As the Supreme Court heard arguments today in McCutcheon v. FEC – a campaign finance case in which the Court will decide whether to strike down overall limits on direct political contributions – a great crowd of PFAW and allies rallied outside the Court in support of getting big money out of politics. From students and small business owners to members of Congress – including Senator Bernie Sanders and Representatives Ted Deutch, Jim McGovern, and John Sarbanes – people from all backgrounds came together in support of protecting the integrity of our democracy.
PFAW Executive Vice President Marge Baker kicked off the speeches by painting a picture of the “people versus money” nature of the case:
Inside the court – right now – one wealthy man is asking for permission to pour even more money directly into political campaigns. But we’re here, too, and we have a different ask. We’re asking the justices to protect the integrity of our democracy. We’re asking them to protect the voices and the votes of ‘We the People’….We’re here today saying loud and clear: our democracy is not for sale.
Also speaking at today’s rally was Montgomery County Council Vice President Craig L. Rice, Maryland State Director of affiliate PFAW Foundation’s Young Elected Officials Network. Rice spoke about the effect of campaign finance laws on young political candidates:
As a young minority elected official, let me tell you: this [case] is extremely troubling….Young minority candidates throughout this country are routinely outspent and therefore denied the ability to serve in elected roles….Money should not determine who serves in office.
Howard University student Brendien Mitchell, a fellow in affiliate PFAW Foundation’s Young People For program, talked about the importance of being able to hear the political voices of young people in the midst of voter suppression efforts and massive spending by the wealthy in our democracy:
What about the freedom of young Americans who cannot donate grandiose sums of money to political candidates?....We gather to say that this is our country. And that in a case of money versus people, the answer should be apparent: the people.
One of the highlights of the day was hearing from Moral Monday demonstration leader Rev. Dr. William Barber, II, president of the North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP and a member of PFAW’s African American Ministers in Action. Rev. Barber highlighted the millions of dollars Art Pope has poured into conservative projects and campaigns in his home state of North Carolina:
We [in North Carolina] know firsthand that when you undermine laws that guard against voter suppression, and you undo regulations on the ability for corporations and individuals to spend unchecked amounts of money to influence and infiltrate and literally infect the democratic process, it has extreme impacts.
Extreme impacts – and not only on the electoral process itself, but also on a whole host of issues shaping the lives of everyday Americans. Whether you care most about protecting voting rights, preserving our environment, or workers getting paid a livable wage, a political system where the super-rich can make six-digit direct political contributions harms us all.
And that’s why organizations and activists with focuses ranging from civil rights to environmental protection to good government issues came together today with a common message: our democracy is not for sale.
If you’re curious why many House Republicans are on board with an unhinged plan to threaten a government shutdown or default over demands to “defund” Obamacare, you should follow the money. That’s what the New York Times editorial board argued in a compelling op-ed Tuesday.
Far-right groups such as the Club for Growth are striking out at Republicans who refuse to take this reckless stance, wielding their considerable funds to “inflict political pain” on those who do not share their extremist position. And they are titillating their Tea Party supporters with political fantasies in order to get them to send in even more money, so they can ramp up their attack on Republicans who don’t toe the line. In “The Money Behind the Shutdown Crisis,” the editorial board wrote:
These groups, all financed with secret and unlimited money, feed on chaos and would like nothing better than to claim credit for pushing Washington into another crisis. Winning an ideological victory is far more important to them than the severe economic effects of a shutdown or, worse, a default, which could shatter the credit markets.
[…] Brian Walsh, a longtime Republican operative, recently noted in U.S. News and World Report that the right is now spending more money attacking Republicans than the Democrats are. “Money begets TV ads, which begets even more money for these groups’ personal coffers,” he wrote. “Pointing fingers and attacking Republicans is apparently a very profitable fund-raising business.”
And as more money pours into these shadowy groups, their influence – and thus their potential for inflicting further damage on our democracy – grows. With fewer effective campaign finance regulations left standing in the post-Citizens United landscape, there is little that can stop these groups from using their money to bully elected officials.
But the functioning of our government is not a game. And though for these fringe groups making an ideological point may seem more important than keeping our government from shutting down or defaulting, Americans are tired of having our basic economic security called into question over political posturing.
As the Times editorial board put it:
It may be good for their bank accounts, but the combination of unlimited money and rigid ideology is proving toxic for the most basic functioning of government.
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.
At an AFL-CIO convention this weekend, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren called out the increasingly pro-corporate lean of the U.S. Supreme Court. Politico reports:
On the opening day of the AFL-CIO’s convention, Warren — the highest-profile national Democrat to address the gathering here — warned attendees of a “corporate capture of the federal courts.”
In a speech that voiced a range of widely held frustrations on the left, Warren assailed the court as an instrument of the wealthy that regularly sides with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. She cited an academic study that called the current Supreme Court’s five conservative-leaning justices among the “top 10 most pro-corporate justices in half a century.”
“You follow this pro-corporate trend to its logical conclusion, and sooner or later you’ll end up with a Supreme Court that functions as a wholly owned subsidiary of Big Business,” Warren said, drawing murmurs from the crowd.
The study that Warren was referring to is a Minnesota Law Review study that found that the five conservative justices currently on the Supreme Court have sided with corporate interests at a greater rate than most justices since World War II. All five were among the ten most corporate-friendly justices in over 50 years. Justice Samuel Alito and Chief Justice John Roberts were the top two.
The Supreme Court majority’s consistent twisting of the law to put the interests of corporations over those of individuals is one of the main characteristics of the Roberts Court, but it is not the only extremely influential court with such a pro-corporate bent. In fact, the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, to which President Obama has nominated three highly qualified candidates, has been following the same trend, also because of the influence of judges named by George W. Bush. This is the court whose ultra-conservative justices declared that cigarette label warning requirements violate the free speech rights of tobacco companies and that requiring that employers inform employees of their right to unionize violates the free speech rights of the corporations.
While there is not currently a vacancy at the Supreme Court that could affect its balance, there are three at the DC Circuit. That is why Senate Republicans are working so hard to keep them empty.
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.
As the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) meets in a swanky Chicago hotel for its 40th annual summit this week, Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL) has raised some important questions for the corporations that may be funding the group.
Roll Call reports that Sen. Durbin, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee’s civil rights subcommittee, has reached out to more than 300 corporations that are possible ALEC funders to ask for their positions on “Stand Your Ground” laws. Durbin announced last month that he will hold a hearing on these laws in the fall.
Because ALEC operates behind closed doors, it can be a challenge to expose the corporations, corporate trade associations, and corporate foundations backing its damaging work. Durbin’s letter notes:
Although ALEC does not maintain a public list of corporate members or donors, other public documents indicate that your company funded ALEC at some point during the period between ALEC’s adoption of model “stand your ground” legislation in 2005 and the present day.
Despite the potential roadblocks, Durbin’s letter shines a spotlight on the clear link between ALEC, an organization that connects corporate lobbyists with state legislators, and the “Stand Your Ground” laws it helped to get on the books in over two dozen states. And this is a critical connection to highlight, because as PFAW President Michael Keegan wrote last month, these are laws which “help create a climate like the one that encouraged George Zimmerman to use lethal force against an unarmed teenager.”
All photos by Scott Foval.
Bill Moyers once called ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council) the “most influential corporate-funded political force most of America has never heard of.” Today, PFAW is helping to change that – coming out in full force to shed some light on the harm ALEC’s extreme agenda causes to everyday Americans.
As ALEC holds its 40th annual meeting in Chicago, PFAW is there – along with ally organizations, labor groups, and advocates from around the country – to crash their party. The protest happening now outside Chicago’s Palmer House Hilton is the biggest anti-ALEC protest to date.
The mass of people at the rally underscores the growing momentum to expose and fight back against ALEC, which connects corporate lobbyists with state legislators to pass special interest legislation in all fifty states. For four decades, ALEC has worked behind closed doors to get laws harmful to everyday Americans on the books – working against paid sick days, pushing tax policies favoring the rich, and helping “Stand Your Ground” become law in more than two dozen states. As our signs say, “ALEC corporations write laws, real people suffer.”
And today, we’re calling them out.
Following the approval of House Joint Memorial 6 by a 17-13 vote in the Oregon Senate today, Oregon became the 16th state to call for an amendment to the Constitution overturning the 2010 Citizens United decision and related cases.
The passage of HJM6, first introduced in January by Representative Brian Clem, is the result of a grassroots mobilization effort by the people of Oregon. In 2012 alone, 12 Oregon cities and counties passed local resolutions urging state and federal legislators to call for a constitutional amendment taking back our democracy from corporations and special interests. The mobilization at the state level was led by Oregonians for Restoring Constitutional Democracy, a coalition that gathered signatures and endorsements in support of HJM6.
The joint memorial urges Congress to propose a constitutional amendment “clarifying the distinction between the rights of natural persons and the rights of corporations” and recognizing “that Congress and state legislatures may regulate all moneys raised and spent for political purposes.”
Rep. Jules Bailey, speaking to the Oregon House last week, urged his fellow representatives to support the measure, saying, “When we confuse the monolith with the individual, then a piece of our humanity dies. Let us ask Congress to undo this mistake.” The measure passed the House by a vote of 48-11 on June 21st before being sent to the Senate.
With each additional state joining the movement to overturn Citizens United and related decisions, the will of the American people becomes clearer. We will not let our elections be bought and sold. We will not let corporate power subvert the will of the people.
America has awakened. All across the nation, a burgeoning movement has begun to demand the overturn of Citizens United v. FEC and related cases via constitutional amendment, including, according to a new report by Free Speech for People, 130 Republican officials at the state and federal levels.
The new report released in June, titled "Across the Aisle: The Growing Trans-partisan Opposition to Citizens United", compiles quotes from these officials to form a comprehensive body of evidence in support of the fact that, indeed, getting corporations out of political campaigns – at least at the state level – is not a partisan issue. In fact, Republican support has been instrumental in the passage of fifteen state-level resolutions calling for the overturn of Citizens United, with a Republican primary sponsor even leading the charge in Illinois. As Verner Bertelsen, former Secretary of State of Montana, put it,
... the bad Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court and more recent decisions ... threaten to undo Montana's century-old laws against political corruption ... I am a lifelong Republican and I served as Montana secretary of state from 1988 to 1989... Corporations aren’t people and money isn’t speech. CEOs of corporations may choose to personally contribute to political campaigns, but they shouldn’t be allowed to use shareholders’ money to do so.
These views, too, are hardly new – as Theodore Roosevelt declared in 1910,
It is necessary that laws should be passed to prohibit the use of corporate funds directly or indirectly for political purposes; it is still more necessary that such laws should be thoroughly enforced. Corporate expenditures for political purposes, and especially such expenditures by public service corporations, have supplied one of the principal sources of corruption in our political affairs ... The absence of effective State, and, especially, national, restraint ... has tended to create a small class of enormously wealthy and economically powerful men, whose chief object is to hold and increase their power. If our political institutions were perfect, they would absolutely prevent the political domination of money in any part of our affairs. We need ... a corrupt-services act effective to prevent the advantage of the man willing recklessly and unscrupulously to spend money over his more honest competitor.
With recent polling cited in the report showing robust support for amending the Constitution -- 83% of Americans, including 81% of Republicans -- it's quite clear that, with continued education and mobilization, Citizens United's days are numbered.
Strong campaign finance laws lead to more competitive elections and a greater influence from small donors, according to a new report from the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
The report, released in May, examines state-level elections to gauge the impact of campaign finance laws. Titled "Evidencing a Republican Form of Government: The Influence of Campaign Money on State-Level Elections," it follows the finances of candidates in each state, looking at their donors, expenditures, and disclosures, providing evidence of the deleterious effects that unrestrained campaign spending has on our democracy.
States with high or no contribution limits, for one, have dramatically fewer competitive races than those with public financing. For example, the Institute found that only 6 percent of 2010 elections in Georgia were competitive, compared with 75 percent of elections in Maine. Not coincidentally, Georgia has relatively high contribution limits, with winning candidates raising a median amount of $50,425, while Maine uses public financing and had a much lower fundraising median of $5,844.
Further, removing limits on contributions also appears to crowd out small donors. In Texas, a state where individuals are allowed to contribute unlimited sums directly to campaigns, the median fundraising gap between winners and losers for 2010 was a whopping $255,318. Meanwhile, just 4 percent of 2010 donations in the state were under $250, while 59 percent exceeded $10,000. In fact, the Institute’s data reveals that in Texas, nearly half of all political donations came from a few hundred people. In contrast, in Colorado, which has much stricter contribution limits, the equivalent half of all contributions came from about 35,000 people. The Institute found this pattern to be present in all 50 states.
Lax campaign finance law has a double effect: not only does it reduce the competitiveness of political races, allowing candidates with money to simply overwhelm their opponents with tides of spending, but it also drastically reduces small-donor participation in politics, concentrating power and influence in the hands of those with deep pockets. This, of course, is a problem – as DEMOS has pointed out, the elite “donor class” often has vastly different policy priorities than those of most Americans.
As corporations, wealthy individuals, and special interests continue to adjust their election strategies in the wake of Citizens United, pouring ever more money into political campaigns, the conclusions of this report are cause for worry. Fortunately, the American people are not sitting idly by while our democracy is threatened. We are mobilizing.
In yet another state, the American people have made it clear that we will not allow our elections to be bought and sold.
Recent months have seen Delaware legislators and local advocates busy collecting signatures for a letter to Senator Carper, Senator Coons, and Representative Carney, asking them and their colleagues in Congress to pass a constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United. Working with Common Cause Delaware, PFAW has been on the front lines of this initiative. Last month Legislative Representative Calvin Sloan went “door to door” with PFAW members and allies in the state legislature urging lawmakers to sign onto the letter.
Following their hard work, Delaware today became the fifteenth state to go on record calling for an amendment to reclaim our democracy. Signed by the majority of lawmakers in both chambers of the state legislature with bipartisan support, today’s victory means that 30% of our nation’s states have called for such an amendment. Four of those states – West Virginia, Maine, Illinois, and now Delaware – have made their position official in just the last two months.
The tide is turning. The momentum is undeniable. As the letter points out, “There is no more critical foundation to our government than citizens’ confidence in fair and free elections.” Today’s victory – as well as those in other states and those in states still to come – makes clear that Americans are taking back our elections.
With all eyes on Illinois today for a possible marriage equality vote, the Illinois General Assembly took another important action – they called for a constitutional amendment to overturn the 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. FEC. Following on the heels of West Virginia and Maine last month, today’s action makes Illinois the fourteenth state to call for such a resolution.
The Rock River Times reports:
“The effort in Illinois was bipartisan, underscoring what poll data have shown: People of all political stripes are deeply concerned about corporations having too much influence over our democratic process. A measure calling for a constitutional amendment was on ballots across Illinois in November, and was supported by three-quarters of voters.”
Indeed, in Illinois and across the country, Americans of all “political stripes” are making clear that they do not want a democracy ruled by corporate spending. And with each additional state that goes on record supporting the movement to reclaim our democracy from wealthy special interests, that momentum grows even stronger.
Between buying elections, billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch shop for big pieces of American media and culture. And, hey, why not?
We already knew of the Kochs' efforts to buy Tribune Company, the parent of the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune, among other major newspapers. Then, last week, The New Yorker's Jane Mayer took a thoughtful, in-depth look at the machinations that led New York's PBS station, WNET, to pull from the air a documentary critical of David Koch, one of the station's biggest funders. The story raises plenty of questions about the extent to which the public owns public media and the role of money in the arts and culture (see anything at Lincoln Center's David H. Koch Theater lately?). But it also provides a rare intimate look at what happens when big money begets massive influence, often without a dime changing hands.
Mayer describes the fate of two documentary films. One took on income disparities in America by profiling the inhabitants of one tony Park Avenue building - including David Koch. Under pressure, WNET aired the film but, in a highly unusual concession, offered Koch airtime to rebut it after it aired. The second film, "Citizen Koch," made by the very talented, Academy Award nominated team of Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, explored the influence that Koch and others like him have on our elections in the post-Citizens United world. But in the face of Koch's wrath, the film's distributor, a public television player with a history of gutsy moves, uncharacteristically lost its stomach for the fight and dumped the film entirely. Regardless, Koch decided to not give a hoped-for gift after the first film aired. Without lifting a finger or even taking out his checkbook, Koch cast a pall over the documentary film world.
The process that led to "Citizen Koch" being pulled from the airwaves illustrates exactly the point that Lessin and Deal's film makes: money can not only buy action in our democracy, it can also buy silence. As former Republican presidential candidate Buddy Roemer points out in the film, "Sometimes it's a check. Sometimes it's the threat of a check. It's like having a weapon. You can shoot the gun or just show it. It works both ways."
Koch and his brother Charles, both billionaire industrialists, pledged to spend a whopping $400 million on the 2012 elections, the overwhelming majority of it on behalf of Republican candidates. But that doesn't just mean that Republicans are jumping to please the brothers--it means that many of those in positions of influence, regardless of their political leanings, need to take into account whether or not it's worth the trouble of unnecessarily antagonizing the Kochs. Just as the public is unlikely to hear about the film PBS didn't run, it's almost impossible to know about the principled progressive stands that our allies in government decided not to take.
Koch's billions are a formidable political weapon, even without owning any influential newspapers. Thanks to the Supreme Court's ruling in Citizens United, it's a more powerful weapon than ever, and we know it's having an impact even when they don't choose to deploy them. The result is a distorted government that responds to the whims of billionaires more easily than the needs of ordinary Americans.
As activists work to undo the damage being done by Citizens United, one of our main challenges is reminding voters of the dangerous, invisible effects that decision has on the country. It's a remarkable irony that by trying to hide a film about the danger of money in politics, the Kochs may have made it clearer than ever before.