behind The Republican Money Web

Yesterday’s vote does not mean the end for the many Super PACs and shadowy political organizations that have emerged this election season. By raising hundreds of millions of dollars from individuals and corporations, often without having to disclose their sources of funding, these groups are able to maintain their political apparatus and prepare for the 2012 election. American Crossroads, the Karl Rove-linked Super PAC, is already crafting its role for the next election. Mike Duncan, the former head of the Republican National Committee and Chair of American Crossroads, told the New York Times, “We’ve planted the flag for permanence, and we believe that we will play a major role for 2012.”

Back in September, Time magazine discussed how pro-GOP groups such as American Crossroads and the American Action Network were working with Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, the former RNC chief and current head of the Republican Governors Association. Republican notables and fundraisers “first convened at Karl Rove’s home,” and became nicknamed “the Weaver Terrace group, named for the Washington street on which Rove lives.” American Crossroads and its sister group Crossroads GPS, which does not disclose its donors, spent over $38 million combined to attack Democrats, and the American Action Network spent close to $20 million this year.

Now with the election over, Politico reveals that pro-GOP groups, the US Chamber of Commerce, and the National Republican Congressional Committee (an official Republican Party wing) were intensely coordinating their political efforts. Other Weaver Terrace group members, such as the 60 Plus Association and the American Future Fund, spent tens of millions of dollars against Democrats, but the US Chamber of Commerce and the NRCC made even bigger expenditures, spending $31.7 million and $44.5 million, respectively. As Jeanne Cummings of Politico described how “coordinated attacks” by Weaver Terrace group members “turned political campaigns largely into contests between business-backed, GOP outside groups and the Democratic incumbents.” Pro-GOP outside groups spent $187 million in 2010, more than double their pro-Democratic counterparts, and Cummings reveals how the organizations collaborated in order to maximize their impact:

The groups – including familiar names like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and American Crossroads – shared their target lists and TV-time data to ensure vulnerable Democrats got the full brunt of GOP spending.

Republican groups had never coordinated like this before, participants said, and backed by millions in corporate cash and contributions by secret donors, they were able to wield outsized influence on the results Tuesday night. The joint efforts were designed to spread the damage to as many of the majority Democrats as possible, without wasting money by doubling-up in races where others were already playing.

The National Republican Congressional Committee, which could not legally coordinate with the outside groups, even took the extraordinary step of publicly revealing its own ad buy strategy.



The Chamber, which set aside $75 million in undisclosed corporate donations for the political season, is listed by Center for Responsive Politics as the biggest of independent players, investing nearly $33 million in radio, television and direct mail advertising alone.

Directly behind the Chamber on the Center’s outside group ranking is the coalition of groups formed by Rove and Gillespie. They are: American Action Network, which spent $26 million; American Crossroads, which invested $21 million, and Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies, which sank $17 million into ads and turnout communications in a plan to obliterate the Democrats’ Senate and House majorities.

Although donors to the Crossroads affiliates are largely unknown, the founders made no secret of the fact that they intended to take advantage of the Supreme Court ruling and tap into the vast resources of corporate America to raise more than $50 million help Republicans retake the Congress.

While that sum alone was enough to make Democrats’ nervous, the Crossroads founders also set out a more ambitious goal: To bring together the disparate new and old GOP political players so they could coordinate their efforts and maximize the damage on the political battlefield.

Cummings also shows how this plan worked out over the airways in competitive congressional districts:

In Pennsylvania, the Republican groups called in multiple players to bombard a half-dozen House Democrats, including some facing significantly underfunded Republican opponents. In the quest to oust Democrat Chris Carney, 60 Plus and the Chamber combined to spend about $1 million. The 60 Plus Association teamed up with the Center for Individual Freedom, another group that doesn’t disclose donors, to shell incumbent Democrat Rep. Paul Kanjorski with more than $600,000 worth of ads.

The close collaboration of pro-corporate groups only increases the need for greater transparency in the political process. Americans this election have seen dozens if not hundreds of ads and received substantial amounts of direct mail and phone calls from groups who reveal little information about themselves and do not have to disclose their sources of funding. Voters deserve the right to know who is working towards the election or defeat certain candidates for office, and overwhelmingly support disclosure laws. As such organizations creating new partnerships and intensifying their coordination, Congress needs to pass the DISCLOSE Act to allow the public to know who is behind these outside groups.

 

 

PFAW

Sheldon Whitehouse Analyzes "Judicial Activism"

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse has authored a thoughtful piece in the National Law Journal, one that makes an important contribution to our national dialogue on the role of the Supreme Court in Americans' lives. This is a must-read analysis of "judicial activism" - what it means, and how to identify it.

For years, using propaganda like "activist courts" and "legislating from the bench," the Right has demagogued against judges who protect basic American values like church-state separation, equal rights, freedom of speech, and the right to privacy. But the Roberts Court has made clear that the Right doesn't believe their own propaganda about "judicial activism."

Focusing attention on the real meaning of “judicial activism,” rather than simply using the term as an epithet to denigrate decisions one disagrees with, Sen. Whitehouse identifies five key characteristics - the "red flags"- that unmistakably signal judicial activism:

First, an activist court would be less likely to respect the judgments of the American people as expressed through state and federal legislation. ...

Second, an activist court would chafe at unwelcome prior precedents of the court. ...

Third, an activist court, facing the perennial choice between securing a broad consensus and allowing a bare majority to carry the day, would go down the path that allowed it to reach farther in the ideologically satisfactory direction. As a result, an activist court would likely render 5-4 decisions rather than strive to find broader common ground across the court. ...

Fourth, a discernible pattern of results would likely emerge: Whether conservative or liberal, an activist court would issue decisions consistent with its ideological preferences. ...

Fifth, an activist court might be prepared to violate rules and tenets of appellate decision-making that have long guided courts of final appeal. ...

Sen. Whitehouse then analyzes the jurisprudence of the conservative bloc on the Supreme Court and demonstrates, step by step, that it raises all five of the red flags of "judicial activism." His objective analysis shows that the conservative justices who are praised by the right wing exemplify the judicial activism that the right claims to oppose.

The centerpiece of a generation’s worth of right-wing propaganda on the courts crumbles.

The article finishes on a hopeful note:

"Judicial activism" is often in the eye of the beholder. If, as I have suggested here, we can identify red flags for judicial activism, the conservative bloc on the current Supreme Court is flying all of those flags. Let's hope that [the 2010-2011] term sees a renewal of the best traditions of the Court, not merely the imposition on our Republic of the ideological or political will of a determined, but bare, majority of the justices.

Indeed, let us hope.

PFAW

3 Reasons to Vote Tuesday

There are many reasons why it is important to vote tomorrow. Here are three of them:

  1. Because you care about a government that cares about people. Take a look at our Rogues’ Gallery of Right-Wing Senate candidates. A coalition of extreme far-right candidates, led by Senator Jim DeMint, want to push a radical agenda that will chip away at individual freedoms while making life even tougher for middle class and working class Americans. These candidates, backed by corporate interests, have plenty of allies running for the House and for statehouses throughout the country. If they’re in charge, they won’t bring progress to a standstill, they’ll start rolling it back.
  2. Because you’re a human being. The Supreme Court ruled this year that corporations have “free speech” rights to spend money to influence elections. Exxon and BP, Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan can now spend millions of dollars from their treasuries to sway your vote. We real human beings may not have millions of dollars to spend for our favorite candidates, but we have one advantage over corporations. We can cast a vote.
  3. Because they don’t want you to. The Right has been up in arms this year about the supposed threat of “voter fraud.” The number of cases of actual voter fraud is minute, and widespread fraud wouldn’t even logically make sense, but the Right loves to talk about it as a way to prevent young, poor, and minority citizens from voting. Don’t let them.

Find your polling place here.

PFAW

Video Game Violence and the First Amendment

Tomorrow at the Supreme Court, the Justices will hear arguments over whether the state can limit minors’ access to extreme depictions of violence.

California law bans the sale or rental of violent video games to minors. In adopting the law, the California legislature considered scientific evidence showing a correlation between playing violent video games and an increase in aggressive thoughts and behavior, antisocial behavior, and desensitization to violence in both minors and adults. The law was designed to give parents greater control over whether their children have access to the most violent video games.

Although the law was enacted several years ago, courts have kept it from going into effect on the basis that it violates the First Amendment.

The law parallels a New York law restricting the sale of non-obscene sexual material to minors that the Court upheld in the 1960s. Specifically, it covers those violent video games where:

  • a reasonable person, considering the game as a whole, would find that it appeals to a deviant or morbid interest of minors;
  • it is patently offensive to prevailing standards in the community as to what is suitable for minors; and
  • it causes the game, as a whole, to lack serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value for minors.

California argues that, for the purposes of the First Amendment, the Supreme Court should apply the same relaxed standard to violent material as it does to sexual material:

[I]t should make no constitutional difference whether the material depicts sex or violence. ... [T]he Act must be upheld so long as it was not irrational for the California legislature to determine that exposure to the material regulated by the statute is harmful to minors.

This would mark a significant change in First Amendment law.

Just the fact that the Court agreed to hear this case is interesting. The Court often takes a case where there is disagreement among circuit courts on how to interpret a particular law. But here, there is no such disagreement: Lower courts have uniformly struck down laws such as this as violating the First Amendment. The fact that the Supreme Court decided to hear the case anyway may signal that the Justices are ready to make the change that California is asking for.

PFAW

Employment Discrimination Case at the Supreme Court

Elections will not be the only thing happening on Election Day. On Tuesday, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in an important employment discrimination case where the official who fired the plaintiff was free of bias, but her decision was influenced by the bias of others.

Although Staub v. Proctor Hospital involves a rather narrow federal anti-discrimination statute - the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA), which generally prohibits discrimination in civilian employment on the basis of military service - the reasoning of the decision could apply to the larger universe of federal anti-discrimination statutes. Therefore, this case might affect millions of American workers both in and out of the military who have the right to be treated fairly.

Vincent Staub sued his employer after he was dismissed from his job as a hospital technician. The hospital official who fired him had no unlawful motives. However, according to Staub, she relied on false information provided to her by his supervisor, who did act out of bias against Staub’s military service. Moreover, according to Staub, the decision-maker failed to vet that information in any meaningful way. At trial, the jury returned a verdict in Staub’s favor, but the hospital won a reversal on appeal.

At issue before the Supreme Court is whether an employer can be held liable for employment discrimination based on the unlawful intent of officials who influenced - but who did not themselves make - an adverse employment decision. If the employer can be held liable, then under what circumstances? How much influence must the biased official’s actions have had before that bias can be attributed to the employer? What if the biased action is not the sole cause for the employment decision? How easy or difficult should it be for an employer to evade liability in these circumstances?

As the Supreme Court determines how to answer these questions, it should keep in mind Congress’s repeated efforts to ensure that discrimination has no place in the modern American workplace.

PFAW

Public Continues to Demand Campaign Disclosure and Spending Caps

A new New York Times/CBS News survey confirms the findings of other polls taken after the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United: Americans want greater transparency and stronger reforms in the political system. According to the poll, “nearly 8 in 10 Americans say it is important (including 6 in 10 who say “very important”) to limit the amount of money campaigns can spend.” This includes majorities of Democrats, independents, and even Republicans. In addition, “more than 7 in 10 of the public said spending by groups not affiliated with a candidate should be limited by law, and just 2 in 10 said it shouldn’t.”

Support for campaign transparency is so high that one must wonder if the only Americans who oppose disclosure rules are Republicans in Congress and pro-corporate lobbyists. The Times/CBS poll found that a staggering 92% of Americans believe “it is important for campaigns to be required by law to disclose how much money they have raised, where the money came from and how it was used.” Such findings corroborate the results of a Hart Research poll taken on behalf of People For the American Way, which found that 89% of voters favor “legislation that would require greater disclosure by corporations of their spending to influence elections,” and that a majority of Democrats, independents, and Republicans wants not only disclosure laws but also “limits on how much corporations can spend to influence the outcome of elections.”

The business community is increasingly calling for substantial campaign finance reform as well, as seen in a survey of business leaders conducted by the Committee for Economic Development. The poll found that 77% of business leaders “believe that corporations should disclose all of their direct and indirect political expenditures, including money provided to third party organizations to be spent on campaign ads.”

Despite the vast support of Americans and even business leaders for more openness and transparency in the political process, Republicans and corporate lobbyists continue to oppose commonsense proposals like the DISCLOSE Act. The obstructionist Republican minority in the Senate voted in lockstep to keep the DISCLOSE Act from passing, and recently the chairman of the Republican National Committee, Michael Steele, deceptively denied the very-existence of active political groups that do not disclose their donors.

Steele later said that “if people are that bothered by” the lack of transparency in Congress, “then the Congress needs to change it.” As People For the American Way’s President Michael B. Keegan pointed out:

The glaring problem with Steele's supposed embrace of transparent elections is that just a couple of months ago, people were "bothered by" hidden corporate spending in elections, the majority in Congress did draft a law to make that spending transparent...but Steele's party united to stop the law in its tracks just before the midterm elections.

Steele's bumbling and disingenuous response was infuriating, but it served as a perfect illustration of why Republicans have done everything they can to allow unfettered, undisclosed corporate influence in our elections. With the system as it is, Steele can watch corporate interest groups spend millions of dollars to help elect Republican candidates, and nobody is held accountable to voters.

The post-Citizens United landscape -- where corporations are allowed to spend unlimited amounts from their treasuries to run ads for and against candidates, but aren't required to disclose that spending -- has been a boon to candidates who push a pro-corporate agenda. Michael Steele knows it. And so does every candidate who is benefiting from the influx of secretive spending. They know it, but they don't have to own up to it.

The Republicans in Congress continue to reject the beliefs of nine-in-ten Americans that support disclosure and campaign finance reform, and want to tie the hands of Congress from making even basic changes to increase transparency in the system.

PFAW

Justice Department Files a Brief Confirming that Islam is a Religion

To the litany of public safety threats resulting from anti-Muslim fear-mongering, add the fact that Justice Department officials have had to spend time writing a brief explaining that Islam is, in fact, a religion. TPM reports on the DOJ’s amicus brief supporting the expansion efforts of the Islamic Center of Mufreesboro, TN. Opponents have claimed that the Islamic Center can’t get a religious permit to build a new mosque because, they say, Islam isn’t really a religion. The Justice Department did a little research:

"To suggest that Islam is not a religion is quite simply ridiculous. Each branch of the federal government has independently recognized Islam as one of the major religions of the world," Martin said in the press release.

The brief painstakingly cites proof, from the Oxford English Dictionary, Supreme Court rulings, presidential proclamations by Clinton and George W. Bush and the writings of Thomas Jefferson, that Islam has long been recognized as a major world religion.

It also notes the definition of religion set forth by other federal courts, including that a belief system must address "fundamental and ultimate questions having to do with deep and imponderable matters" in order to be considered a religion.

In the brief, the DOJ argues that the lawsuit implicates two federal civil rights statutes, the Religious Land Use Act and the Church Arson Prevention Act, which fall under the DOJ's purview. The county, the brief argues, would be in danger of violating the land use act were it to deny building permits for the mosque.

A concerted right-wing misinformation campaign has succeeded in making denial of the scientific consensus about climate change a politically acceptable position. Will denying the existence of one of the world’s largest and diverse religions be next?
 

PFAW

Supreme Court to Hear Ashcroft Appeal

The Supreme Court today agreed to decide if former Attorney General John Ashcroft can be personally sued for alleged abuse of his authority in the days after 9/11 attacks. According to Bloomberg News:

The U.S. Supreme Court will consider reinforcing the legal immunity of top government officials, agreeing to decide whether a man can sue former Attorney General John Ashcroft after being detained without charge for 16 days.

The justices will review a ruling that allowed a suit filed by Abdullah al-Kidd, a Muslim U.S. citizen who was arrested in 2003 and held as a material witness in a terrorism probe. Al- Kidd says the government classified him as a material witness because it lacked enough evidence to hold him as a suspect.

A panel of the Ninth Circuit held that Ashcroft was not immune from being sued personally for the illegal abuse of authority that was the subject of al-Kidd’s claim. Ashcroft, with the support of the Obama Administration, asked the Supreme Court to reverse this decision and not allow the lawsuit to go forward. In his brief urging the Supreme Court not to hear Ashcroft’s appeal, al-Kidd claims that:

The impetus for arresting [him and other] individuals was not to secure their testimony for a criminal proceeding. Rather, these were individuals whom the government viewed as suspects and wished to detain and investigate. But because the government lacked probable cause to arrest these individuals on criminal charges, it had them arrested as material witnesses, thereby circumventing the Fourth Amendment’s traditional probable cause standard and distorting the basic purpose of the material witness statute.

The Court will likely hear arguments in the case next year and issue an opinion by summer. Justice Kagan has recused herself.

This case is a reminder that in the weeks and months after 9/11, innocent people were being rounded up by the federal government with little to no evidence against them. With Bush’s popularity at its height and few willing to oppose him and his administration publicly, People For the American Way Foundation led the nation in exposing and condemning the Ashcroft Justice Department’s multifaceted threats to liberty.

It will be interesting to see if all of those Tea Partiers who claim to oppose big government encroaching on individual liberties will take a stand against the excesses of the Bush years - and explain why they were silent at the time.

PFAW

Americans Still Oppose Court’s Citizens United Decision

Nearly ten months since the Supreme Court drastically expanded the ability of corporations to influence the political process, the public is still greatly troubled by the Court’s ruling in Citizens United. The majority Americans do not buy the absurd arguments of Congressional Republicans that Citizens United was as significant a step forward as the Court’s landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education, as most people believe that corporations should not be allowed to spend unlimited sums from their general treasuries to fund political efforts. A Hart Research poll conducted on behalf of People For the American Way found that 77% of Americans want Citizens United to be overturned, and that corporations already have too much political power.

A recent “Constitutional Attitudes Survey” by Harvard and Columbia University professors found that while self-described liberals and conservatives all found Court decisions they agree with, Citizens United stands out as the most unpopular among all respondents:

One notable decision that stuck in respondents' respective craw, however, was Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the January 2010 opinion that struck down a federal law prohibiting corporations from airing advertisements endorsing a political candidate.

Fifty-eight percent of survey respondents disagreed with the statement, "Corporations ought to be able to spend their profits on TV advertisements urging voters to vote for or against candidates." Only 40 percent agreed with the statement.

Additionally, an overwhelming 85 percent of respondents answered yes to the question, "Should corporations be required to get approval from their shareholders for expenditures related to political campaigns?" Indeed, Persily told the Spokane, Washington-based Spokesman Review that the Citizens United opinion is "very out of step with public opinion."

The survey's results are consistent with those of a Washington Post-ABC News poll taken in February, shortly after the case was decided. A full 80 percent of respondents in that poll disagreed with the court's holding, and 65 percent labeled themselves "strongly" opposed. Surprisingly, that poll found that views of the decision did not split along party lines -- fully 76 percent of Republicans and 81 percent of independents, along with 85 percent of Democrats, disagreed with the decision.
PFAW

Alaska’s New Super PAC: Brought to you by Federal Government Contractors

After extremist Republican Joe Miller upset incumbent Senator Lisa Murkowski in the GOP primary, many Alaskans panicked over the prospect of having a Senator that wants to greatly diminish the federal government’s role in Alaska. After Senator Murkowski announced a write-in bid to take on Miller and the Democratic nominee, Sitka Mayor Scott McAdams, a new organization emerged to back the incumbent: Alaskans Standing Together.

Alaskans Standing Together is a “Super PAC” which can raise unlimited amounts of funds from individuals and corporations, and must disclose its donors to the FEC. The group is solely dedicated towards supporting Senator Murkowski’s reelection campaign and criticizing both of her opponents. So far, Alaskans Standing Together has reported having nine donors: Native American Corporations that have contributed over $800,000 to the group. But these Native American Corporations are also federal contractors, and many of them openly claim that they receive much of their federal money as a result of the legislative efforts of Lisa Murkowski. The corporations say that such money is needed since outside organizations like the California-based Tea Party Express are running hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of ads promoting Joe Miller.

But as the Miller and Murkowski squabble over the non-party groups backing their campaigns, only Scott McAdams directly pointed to an important reason for the massive downpour in campaign cash:

The Democrat in the race, Scott McAdams, took a different approach, blaming the U.S. Supreme Court for opening up politics to unlimited corporate donations. If he's elected, McAdams said, he'd move to pass a campaign finance law backed by Democratic leaders in the Senate and President Barack Obama. He also seized on a claim the White House has been hammering in recent weeks: that unlimited corporate money has the potential to give foreign-owned corporations a say in U.S. elections.

"As a small state, Alaska can't afford to allow its elections to be overtaken by corporate spending," McAdams said. "Unfortunately, Sen. Murkowski has voted to allow corporations, including foreign corporate money, to continue to influence elections."

Outside independent expenditure groups are playing a major role in the Alaska Senate race -- and those across the country. In previous elections, such contributions wouldn't have been legal, but the recent Citizens United Supreme Court decision allows corporate and union donors to inject unlimited amounts of money into politics.

PFAW

Americans Care About Secret Corporate Election Funding. A Lot.

Greg Sargent reports the results of a new MoveOn poll that shows that yes, Americans really do care that secretive corporate money is funding elections. A lot:

The poll finds that two thirds of registered voters, or 66 percent, are aware that outside groups are behind some of the ads they're seeing. This makes sense, since the issue has dominated the media amid the battle over the huge ad onslaught against Dems funded by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Karl Rove's groups.

What's more, an overwhelming 84 percent say they have a "right to know" who's bankrolling the ads. And crucially, the poll also found that the issue is resonant when linked to the economy. A majority, 53 percent, are less likely to think a candidate who is backed by "anonymous groups" can be trusted to "improve economic conditions" for them or their families. People don't believe these groups are looking out for their interests.

These numbers send a pretty clear message. But this is nothing new—for months, poll after poll has shown that large majorities of Americans are fed up with the control corporate money has over politics, want political spending to be disclosed, and are more likely to vote for candidates who will work toward passing a constitutional amendment to reverse the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United.
 

PFAW

Survey Shows Obstacles to Justice in U.S. Courts

Dan Froomkin is reporting on a depressing new report that paints a frightening picture of just how difficult it is for ordinary Americans to receive justice in our courts. He discusses:

the finding[s] of a world-wide survey unveiled Thursday morning that ranks the United States lowest among 11 developed nations when it comes to providing access to justice to its citizens -- and lower than some third-world nations in some categories.

The results are from the World Justice Project's new "Rule of Law Index", which assesses how laws are implemented and enforced in practice around the globe. Countries are rated on such factors as whether government officials are accountable, whether legal institutions protect fundamental rights, and how ordinary people fare in the system. ...

But the most striking findings related to access to justice for ordinary people. ...

[The study] found a significant gap between the rich and the poor in terms of their use and satisfaction with the civil courts system.

Froomkin quotes from a World Justice Project news release:

[O]nly 40% of low-income respondents who used the court system in the past three years reported that the process was fair, compared to 71% of wealthy respondents. This 31% gap between poor and rich litigants in the USA is the widest among all developed countries sampled. In France this gap is only 5%, in South Korea it is 4% and in Spain it is nonexistent.

Unfortunately, it is no surprise that the wealthy and powerful are happier with our court system than are the rest of the American people. This is consistent with the analysis contained in a People For the American Way Foundation report released earlier this year. Citing Citizens United and numerous other cases, The Rise of the Corporate Court: How the Supreme Court is Putting Business First exposed the undue deference the Supreme Court has too often paid to corporations at the expense of the legal rights of individuals.

Making it even harder for average Americans victimized by powerful corporations to seek justice, one in eight seats on the federal bench is vacant. In fact, the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts has declared judicial emergencies in numerous circuits and districts where the vacancies have reached the crisis point. Yet Senate Republicans refuse to allow floor votes on qualified and unopposed judicial nominees to help relieve the overburdened federal judiciary.

The integrity of the entire judicial branch of the United States government is at risk.

PFAW

American Future Fund’s Ethanol Industry Ties

In PFAW’s report “After Citizens United: A Look into the Pro-Corporate Players in American Politics,” we looked into the Iowa-based American Future Fund which is spending millions of dollars attacking Democrats across the country. The AFF was founded by former GOP staffer Nick Ryan, whose lobbyist firm has ties to Big Agriculture, especially Iowa’s large ethanol industry. The group’s director, Katherine Polking, also works for Ryan’s lobby firm, the Concordia Group, and the AFF paid Ryan’s firm $300,000 for consulting fees.

Now, the New York Times reports that while Ryan’s Concordia Group lobbies on behalf of the ethanol industry, Ryan’s American Future Fund received its seed money from Bruce Rastetter, the “chief executive of one of the nation’s larger ethanol companies, Hawkeye Energy Holdings.” As a 501c4 organization, the AFF does not have to disclose the sources of its funding, and in this case Rastetter’s lawyer confirmed his connections to the group. Now Ryan, a “lobbyist for four Rastetter businesses,” receives money to attack Democrats with ties to agriculture policy: “Of the 14 ‘liberal’ politicians singled out in a list [the AFF] released last month, nearly every incumbent sits on a panel with a say over energy or agriculture policy. Five sit on the Agriculture Committee; four others are on related committees with say. One candidate was a staff member on a related panel.”

When Bruce Braley, a Congressman in the crosshairs of AFF attacks, tried to visit the AFF, he “found only a rented mailbox.” The proliferation of shadowy, pro-corporate groups like the American Future Fund is a result of the substantial weakening of campaign finance laws:

The American Future Fund, organized under a tax code provision that lets donors remain anonymous, is one of dozens of groups awash in money from hidden sources and spending it at an unprecedented rate, largely on behalf of Republicans. The breadth and impact of these privately financed groups have made them, and the mystery of their backers, a campaign issue in their own right.

Through interviews with top Republican contributors and strategists, as well as a review of public records, some contours of this financing effort — including how donors are lured with the promise of anonymity — are starting to come into view.



The surge of anonymous money is the latest development in corporate America’s efforts to influence the agenda in Washington, following rules enacted several years ago banning large, unregulated gifts to political parties. Democrats first established so-called third-party groups that could legally accept unlimited money from business and unions, though most had to disclose donors. Now, as new laws and a major Supreme Court decision have removed barriers to corporate giving, Republican operatives have embraced the use of nonprofit issue groups that can keep donors’ identities secret.
PFAW

At the Court: Immunity for Child Vaccine Manufacturers

The Supreme Court will hear arguments today in Bruesewitz v. Wyeth, a case that will determine the extent to which pharmaceutical corporations are protected from lawsuits from those who are injured by their products.

Back in the 1980s, Congress passed the national Childhood Vaccine Injury Act to shield child vaccine manufacturers from certain types of state lawsuits. The law preempts certain design defect claims against the manufacturers if the injury or death resulted from side effects that were unavoidable even though the vaccine was properly prepared and was accompanied by proper directions and warnings." At issue is the term "unavoidable."

Hannah Bruesewitz's parents sued Wyeth when she suffered significant medical complications after receiving a vaccine manufactured by the drug manufacturer. Among other things, they argue that their lawsuit isn't preempted because the side effects were not unavoidable: A safer, alternative vaccine was available.

Wyeth argues that the federal law preempts all state design-defect claims, even if the manufacturer could have avoided the side effects by designing a different vaccine. They claim that the family's interpretation of the Vaccine Act undoes the statutory preemption intended by Congress, forcing vaccine manufacturers into state tort trials to determine if the side effects could have been avoided with a safer vaccine. In other words, you'd have a lawsuit to determine if the case should have been immune from lawsuit in the first place. Wyeth asserts that such an interpretation goes against Congressional intent to shield vaccine manufacturers from being forced to defend their vaccines in state courts on a case-by-case basis.

The Bruesewitz family cites Supreme Court precedent that, under constitutional principles of federalism, congressional intent to preempt traditional state powers must be "clear and manifest." In this case, they say, it isn't. Specifically, had Congress wanted to preempt all design defect claims, it would have simply written the statute without the "unavoidable" language: claims would be preempted "if the injury or death resulted from side effects that were unavoidable even though the vaccine was properly prepared and was accompanied by proper directions and warnings. " The family also argues that giving vaccine manufacturers an incentive to design better vaccines to avoid such lawsuits serves Congress's purpose of promoting vaccine safety.

Numerous organizations and individuals have submitted amicus briefs in favor of one party or the other. Not surprisingly, Wyeth is supported by pharmaceutical companies Glaxosmithkline, Merck, and Sanofi Pasteur. The American Association for Justice, Public Justice, and Public Citizen have submitted an amicus brief for the Bruesewitz family.

One of the amicus briefs is particularly interesting by virtue of the unusual pair of jurists who teamed up to submit it: progressive Erwin Chemerinsky and conservative Kenneth Starr, who argue in support of Hannah Bruesewitz and her parents.

PFAW

Big Pharma and the Next Congress

In addition to the obvious legal questions involved in the pharmaceutical immunity case of Bruesewitz v. Wyeth, this case also has a political component that ties it to the midterm elections. If the Supreme Court interprets the Vaccine Act in a way that benefits injured parties, we can expect the giant pharmaceutical companies to push the next Congress to change the law. That would connect this case politically, if not legally, to Citizens United and the DISCLOSE Act.

As detailed in a recent People For report, powerful corporations, unleashed by the Roberts Court, are taking aim at our democracy and spending millions of dollars under cover of anonymity in order to purchase a pliant Republican congressional majority. Republican members of Congress will surely know who they can thank for their offices, but without the transparency rules included in the DISCLOSE Act, blocked by Republicans in Congress, ordinary Americans will have no way of knowing if the pharmaceutical companies are among the corporate sponsors of the newly elected Republican caucus.

That is one of the many reasons we must pass the DISCLOSE Act.

PFAW

Rep. Edwards: Support for Constitutional Amendment growing in “chaotic political climate”

Rep. Donna Edwards, the sponsor of a constitutional amendment to reverse the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United, reacted today to the letter in support of such an amendment, signed by 50 prominent attorneys and law professors, that People For and Free Speech for People sent to congressional leaders this week:

“Corporate interests have already spent double the money spent in the 2006 midterms to influence our elections and undermine the voice of the American people,” said Congresswoman Edwards. “That is why I introduced an amendment with Chairman John Conyers to the U.S. Constitution immediately after the Roberts’ Court declared that corporations have the same First Amendment rights as citizens. I am pleased that during this chaotic political climate support for my Constitutional Amendment is growing across the country with academics, elected officials, and working families. Now is the time to remove corporate influence from our policies and our politics. We cannot allow corporations to dominate our elections as they have done this year, to do so would be both undemocratic and unfair to ordinary citizens.”

You can read more about the letter here.

And watch Rep. Edwards explain the need for a constitutional amendment at the panel we hosted at Netroots Nation this summer. “We back up and back up against a wall of corporations, of corporate money, that isn’t just trying to influence the process, it’s trying to own the process”:
 

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Stevens: Campaign money is “simply not speech”

In a wide-ranging interview with NPR’s Nina Totenberg this week, former Justice John Paul Stevens touched on his strong opposition to the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC, to which he wrote an adamant dissenting opinion.

As for the court's recent ruling allowing corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts on candidate elections, Stevens thinks it was dead wrong — and, indeed, still doesn't think that money is the same thing as speech. "Can you hear it talk? Can you read it? [Money is] simply not speech," he says. "And I have to confess that my own views are that there is an interest in trying to have any debate conducted according to fair rules that treat both sides with an adequate opportunity to express their view. We certainly wouldn't, in our arguments in this court, give one side a little more time because they could pay higher fees to hire their lawyers, or something like that."

Stevens is hardly alone among legal luminaries in thinking that the decision in Citizens United was flat-out wrong. On Monday, People For and the fair elections group Free Speech For People sent a letter signed by over 50 prominent lawyers and law professors urging Congress to consider amending the Constitution to undo Citizens United.

Corporate political expenditure regulations do not infringe any speech rights of the American people whatsoever. Rather, such regulations reflect the power of the American people to regulate corporations and the rules that govern such entities as the people and our representatives see fit. Justice John Paul Stevens’ dissent rightly calls the majority opinion a “radical departure from what has been settled First Amendment law.”


You can read the full letter here.
 

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Kudlow to Corporate-Backed Groups: Disclose Your Funding

Yesterday, Think Progress dropped a campaign finance bombshell when it reported that the US Chamber of Commerce, which is spending tens of millions of dollars this year to run ads supporting GOP candidates in federal elections, is collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars from foreign owned businesses, including companies owned by foreign governments.

Reliable clean elections proponents, like Minnesota senator Al Franken, spoke out immediately for the FEC to investigate the Chamber’s finances. But the voices in support of campaign finance disclosure haven’t been coming only from the left.

CNBC host Larry Kudlow, a columnist for the conservative National Review, said today that groups like the Chamber and Karl Rove’s shadowy group Crossroads GPS should put their funding and spending records out in the open. According to fact sheet from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office, Kudlow said:

“Why not have the media posting of the contribution information on the Internet? That's all. And let everybody decide… Who, what, when, how, where, who got it? Put it up on the net and let free speech and free politics take its work… American Crossroads and Karl Rove and all them should post also.” [10/6/10]

We reported last week on several groups, including the Chamber of Commerce and Crossroads GPS, that are spending buckets of money to back pro-corporate candidates in this year’s elections, while under no obligation to disclose where their money is coming from. This spending is no small change—the Associated Press reported last week that right-wing, pro-corporate groups have outspent progressive groups 6-1 on television ads this year.

Kudlow’s call for disclosure from these big-spending groups should come as no surprise. Disclosure of campaign spending is a principle embraced by many prominent conservatives, including Justice Antonin Scalia. And when the Supreme Court’s conservative majority ruled in Citizens United v. FEC to allow corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money to influence elections, they did so with an important side note: they were in favor of “prompt disclosure” of the campaign spending.

Up against the reality of corporate-backed groups that will spend enormous amounts of money for their electoral benefit, however, congressional Republicans have been significantly less eager to embrace the idea of full disclosure than that of free spending.

The Chamber of Commerce, for one, seems to be solidly in the congressional Republican camp on the disclosure issue. Asked by the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent about Think Progress’s allegations, a spokeswoman for the Chamber responded with a tirade against the blog, denying that the Chamber spends foreign money on electioneering—but refusing to answer any questions on just how that money is kept separate.


 

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Chamber’s Foreign Funding Demonstrates the Need to Revisit Citizens United

Coming on the heels of a report by ThinkProgress on how the US Chamber of Commerce uses membership dues from foreign corporations to pay for political advertisements in American elections, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United is facing new scrutiny for opening up the floodgates of corporate spending. People For the American Way has spoken out against the Chamber’s practices of collecting “hundreds of thousands of dollars from foreign owned businesses, including companies owned by foreign governments,” and the editorial board of the New York Times is also sounding the alarm. The Times editors write that the election system is broken as a result of Citizens United and actions by Republicans in Congress and the FEC to weaken the remaining regulations of campaign finances:

Because the United States Chamber is organized as a 501(c)(6) business league under the federal tax code, it does not have to disclose its donors, so the full extent of foreign influence on its political agenda is unknown. But Tuesday’s report sheds light on how it raises money abroad. Its affiliate in Abu Dhabi, for example, the American Chamber of Commerce, says it has more than 450 corporate and individual members in the United Arab Emirates who pay as much as $8,500 a year to join.

Because of a series of court decisions that culminated in the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling earlier this year, these and similar 501(c) nonprofits have become huge players in the year’s election, using unlimited money from donors who have no fear of disclosure. (Not surprisingly, the chamber has been a leading opponent of legislation to require disclosure.) One such group, American Crossroads, organized by Karl Rove, announced on Tuesday a $4.2 million ad buy to support Republican candidates, bringing the group’s total spending to about $18 million so far.

The possible commingling of secret foreign money into these groups raises fresh questions about whether they are violating both the letter and spirit of the campaign finance laws. The Federal Election Commission, which has been rendered toothless by its Republican members, should be investigating possible outright violations of the Federal Election Campaign Act by foreign companies and the chamber.

Now, Minnesota Senator Al Franken is calling on the FEC to look into the Chamber’s finances, the Star Tribune reports:

Franken’s letter says that the Chamber’s mixing of funds under current FEC rules “is not per se illegal.” But he wrote that the company had to demonstrate that its foreign funds were not used for political purposes, and pushed the FEC to launch an investigation.

In addition, Franken’s letter asked the FEC to change its regulations allowing foreign companies to spend on elections — which is legal so long as the company is incorporated in the U.S. and creates a special election committee staffed by Americans.

 

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Chamber of Commerce uses Foreign Funding for Political Ads

In January President Obama in his Statue of the Union address warned Americans of the deleterious impact the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United would have on our political process:

With all due deference to separation of powers, last week the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that, I believe, will open the floodgates for special interests, including foreign corporations, to spend without limit in our elections. I don't think American elections should be bankrolled by America's most powerful interests or, worse, by foreign entities.

While Justice Alito and others criticized Obama’s assertion that “foreign corporations” will be allowed to spend money in elections, ThinkProgress looked into how the Chamber utilizes its foreign branches to raise money for the $75 million it plans to spend on the 2010 election:

A ThinkProgress investigation has found that the Chamber funds its political attack campaign out of its general account, which solicits foreign funding. And while the chamber will likely assert it has internal controls, foreign money is fungible, permitting the Chamber to run its unprecedented attack campign. According to legal experts consulted by ThinkProgress, the Chamber is likely skirting longstanding campaign finance law that bans the involvement of foreign corporations in American elections.


In recent years, the Chamber has become very aggressive with its fundraising, opening offices abroad and helping to found foreign chapters (known as Business Councils or “AmChams”). While many of these foreign operations include American businesses with interests overseas, the Chamber has also spearheaded an effort to raise money from foreign corporations, including ones controlled by foreign governments. These foreign members of the Chamber send money either directly to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, or the foreign members fund their local Chamber, which in turn, transfers dues payments back to the Chamber’s H Street office in Washington DC. These funds are commingled to the Chamber’s 501(c)(6) account which is the vehicle for the attack ads.
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