The "Stop the Greed" bus tour rolled into Denver, Colorado today and helped boost support for an important state ballot question on corporate political donations. PFAW’s Colorado Coordinator Ellen Dumm joined Elena Nunez of Colorado Common Cause (pictured above) and Luis Toro of Ethics Watch in support of the bus tour and a ballot initiative to overturn Citizens United.
On Election Day, Colorado voters will have a chance to say “no” to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which allows unlimited corporate campaign donations, by voting for Amendment 65. The ballot measure calls for the Colorado congressional delegation to support a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United.
The Stop the Greed Bus Tour is traveling to states to get the word out about how the billionaire oilmen Koch brothers are pouring millions of dollars into the 2012 elections in an effort to bolster their extreme right-wing agenda.
The Koch brothers have also bankrolled the controversial conservative group True the Vote, which has been accused of challenging eligible voters at the polls and disrupting elections.
The Citizens United decision brought about the rise of super PACs, and empowered 501(c)(4) public advocacy groups and 501(c)(6) trade associations to participate in (at times secretly-funded) electoral advocacy. The resulting influx of money into the election cycle has considerably altered the political landscape – and D.C. lobbyists have taken note.
As reported by Dave Levinthal at POLITICO, interest groups are utilizing super PACs to ‘twist arms.’
So for some issue interest groups, super PACs are a potentially major complement to — if not upgrade over — traditional, Capitol Hill lobbying in their ability to bring heat on lawmakers and twist their arms toward their agendas.
“If you’re a lobbyist, you’re talking with a legislator and mention you’re forming a super PAC, their ears are really going to perk up just because you said the words ‘super PAC,’” said Shana Glickfield, a partner at public affairs firm Beekeeper Group. “It’s such a big, scary thing — and can give you an extra edge of influence.”
One of the first powerful lobbying firms to create a super PAC for additional influence was the National Association of Realtors, which has since rewarded lawmakers friendly to their agenda with hundreds of thousands of dollars in advertisements and air cover. A host of other lobbying groups have done so as well.
As People For noted in our written testimony for the Senate Constitution Subcommittee hearing this past July on the need for constitutional remedies to overturn Citizens United, the power of super PACs is twofold. Not only can special interest groups now spend freely on elections to promote their policy agenda, they can threaten to spend freely, effectively achieving the same result.
Of course, to accomplish its goals, a corporation need not actually spend such sums in every race they are interested in. Far from it. Especially for offices or in areas where electoral races are generally not overwhelmingly expensive – in other words, for most state and local legislative and judicial elections throughout the United States – the implied threat to spend large expenditures against elected officials could easily be enough to “persuade” them to take the “right” position. Conversely, the promise of an enormous windfall in supportive corporate independent expenditures could have an equally persuasive effect.
Such corruption leaves no evidence: no paper trail, no recordings, no ads. But it poisons our nation’s democracy.
Do D.C. lobbyists really need more tools in their arsenal to effectively ‘twist arms’? Are Sacramento lobbyists, Albany lobbyists, Tallahassee lobbyists or any other state-based lobbyists in desperate need of influence?
The obvious answer is no. Yet in the post-Citizens United world, the game is rigged, and those with power only accrue more of it. The people, meanwhile, are left with less and less of a say in government. It’s no wonder the Democratic Party, President Obama, nearly 2,000 public officials, seven state legislatures and over 300 cities/towns, and 1.98 million Americans are in support of a constitutional amendment that would overturn the Citizens United decision.
Two days ago, President Obama sat down for a live “Ask Me Anything” session on the popular social news website Reddit. Of the ten questions President Obama was asked, one pertained to money in the politics:
What are you going to do to end the corrupting influence of money in politics during your second term?
Although not specifically asked about the amendment strategy, President Obama raised the issue in his answer:
Money has always been a factor in politics, but we are seeing something new in the no-holds barred flow of seven and eight figure checks, most undisclosed, into super-PACs; they fundamentally threaten to overwhelm the political process over the long run and drown out the voices of ordinary citizens. We need to start with passing the Disclose Act that is already written and been sponsored in Congress - to at least force disclosure of who is giving to who. We should also pass legislation prohibiting the bundling of campaign contributions from lobbyists. Over the longer term, I think we need to seriously consider mobilizing a constitutional amendment process to overturn Citizens United (assuming the Supreme Court doesn't revisit it). Even if the amendment process falls short, it can shine a spotlight of the super-PAC phenomenon and help apply pressure for change. [Emphasis added]
President Obama already had, through spokespeople, acknowledged his support of constitutional remedies to overturn Citizens United; he had not however done so himself, until now. The very fact that the sitting U.S. President is speaking seriously about the use of constitutional remedies to overturn Citizens United shows how far the movement has come. The movement has clearly made its move to the mainstream.
To date, here is what PFAW and our allies have accomplished:
- 1,951 public officials are now in support of constitutional remedies
- 96 House Representatives; 29 Senators
- 14 amendment resolutions introduced in the 112th Congress
- Over 275 cities and towns have passed resolutions supporting an amendment
- 7 State Legislatures have passed resolutions (HI, NM, VT, MD, RI, CA, and MA)
Yesterday, House Democrats held a press conference highlighting the need to clean up the election system through what they are calling the DARE initiative. (To note, this is the same initiative Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi presented and spoke about in length at PFAW’s 30th Anniversary celebration this past June.) The acronym stands for the following:
D – Disclose
A – Amend
R – Reform
E – Elect
In just a short period of time, the impact of the Supreme Court’s egregious ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which opened the floodgates to corporate and special interest spending in our elections, has been felt nationwide. In response, a growing chorus of activists and organizations are mobilizing to overturn the decision by amending (the A in DARE) the Constitution. As evidenced by the press conference, public officials are responding to this movement. Nearly 2,000 are already on record in support of amending the Constitution to overturn Citizens United, including 92 Representatives in the House.
In attendance of the press conference were Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, House Democratic Caucus chairman Rep John B. Larson (D-CT.), U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes (D-MD.), U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA.), U.S. Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI), U.S. Rep. James Clyburn (),U.S. Rep Dennis Kucinich (D-OH), as well as Nick Nyhart, President and CEO of Public Campaign.
Nyhart outlined three critical steps needed to remedy this: full disclosure, small donor and citizen-led funding of elections, and the ability to limit donations from large corporate entities.
Recently Republicans and Democrats clashed on the Disclose Act, which would have required the disclosure of all major donors in the election process. Leader Pelosi expressed her concern that dark money is “suffocating the airwaves and suppressing the vote.”
Not so long ago, disclosure was a bi-partisan issue. Congressman Van Hollen made this clear, quoting Senate Minority Leader McConnell’s (R-KT) statement from 2000 endorsing such reforms: “Why would a little disclosure be better than a lot of disclosure?”
Expressing his passion about the issue, Congressman Dennis Kucinich, motioning toward the Capitol building, told reporters, “in post-production you might want to include a ‘For Sale’ sign in front of that.” Kucinich stated, “Let’s be candid, the system is for sale.” The outgoing congressman urged immediate action on removing the corrupting influence of dark money, lest we lose our republic to the influence of special interests. This government must remain in the hands of the people - or as Mr. Nyhart put it, remain “Of, by, and for the many… not the money.”
[Dylan Hewitt, Amelia Coffey, and Michael Jameson contributed to this post]
Two weeks ago, Senate Democrats filed cloture on the Republican-led filibuster of the DISCLOSE Act, and failed to achieve the necessary 60 votes to bring the bill to the floor. Thus the DISCLOSE Act died once again, as it did in 2010, at the hands of Republican Senators who prefer obstruction and dark money over functionality and transparency. And unless there is an abrupt, unexpected reversal of the tide in the Senate, those who wish to bring a higher level of accountability to our democracy will, in the short term, have to explore alternative routes to bring about such reforms.
Those alternative routes exist in the federal agencies that interpret laws passed by Congress, but that so far have done a poor job in doing so correctly.
For confirmation of this, one need only look at the significant dilution of the McCain-Feingold Act of 2002, which had strict provisions requiring outside groups – including 501(c)(6)’s & 501(c)(4)’s – who participate in electioneering communications (any communication about a clearly identified candidate on satellite, T.V., or radio within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of a general election to a relevant targeted audience) to disclose their donors. The Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling upheld this part of the law, with eight of the nine justices in agreement.
However, transparency would take a back seat with the Federal Elections Commission’s interpretation of the law, in which a loophole to disclosure was written into their regulations. That FEC regulation only requires disclosure of donors for 501(c)(4)’s and 501(c)(6)’s if those donors specifically earmark their donations for the purpose of electioneering communications. Thus as long as a donor does not require specifics for an organization on how to use their donation, disclosure of the donor’s identity is not legally required. Yet the disclosure provisions of McCain Feingold were not written – and were never meant to be interpreted – this way.
On April 2, 2012 Congressman Chris Van Hollen of Maryland’s 8th District won a lawsuit he filed against the FEC challenging the agency’s interpretation of the law. D.C. District Court Judge Amy Jackson found that the FEC had severely watered down existing legal requirements to disclose donors in campaign-related ads, stating “…Congress did not delegate authority to the FEC to narrow the disclosure requirement through agency rulemaking.” While Judge Jackson’s ruling is supposed to restore the statutory requirement that requires greater disclosure of the donors who provide funding for electioneering communications, it remains unclear that it will be implemented. Paul Ryan, FEC program director and associate legal counsel at the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center has assessed, “Unfortunately, it’s highly unlikely that this dysfunctional commission will heed the court’s order anytime soon.” Implementation will also be delayed further due to appeals from conservative groups.
Had Congress’ law had been implemented accurately, full disclosure would have been the reality of the 2010 congressional races, which instead were marred by over $135 million in undisclosed spending; and which continues to mar the current election cycle.
Another party at fault is the IRS, which has sat idly by as a number of overtly politically-based 501(c)(4)’s have engaged in an overabundance of election activity when they are supposed to be first and foremost social welfare organizations. It seems obvious to all that the primary activity of organizations like Crossroads GPS and American Action Network is to engage in political advocacy and spend hundreds of millions of dollars influencing elections. Due to IRS inaction on the issue, the donors of these organizations need not be publicly disclosed.
In June the IRS finally initiated steps to to investigate some of these organizations taking advantage of tax exempt status while at the same time being overly engaged in election processes, in particular Crossroads GPS. However it is unlikely that any actions or penalties will be taken or applied in the near future leaving these huge, undisclosed, tax-exempt pools of money to flood our electoral process for the foreseeable future.
Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, IRS regulations that implement Internal Revenue Code distort the intent of the law. As noted by Democracy 21 and the Campaign Legal Center in a letter to IRS commissioners:
The Internal Revenue Code provides that section 501(c)(4) groups must engage "exclusively" in social welfare activities. … The regulations implementing this provision state, however, that "social welfare" organizations must be "primarily engaged" in social welfare activities.
If, as Congress intended, 501(c)(4) groups could achieve their tax-exempt status only by “exclusively” engaging in social welfare activities, the Crossroad GPS’s of the world would instantly have their (c)(4) statuses revoked. Instead, as we’ve witnessed with the tax-exempt status of the American Legislative Exchange Council, the big money players are able to indirectly charge the American taxpayer for their lobbying and political activity by not paying their fair share, benefitting their entrenched interests and not the country as a whole.
We must not give up on transparency in our democracy, especially if our electoral process is to remain awash in unlimited spending under the Citizens United ruling. In the not so distant past this was the dream of Republicans and Democrats alike. In his 2002 memoir “Worth Fighting For,” John McCain, a former champion of transparency, wrote “By the time I became a leading advocate of campaign finance reform, I had come to appreciate that the public's suspicions were not always mistaken. Money does buy access in Washington, and access increases influence that often results in benefiting the few at the expense of the many.” We await a return to this sober analysis by the GOP, and by the agencies who implement the laws Congress passes; the foundations of our republic are dependent on it.
Last week, the Constitution Subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee of the U.S. Senate held hearings entitled, “Taking Back Our Democracy: Responding to Citizens United and the Rise of Super PACs,” which examined the devastating Citizens United decision, and the need to amend the Constitution to overturn it. As acknowledged by the hearings’ participants – and as evidenced by the overflow crowd who came to see the hearing in person, as well as the 1.9 million petition signatures calling for an amendment that were delivered to the committee and on display in the room – these hearings were held in response to the growing grassroots movement across the country in support of constitutional remedies, and demonstrated a form of bottom-up democratic participation seldom witnessed in Washington.
As noted by the Executive Vice President of PFAW, Marge Baker, “… by holding these hearings, our elected representatives are honoring the millions of Americans who are calling for a Constitution that ensures that “We the People” means all the people, not just the privileged few.”
The first panel of the hearings featured testimony from Senator Max Baucus, Senator Tom Udall, Senator Bernie Sanders, and Representative Donna Edwards, all of whom have introduced amendment resolutions in the 112th Congress. Although their approaches differ, one theme remained consistent throughout their testimonies: since legislative remedies alone cannot undo the damage wrought by Citizens United, the amendment strategy must be employed to take back our democracy.
In his opening remarks, Senator Durbin, who chairs the Constitution Subcommittee, echoed the thoughts of many of his colleagues – currently 28 U.S. Senators are in support of an amendment, as are 92 U.S. Representatives – by stating, “After much deliberation, with some hesitation, I have reached the conclusion that a constitutional amendment is necessary to clean up our campaign finance system once and for all.”
Indeed, although we strongly advocate for an amendment that would restore the American people’s ability to regulate election spending, People For The American Way agrees that the amendment process should not be taken lightly. As we noted in the written testimony we submitted for the hearings:
Amending the United States Constitution is not something we recommend lightly, but the danger caused by the Roberts Court’s distortion of the First Amendment requires us to take corrective action. Some who are genuinely concerned about the threat to our democracy might nevertheless be reluctant to tamper with perhaps the greatest legal document in world history. As an organization that deeply respects the Constitution, we understand that reluctance, and we address this section of our comments to those of that view.
The American people, as shown by polling PFAW conducted on the issue, understand better than their elected representatives the need to support constitutional remedies to overturn Citizens United. The second panel of the hearings reflected this sentiment. It featured testimony from former Louisiana Governor and 2012 GOP presidential candidate Charles ‘Buddy’ Roemer and the celebrated legal scholar Professor Lawrence Lessig. As Professor Lessig stated in his testimony, “simply, the people have lost faith in their government,” and therefore deep reform is now necessary. Testifying at the request of the ranking Republican member of the subcommittee, Senator Lindsey Graham, was senior fellow of the Cato Institute, Ilya Shapiro. He opposed not only the amendment proposals in the hearings, but also the DISCLOSE Act, which Republicans recently blocked from coming to a vote in a highly partisan filibuster.
In a piece published last week, Senior Fellow of People For the American Way Professor Jamie Raskin stated, “The American people have been forced several times to amend the Constitution to reverse the damage caused by the Supreme Court when it acts in collusion with the enemies of social justice and popular democracy.” Professor Raskin then cited the Dred Scott decision, Minor v. Hapersett, and Breedlove v. Suttles all as cases that solidified unjust and undemocratic judicial systems; and all of which were later overturned by constitutional amendment.
It is up to the American people to ensure that Congress continues to examine the amendment strategy, and that Citizens United is added to that list. Video highlights of the hearings are featured below, while individual testimonies can be found on PFAW’s YouTube Page.