At the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner this weekend, President Obama delivered 20 minutes of his trademark dry humor, working in jabs at Michele Bachmann, Joe Biden, climate change deniers in Congress, and himself, to name a few. Perhaps some of the most pertinent jokes of the evening came about halfway into his speech, when he poked fun at the 2016 GOP presidential field, the Koch brothers and the influence of big money in politics.
“Soon the first presidential contest will take place, and I for one cannot wait to see who the Koch brothers pick,” President Obama joked. “It’s exciting… the winner gets a billion dollar war chest. The runner up gets to be the bachelor on the next season of The Bachelor.”
“I mean, seriously – a billion dollars,” the president continued. “From just two guys. Is it just me or does that feel a little excessive?”
The president making these pointed jokes is the latest example of a growing cultural awareness of the problems stemming from big money in politics. With presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, Sen. Lindsey Graham, and Sen. Bernie Sanders all in support of a constitutional amendment to overturn Supreme Court decisions like Citizens United, this issue is rapidly ripening for broader public discussion.
However, Concerns over Buying Influence Apply to All Elected Officials
In response to the Supreme Court’s decision today in Williams-Yulee v. The Florida Bar which upheld Florida’s ban on judicial candidates directly soliciting campaign funds, People For the American Way Executive Vice President Marge Baker released the following statement:
“The Supreme Court came to the right decision today when it took a step to protect the integrity of our judicial process. Chief Justice Roberts was correct to note that the public can lose confidence in a judge if 'he comes to office by asking for favors.' The same concerns apply to all of our elected officials.
“Just as Americans want judges to be impartial rather than beholden to wealthy donors, we also want our elected officials to be working for the people rather than for their billionaire and corporate backers. In all branches of government, our democracy doesn’t work when it’s auctioned off to the highest bidder.
“The Supreme Court needs to understand what everyday Americans already do: that buying influence undermines our democracy no matter what type of election it is.”
From a mailman flying a gyrocopter to the Capitol to protest big money in politics, to Hillary Clinton making the issue a centerpiece of her campaign, to Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Lindsey Graham being asked about their stances on campaign finance reform at Q&A events, it’s clear that money in politics is shaping up to be a major issue in 2016. Yesterday The Washington Post’s Matea Gold reported on the grassroots push to spotlight the topic of big money’s influence on our democracy:
[F]ive years after the Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision — which held it was unconstitutional to ban independent political spending by corporations and unions, and helped set off a financial arms race — there are signs that politicians are beginning to confront a voter backlash.
….For those who feel strongly about it, the 2016 primaries and caucuses — and the up-close access they bring to the presidential contenders — offer a ripe opportunity to elevate the topic.
In New Hampshire, nearly 500 people have volunteered to attend public forums and press the White House hopefuls about money in politics, Weeks said.
In an interview aired Friday on National Public Radio, PFAW Executive Vice President Marge Baker underscored the importance of top candidates elevating this issue:
"When the leading candidate for president says she's going to make reducing the influence of money in politics one of the four pillars in her campaign, you know that that's going to be a major issue in 2016," Baker said. "So this is a very, very big deal."
While there are many issues that divide Americans, addressing the big-money takeover of our political system is not one of them. That both Lindsey Graham and Hillary Clinton expressed support for an amendment to get big money out of politics in the past two weeks underscores the fact that fighting to fix our broken democracy is not only the right thing to do, it’s also good politics – across the political spectrum.
With the movement to take back our democracy from wealthy special interests growing by the day, some of the country’s top political leaders are taking note and bringing the issue of money in politics front and center for 2016.
Yesterday presidential candidate Hillary Clinton expressed support for a constitutional amendment to get big money out of politics and said that campaign finance reform was going to be one of the four pillars of her campaign.
As PFAW’s Executive Vice President Marge Baker pointed out:
That Hillary Clinton will make the fight against big money in politics the centerpiece of her campaign is indicative of how much Americans care about this issue. She’s tapping into a deep-seated belief among people of all political stripes that we have to reclaim our democracy from corporations and billionaires. Americans are ready for a constitutional amendment to overturn decisions like Citizens United, and ready for leaders who are going to make it a priority.
Amending the Constitution to overturn cases like Citizens United is a widely popular proposal with cross-partisan support. A July 2014 poll of Senate battleground states found that nearly three in four voters (73 percent) favor a constitutional amendment, including majorities “in even the reddest states.” In the five years since the Citizens United decision, local organizing has led 16 states and 650 cities and towns to support an amendment to overturn the decision and get big money out of politics. More than 5 million Americans have signed petitions in support of an amendment.
WASHINGTON – According to media reports, today presidential candidate Hillary Clinton expressed support for a constitutional amendment to get big money out of politics, with campaign finance reform set to be one of the four pillars of her campaign.
“That Hillary Clinton will make the fight against big money in politics the centerpiece of her campaign is indicative of how much Americans care about this issue,” said People For the American Way Executive Vice President Marge Baker. “She’s tapping into a deep-seated belief among people of all political stripes that we have to reclaim our democracy from corporations and billionaires. Americans are ready for a constitutional amendment to overturn decisions like Citizens United, and ready for leaders who are going to make it a priority.”
Amending the Constitution to overturn cases like Citizens United is a proposal that enjoys broad, cross-partisan support. A July 2014 poll of Senate battleground states found that nearly three in four voters (73 percent) favor a constitutional amendment, including majorities “in even the reddest states.” In the five years since the Citizens United decision, local organizing has led 16 states and 650 cities and towns to support an amendment to overturn the decision and get big money out of politics. More than 5 million Americans have signed petitions in support of an amendment.
This is not the first time Clinton has spoken about a possible amendment to overturn decisions like Citizens United. In July 2014, Clinton said that she would “consider supporting an amendment.”
At an event with a local television station in New Hampshire this weekend, Sen. Lindsey Graham was asked a question about what he would do to fight big money in politics. In his response, Graham pointed to the need for a constitutional amendment to address the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United:
Well, Citizens United has gotta be fixed. Y'all agree with that? You're gonna need a constitutional amendment to fix this problem. I was for McCain-Feingold, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that provisions in McCain-Feingold basically no longer apply.
You're gonna get sick of watching TV in New Hampshire. So the next President of the United States needs to get a commission of really smart people and find a way to create a constitutional amendment to limit the role of super PACs because there's gonna be like $100M spent on races in New Hampshire — which'll be good for this TV station — ripping everybody apart. You don't even know who the people are supplying the money, you don't even know their agenda. Eventually we're gonna destroy American politics with so much money in the political process cause they're going to turn you off to wanting to vote. [emphasis added]
This is not the first time Sen. Graham has spoken out against the big money takeover of our elections. In March, Bloomberg’s David Weigel wrote about a comment Graham made to a voter — again, in New Hampshire — about his desire to see some “control” over money in politics so it won’t “destroy the political process.”
While voicing support for an amendment is important, when the Senate voted in September on the Democracy for All Amendment, a proposal that would overturn decisions like Citizens United and help get big money out of politics, Sen. Graham voted against it.
So here’s a follow-up question for Sen. Graham: Will you back up your words with action? Will you work with your colleagues in Congress who are already pushing for an amendment and help tackle the issue of big money in politics?
A new report released today by People For the American Way Foundation explores the extreme pro-corporate jurisprudence of the Supreme Court in recent years, identifying parallels to the Court’s infamous Lochner era a century ago. “The Supreme Court in the Citizens United Era” by PFAW Foundation Senior Fellow Jamie Raskin explores how the Roberts Court’s right-wing majority has established a precedent for privileging corporations over individuals, allowing corporations to enjoy the rights of the people while reducing the rights that people have against corporations.
“The Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United was a disastrous turning point for our democracy,” said People For the American Way Foundation Executive Vice President Marge Baker. “But it also signifies a broader shift in the way the Supreme Court interprets our laws. Most dangerously, the Supreme Court has transformed the First Amendment from a critical protection against government censorship and oppression into a Get Out of Jail Free card for corporations looking to protect their bottom line.”
As Raskin writes in the report:
“Corporations increasingly enjoy all the rights of the people, but the people increasingly have no rights against corporations. Indeed, as we shall see, the conservative majority on the Roberts Court not only interprets federal law in dubious ways to defeat corporate liability but often works its special wonders to preempt state laws that would hold corporations accountable for civil injuries they cause against patients and consumers.”
The report covers cases ranging from Hobby Lobby, which granted corporations religious rights to opt-out of requirements on women’s health, to Sorrell v. IMS Health, which struck down Vermont’s prescription confidentiality law, to Janus Capital Group, Inc. v. First Derivative Traders, which allowed interlocking corporations to hide assets from individuals defrauded by investment advisors.
Jamie Raskin, who serves as a constitutional law professor at American University Washington College of Law and a Maryland State Senator, in addition to his role as PFAW Foundation Senior Fellow, is available to discuss the report and the Supreme Court’s recent decisions. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule an interview.
You can find the full text of the report at: http://www.pfaw.org/media-center/publications/supreme-court-citizens-united-era-century-after-lochner-era-roberts-court-
In a wide-ranging interview with CNN’s Poppy Harlow released this week, Warren Buffett had some strong words about Supreme Court decisions like Citizens United that have handed increasing political power to the super-rich. Responding to a question about income inequality, Buffett raised the issue of money in elections:
With Citizens United and other decisions that enable the rich to contribute really unlimited amounts, that actually tilts the balance even more toward the ultra-rich…The unlimited giving to parties, to candidates, really pushes us more toward a plutocracy. They say it’s free speech, but somebody can speak 20 or 30 million times and my cleaning lady can’t speak at all.
Watch the interview clip here:
This afternoon activists from PFAW and ally groups participated in a petition delivery at the White House calling on President Obama to issue an executive order requiring corporations that receive government contracts to disclose their political spending. More than 550,000 petition signatures were delivered in support of this executive order, collected by a collaborative effort of more than 50 organizations.
In addition to leaders from organized labor, civil rights, environmental and consumer protection groups, PFAW Director of Outreach and Public Engagement Diallo Brooks (pictured below), was one of the individuals to speak at the event. Highlighting the fact that transparency is essential to accountability, Mr. Brooks and other speakers reiterated the strong message sent by the half a million petition signers.
President Obama has shared his support for reform on numerous occasions. Most recently, in his State of the Union address this January, the president called attention to the issue by speaking out against “dark money for ads that pull us into the gutter.” Obama went on to call for a “better politics.”
Rallies like the one held in Washington today also occurred in nearly 60 cities across 28 states, all encouraging the president to use his authority and issue an executive order to help bring about that “better politics.”
Have you added your name to the petition yet?
While likely presidential candidates chase billionaires they hope will bankroll their campaigns, activists in states across the country are ramping up a very different kind of campaign: grassroots organizing to restore some common sense to the rules governing money in elections. In March alone, we’ve seen significant victories in the movement to get big money out of politics.
Last week, following sustained advocacy by PFAW activists and allies, the New Hampshire Senate unanimously passed a bill in favor of a constitutional amendment to overturn cases like Citizens United v. FEC. If it passes in the House, New Hampshire will become the 17th state calling for an amendment. PFAW’s New Hampshire Campaign Coordinator Lindsay Jakows, who has been leading our on-the-ground effort in the state, said the vote shows that “our state senators are listening to, and responding to, the voices of their constituents.” And after passing 67 town resolutions in support of an amendment – including 11 just this month – the voices of New Hampshire constituents on this issue are crystal clear.
On the other side of the country, local leaders in Washington and Montana are also making important strides. Earlier this month, Washington’s state Senate unanimously passed a disclosure bill that would expose the spending of some of the largest political donors. PFAW activists in the state made calls to their senators, urging them to vote for the bill to strengthen transparency in Washington’s politics. And in Montana a disclosure bill that would help shine a light on “dark money” in state elections passed in the state House this weekend following calls from PFAW activists.
All of these victories share the same core ingredient: people power.
The sustained drumbeat of calls and emails from local advocates, which led to important wins in three states just this month, show what’s possible when grassroots leaders organize to take their democracy back from corporations and billionaires.
Today the New Hampshire Senate unanimously passed a bill (S.B. 136) in support of a constitutional amendment to overturn decisions like Citizens United v. FEC. The bill also calls for a committee to study the proposed amendments currently being considering in the U.S. Congress.
“This is a big win for the people of New Hampshire,” said Lindsay Jakows, New Hampshire Campaign Coordinator for People For the American Way, who led a group of activists gathered in support of the bill at the State Senate today. “It shows that our state senators are listening to, and responding to, the voices of their constituents. New Hampshire residents have been calling loud and clear for an amendment to reclaim our democracy from the undue influence of corporations and billionaires. Today’s vote represents a big step forward in that grassroots movement.”
Support for a constitutional amendment to get big money out of politics is strong in New Hampshire, where in just the past two weeks eleven new towns have passed resolutions in favor of such an amendment. This brought the total number of New Hampshire towns on record in support of an amendment to 67.
People For the American Way has been working with ally groups to organize residents to speak out in favor of S.B. 136, including by encouraging New Hampshire PFAW activists to call their senators and urge them to vote in favor of the bill.
The bill now moves to the New Hampshire House. If it passes there, New Hampshire will become the 17th state calling for a constitutional amendment to overturn decisions like Citizens United.
This op-ed was originally published at OtherWords.com.
If 2014 was the “Year of Dark Money” in elections, then 2016 is likely to be the “Year of Way, Way More Dark Money” — that is, unless something big changes soon.
One of the most troubling aspects of the explosion of big money in politics in recent years is the rapid rise in spending by groups that aren’t required to disclose their donors.
Right now, corporations and super-rich political donors like the Koch brothers can funnel millions into elections through groups that hide their identities, leaving voters and candidates unable to tell who’s behind the attack ads they buy in bulk, or what their agendas are.
More than $600 million of this so-called “dark money” has already been poured into our federal elections, and that’s only going to increase as we ramp up for the next presidential race.
Americans aren’t happy about this.
When President Barack Obama called in January for a “better politics” where “we spend less time drowning in dark money for ads that pull us into the gutter,” he wasn’t just speaking for himself.
He was tapping into a deep-seated unease among everyday Americans who know that our political system can’t work for us when it’s awash in millions of dollars of untraceable money.
But President Obama can do more than simply call attention to the problem. He can take a big step toward fixing it by issuing an executive order requiring companies with government contracts to disclose their political spending.
That would mean that many of the nation’s biggest corporations — like Exxon Mobil, Lockheed Martin, AT&T, Chrysler, and Verizon, just to name a few — would have to let the American people know about their political spending. That would turn some of that dark money into plain old “money.”
As The Washington Post editorial board wrote earlier this year, disclosure is “the backbone of accountability.” The public needs to be able to follow the money trail, see who’s behind political spending, and call them out when they don’t like what they see.
Even the Supreme Court’s conservative majority, which opened the floodgates to unlimited corporate political spending with its 2010 Citizens United decision, has underscored the need for disclosure. Transparency, wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy in the ruling, “enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages.”
Today, only one-fourth of the country’s largest government contractors disclose their contributions to outside groups. That means that many of the corporations receiving the biggest government contracts — from taxpayer money — are likely doing a great deal of secret spending to influence elections.
President Obama is right: Ordinary Americans are tired of being pulled “into the gutter.” We’re tired of seeing corporations rig our political system with untold amounts of money from undisclosed sources.
The White House should issue an executive order to let voters see for themselves who’s trying to buy political influence to distort our democracy.
What are these corporations trying to hide? And why should We the People hand over our taxpayer money to help them hide it?
On Tuesday the Huffington Post’s Paul Blumenthal revealed that in 2012, the Online Consumers Network, an “arm of the online payday loan empire industry,” gave $200,000 to two dark money groups connected to top House Republicans during the industry’s push to roll back the power of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
In other words, two years after the Citizens United decision that allowed for unlimited outside spending to influence elections, payday loan interests were funneling dark money political spending to benefit officials who could help in their efforts to fight oversight and regulation.
While this is far from surprising in light of the current state of our campaign finance laws, it flies in the face of how regulation should work. From the chemical industry ramping up political spending as Congress takes up a bill overhauling the regulation of chemicals, to the payday loan industry throwing money against oversight efforts, industry interests should never be driving the legislative or regulatory process. The public good should be.
Fighting to make governmental action about protecting ordinary Americans rather than protecting the bottom line of major corporations shouldn’t be controversial. It’s simply expecting our political system to work as it was intended: for the people.
Last week, 11 new towns in New Hampshire passed resolutions calling for a constitutional amendment to overturn cases like Citizens United v. FEC. The resolutions direct state and federal legislators to guarantee that Congress and states can once again regulate political spending, and also make it clear that corporations do not have the same constitutional rights as people to spend money to influence elections.
People For the American Way – along with Open Democracy – has been working with New Hampshire citizens to collect signatures and organize in support of the town resolutions.
“After decisions like Citizens United allowed an unprecedented amount of money into our elections, citizens across New Hampshire are raising their voices in favor of amending the Constitution,” said Lindsay Jakows, New Hampshire Campaign Coordinator with People For the American Way, who has been working with town meeting resolution organizers statewide. “The energy behind this push is enormous, and it’s growing nationwide. Citizens in 16 states and over 600 municipalities across the country have already passed resolutions in favor of such an amendment. Everyday Americans want to see real change and are willing to organize resolutions in their own towns to get us closer to a democracy truly of, by, and for the people.”
The towns that passed resolutions last week included Bedford, Canterbury, Gilmanton, Greenville, Madbury, Mason, Plainfield, Rye, Sandown, Walpole, and Westmoreland. In response to a citizen petition, the Derry Town Council also approved a resolution on January 20 by a 7-0 vote.
Fifty-six New Hampshire towns passed resolutions in previous years, including: Alstead, Amherst, Andover, Atkinson, Barrington, Bradford, Bridgewater, Bristol, Chesterfield, Conway, Cornish, Danville, Deerfield, Dorchester, Dublin, Durham, Eaton, Exeter, Francestown, Groton, Hampstead, Hancock, Hanover, Harrisville, Henniker, Hollis, Hudson, Jaffery, Keene, Kingston, Lee, Lyme, Milford, New Boston, New Durham, New London, Newfields, Newmarket, Northwood, Nottingham, Pelham, Peterborough, Piermont, Plymouth, Rindge, Salem, Sanbornton, Sandwich, Sharon, Stratham, Tilton, Wakefield, Warner, Waterville Valley, Webster, and Windham.
The city council of Franklin and town of Newport will vote on similar petitions in April and May, respectively. City councilor Rob Werner is also working to pass a resolution through the Concord City Council, and other cities may follow Concord’s lead.
On Monday, Wisconsin became the 25th so-called “right to work” state when Gov. Scott Walker signed a bill into law that undermines workers’ rights and is likely to reduce wages in the state.
This divisive bill, which would have more accurately been called a “right to work for less” bill, was fast-tracked by Republican leaders despite being met with intense resistance and had the support of major right-wing funders. Two outside groups in favor of “right to work” legislation, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce and the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity, spent over $5.5 million in support of Scott Walker’s reelection bid. Analysis by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign found that since 2013, Republican legislators in the state have accepted “$26 in contributions from business interests for every $1 in labor contributions.” And the right-wing Bradley Foundation has given millions to groups promoting “right to work” bills, including to a number of groups in Wisconsin.
In Wisconsin and across the country, when people can “follow the money” and see who is bankrolling elected officials and what their agenda is, it changes how they evaluate the bills being considered. But today it’s not always possible to follow the money. Major corporations can funnel an unlimited amount of money through “dark money” groups to influence the political process, and they can do so secretly.
President Obama can, and should, take a big step to shine a light on dark money by issuing an executive order requiring companies that contract with the federal government, companies like Verizon and Lockheed Martin and Exxon Mobil, to disclose their political spending. No matter the issue, voters deserve to know who is trying to buy influence in their state or national government.
Yesterday People For the American way joined more than fifty other organizations in sending a letter to President Obama asking him to issue an executive order requiring government contractors to disclose all of their political spending.
Right now, corporations with government contracts are able to funnel unlimited sums of dark money to influence the elections of those who can put pressure on the officials deciding who is awarded future contracts. Contracts should be awarded to those best for the job, not those who can shell out the most political cash.
But with the stroke of a pen, President Obama could require that government contractors disclose their political spending. This would increase transparency and accountability in our democracy and bring us closer to the “better politics” the president called for in his State of the Union address – a politics in which we “spend less time drowning in dark money for ads that pull us into the gutter.”
And we are indeed drowning in dark money. In 2014's ten most competitive Senate contests, more than 70 percent of outside money spent in support of the winner was from dark money groups.
As the letter notes,
Six years into your presidency, and five years after the Supreme Court issued its tragically misguided ruling in Citizens United v. FEC, we’re now living in a Wild West campaign spending world… Against this backdrop, it is imperative that you act.