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.”
Rising from her chair in the Senate chamber of the capitol building in Concord, New Hampshire – the country’s oldest chamber still in use, housing democratic debate since 1819 – State Senator Martha Fuller Clark (D-21) was unequivocal in her warning:
“Citizens United is threatening our citizen-led legislature.”
Senator Clark’s words came yesterday afternoon as she spoke out in favor of SB 307, a bill that she introduced. The legislation calls for a committee to examine the different constitutional amendments that are under consideration in the 113th Congress that would overturn Citizens United. But in its most recent form, SB 307 needed a corrective amendment to realign the bill towards its original intent. The amendment would have declared that the committee would assume a constitutional amendment was necessary and discuss which proposal would be best, rather than to debate whether or not a constitutional amendment was needed in the first place.
By this point, the people of New Hampshire had already conveyed, through organizing, through polling, through walking across the state in the dead of winter, through the 48 town hall meetings that had just passed Citizens United amendment resolutions earlier in March, that the debate was long over: the country needs constitutional reform, and it needs it now.
Unfortunately, Senator Clark’s corrective measure failed on a 12-12 vote, with only one Republican, Senator Russell Prescott (R-23), crossing party lines to vote in favor. Russell stated on the Senate floor,
“I just can’t make the leap… that a corporation has the same First Amendment rights as people.”
Notably, State Senator Jeanie Forrester (R-2) – whose district includes Bridgewater, Bristol, Dorchester, Groton, Piermont, Plymouth, and Tilton, towns that all had just voted in favor of an amendment – refused to support Senator Clark’s correction.
However not all hope is lost for New Hampshire to become the 17th state to call for a constitutional amendment this legislative session. SB 307 passed with the incorrect intent of examining the need for an amendment. It will most likely be paired with a much stronger version of the bill from the House in conference committee, which could result in the stronger measure coming back to the Senate. So it’s important to keep the pressure up.
In the face of such obstruction, a quote from Winston Churchill comes to mind:
“The truth is incontrovertible. Malice may attack it, ignorance may deride it, but in the end, there it is.”
Senator Clark and the people of New Hampshire have brought the truth to Concord; it’s only a matter of time before the legislature acts on it.
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.
Over the past week in New Hampshire, in efforts supported by People For the American Way activists, 31 towns have passed resolutions calling for a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court’s decisions in Citizens United and related cases. In the coming week, at least 20 more towns will vote on their own resolutions. If this week’s victories are any indication, we will likely see a strong majority of the 20 succeed.
These votes demonstrate the strength of the nation’s growing movement to amend the Constitution and take back our democracy. So far 16 states and over 500 municipalities have called for an amendment. The movement is particularly strong in New Hampshire, where nearly 70% of people support a constitutional amendment that limits campaign contributions and spending. This winter, over 100 residents marched across the state in support of campaign finance reform for the New Hampshire Rebellion campaign.
The Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC (2010) opened the floodgates to corporate and special interest spending in our elections. Since Citizens United, activists and advocacy organizations have been mobilizing across the country calling for an amendment to overturn the decision, its progeny, and the cases that led to it. To learn more about the campaign, visit wwww.UnitedForThePeople.org and People For the American Way’s amendment toolkit.
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.
Yesterday, Sen. Diane Feinstein made an extraordinary 40-minute speech on the Senate floor denouncing the Central Intelligence Agency for obstructing congressional oversight by withholding information, intimidating staff involved in a congressional investigation, and removing documents from computers being used by the Senate Intelligence Committee staff. Feinstein, who chairs the Intelligence Committee, has been a long-term public advocate for the intelligence community. CIA Director John Brennan is disputing Feinstein’s charges.
At the center of the dispute with the CIA is a years-long investigation of the detention and interrogation programs carried out in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks. But the core constitutional issue being raised by Sen. Feinstein is the ability of Congress, operating under rules agreed to by the CIA, to conduct an oversight investigation without being spied on and having its investigation obstructed by the agency.
Sen. Patrick Leahy said he could not think of any more important speech during his many years in Congress. Sen. Mark Udall, who is also a member of the Intelligence Committee, praised Feinstein for “setting the record straight today on the Senate floor about the CIA’s actions to subvert congressional oversight.”
“We applaud Sen. Feinstein for voicing publicly her serious concerns about the CIA’s alleged obstruction of congressional oversight. Congress’s ability to provide oversight for our nation’s intelligence gathering operations isn’t incidental to the work they do—it’s essential. If information was withheld and intimidation tactics were used to deter investigations, this would be a gross abuse of power.
“We depend on Congress’s ability to conduct these investigations in order to protect the separation of powers in our government as well as the fundamental civil liberties guaranteed by our Constitution. We commend Sen. Feinstein for speaking out and calling on the CIA to cooperate rather than obstruct congressional oversight."
Today, under the banner of the Coalition to Protect Wisconsin Elections, a group of seventeen grassroots nonprofit organizations including People For the American Way gathered in the Wisconsin Senate Parlor to protest a batch of anti-democracy voting rights and campaign finance bills slated for Senate consideration tomorrow. The event included voters with their mouths taped shut to symbolize their voices being silenced by the proposed legislation as well as speakers from a range of progressive organizations, including PFAW regional political coordinator Scott Foval.
Speakers expressed opposition to a legislative package that will restrict access to a free and fair vote, allow unfettered spending on so-called political “issue ads,” and reduce transparency on reporting political activity in Wisconsin, including:
• Senate Bill 324, restricting early voting hours and banning the option of weekend voting like “souls to the polls” drives organized by faith communities.
• Senate Bill 267, making it more difficult for people to register to vote early.
• Senate Bill 655, repealing current law to allow lobbyists to contribute directly to legislators starting April 15 of election years, even while the legislature is in session; lowering the bar for disclosing political contributions; and allowing unlimited Internet political activity without disclosure to the Government Accountability Board.
• Assembly Bill 202, requiring poll observers to be allowed as close as three feet to poll workers, despite numerous complaints of harassing and intimidating behavior in recent elections.
Also under consideration, but not yet added to the official Senate calendar, is Senate Bill 654, which would rewrite the rules for disclosing political “issue ads” ahead of an election. And currently seeking sponsors but not yet introduced is a bill that would eliminate same-day voter registration.
These bills could do serious damage to our democracy. In 2012, hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites cast their ballots early. Several municipal clerks, who are responsible for administering elections, offered extended hours for voting to allow working people to participate in their democracy by casting their votes after work or on weekends.
In addition, the proposed new disclosure requirements would allow nearly unlimited, undisclosed political ad spending, both in broadcast and on the Internet, as well as increased allowances for solicitation activity for political bundling by political action committees and political conduits.
But “We, the People” are fighting back. Check out the video of today’s event below:
Today Representative John Sarbanes was joined by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and others in introducing legislation to help put our democracy back where it belongs: in the hands of “We, the People.” The Government by the People Act (H.R. 20) is a bill designed to empower everyday voters to make small donations to candidates, amplify those donations through matching funds, and make our elected officials accountable to all of us, rather than to wealthy campaign donors.
In the Washington Post yesterday, Representatives Pelosi and Sarbanes penned a powerful op-ed in the support of the bill, calling for solutions to the influx of money that has flooded our elections in the post-Citizens United world. That Supreme Court decision, they wrote, “shook the foundation of our democracy: the principle that, in the United States of America, it is the voices of the people, not the bank accounts of the privileged few, that determine the outcome of our elections and the policies of our government.”
But they note that we can, and must, push for solutions – including a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United:
We must disclose the sources of the money in our campaigns, amend the Constitution to reverse the grievous error of the Citizens United decision, reform our broken campaign finance system and empower citizens everywhere to exercise their right to vote.
The Government by the People Act would help build a politics and a government that answer to the people. Together, we can reassert the full promise of our ideals and restore confidence in our democracy.
PFAW has launched a petition to urge members of Congress to do all they can to support passage of the Government by the People Act.
In tomorrow’s State of the Union address, President Obama is expected to speak at length about growing income inequality in the United States, and his plans to address it. Any plan to address income inequality must also address the political inequality created by unrestrained spending on elections.
Income inequality affects not just individual lives, but our political system as a whole. In a series of cases beginning with the 1976 Buckley v. Valeo decision, the Supreme Court has struck down commonsense campaign finance regulations designed to limit private economic power from dominating campaigns for political office – and thus dominating our country’s political process. Since that time, the income share of the top one percent of income earners has almost tripled, growing at a substantially higher rate than the income of the rest of the population.
This mounting wealth disparity has not resulted simply from the good fortune of the hardest working or smartest among us; it has been assisted through government policy. The capital gains tax sits at 23.8% for top earners despite the vast majority of Americans believing that it should be equal to the rate at which income is taxed. Meanwhile, the federal minimum wage, whose real value has fallen about 30% since 1968, remains stagnant at $7.25 per hour, despite the fact that 71 percent of Americans want to see it increased; however, only 40 percent of the wealthiest Americans support such an increase.
As income inequality has ballooned, it has also become more difficult for even the most hard-working Americans to improve their economic prospects. State university systems that were once free are now approaching the cost of private institutions, while scholarships are going less often to benefit low-income students. Labor unions, which were instrumental in building the American middle class, are facing attacks from legislators backed by well-funded corporate interests.
Income inequality and political inequality go hand-in-hand. As This American Life has noted, the average member of Congress spends at least four hours a day calling wealthy individuals and organizations asking for money, a tally that does not even include the countless fundraisers they must attend. Average Americans don’t get these calls. They do not get the chance to meet with their representatives at intimate gatherings. Their voices go unheard.
The sad truth is that under our current system, time-intensive fundraising and the concessions that go along with it are necessary conditions for the ascension to political office in the United States. That is something we need to change if we are ever going to deal with income inequality or any of the other major problem facing our country.
That is why we here at People for the American Way Foundation are calling for “Money Out, Voters In” campaign and are working to pass a constitutional amendment that will allow our elected officials to work for all Americans, not just the wealthy few.
In our continuing efforts to pass a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United and related cases and restore Government Of, By, and For the people, PFAW Foundation is helping coordinate the Students United For Democracy coalition – a group of student activists and good government groups working to raise awareness of our country’s money in politics problem and pass resolutions on college campuses calling for a constitutional amendment.
For far too long, students have been pushed to the margins of our political system. From rising education costs to uncertain environmental and economic futures, it is clear that government often fails to act in the interest of students and young people. As explained in PFAW Foundation’s report, “Students and the Movement to Amend the Constitution,” each of these issues is intricately connected to the role that big money plays in our political system. Rather than protecting the interests of all, public officials often look out for the interests of those who pay for their campaigns, and students – who are taking on record levels of student debt –students simply could not afford to “pay to play” even if they wanted to.
Yet the country and its young people are waking up. Sixteen states and 500 cities and towns have already passed resolutions calling for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United and related cases. In 2014, student governments will be adding their voices to this nationwide call.
Last week ALEC held its annual meeting here in Washington, DC, once again bringing together state legislators and corporate representatives to advance legislation that hurts everyday Americans. But they weren’t alone.
Outside their meeting at the Grand Hyatt, PFAW and ally organizations led a protest to stand up to ALEC’s extreme agenda. Holding signs like “ALEC shoots first… and hits real people” and “Stop the war on workers,” hundreds of advocates from diverse organizations and backgrounds marched, chanted, and made speeches about the real toll ALEC-supported policies have on Americans’ lives.
PFAW’s Diallo Brooks’ speech to the crowd was interrupted many times with cheers and applause. He said:
It doesn’t matter where they meet—here in Washington or any other city. When ALEC comes to town, we need to let them know that it is not okay for them to have private meetings with our legislators and corporations and write legislation that impacts our lives every day. We’re here to let them know—loud and clear—that democracy is still alive. We’re paying attention, and we’re going to call them out wherever they go.
Following last week’s news that ALEC drafted an agreement for their state chairs calling on them to put the interests of ALEC first, Brooks and other protest leaders went into the meeting area and asked attendees to sign an alternative pledge – one asking ALEC legislators to honor the Constitution and their constituents rather than corporate interests. None of the attendees signed.
On October 8th, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in McCutcheon v. FEC, which has the potential to be the most destructive campaign finance case it has considered since Citizens United v. FEC. In McCutcheon, the Court is examining the constitutionality of aggregate contribution limits and, depending on the decision it’s expected to release in early 2014, could allow even more money to be poured into our elections.
In addition to mobilizing its networks around the case, People For hosted a rally on the steps of the Supreme Court, where activists from a wide range of backgrounds and issue areas spoke about how moneyed politics affects our democracy. The rally was co-emceed by People For’s Marge Baker, and featured YEO Maryland State Director Craig Rice and YP4 Fellow Brendien Mitchell.
To learn more about People For the American Way’s campaign against big money in politics, visit our Government By The People page.
Last week The Guardian began to shine some light on the shadowy right-wing group ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council), exposing how the organization connecting corporations with conservative legislators to move a legislative agenda supporting special interests is declining in popularity. In the wake of tragedies like Trayvon Martin’s shooting, many former members are attempting to distance themselves from ALEC’s extreme agenda.
Close on the heels of that revelation, we now see that a Koch-funded network of state policy groups with ties to ALEC, the State Policy Network (SPN), plans to launch a coordinated assault on many of the issues and services most important to everyday working Americans. Newly-exposed funding proposal documents obtained by The Guardian outline what they call a “blueprint for the conservative agenda in 2014.”
And what an agenda it is. According to the documents, the proposals take aim at public education, health services, worker’s compensation, environmental protections, and more. A new website (www.stinktanks.org) launched by allies ProgressNow and the Center for Media and Democracy helps to further expose the agenda behind these state policy groups and draw attention to some of SPN’s major funders.
SPN, a member of ALEC, should take heed of ALEC’s declining public image. The American people are tired of the coordinated attack on the services, rights, and protections vital to a thriving middle class.
Apparently not all press is good press, after all.
American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) documents recently obtained by The Guardian show the popularity of ALEC, an organization that connects corporate lobbyists with state legislators to push special interest legislation, to be in sharp decline. In the wake of the national outcry surrounding Trayvon Martin’s death, ALEC saw both its corporate and state legislative membership drop in numbers – experiencing what The Guardian describes as a “donor exodus.”
That’s because among the many damaging pieces of legislation ALEC has pushed over the years are “Stand Your Ground” laws, which became a cornerstone of the national conversation about the Trayvon Martin tragedy. Drafted in part by the National Rifle Association, ALEC promoted these types of laws as “model legislation.” But some legislators and corporations – including Kraft, Coca-Cola, Amazon, and more – decided they didn’t want any part of it.
Ed Pilkington and Suzanne Goldenberg report:
The Guardian has learned that by Alec's own reckoning the network has lost almost 400 state legislators from its membership over the past two years, as well as more than 60 corporations that form the core of its funding. In the first six months of this year it suffered a hole in its budget of more than a third of its projected income.
For forty years, ALEC has helped advance bills that hurt everyday Americans, and PFAW works with allies like the Center for Media and Democracy to expose their extreme agenda.
If you’re in the DC area, you can join us this Thursday for a “DC Stands Up to ALEC” rally to make clear that it’s not only legislators and corporations who have had enough of ALEC – it’s the American people.
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.