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]
Washington, DC -- State and local budget crises and the election of anti-government ideologues have left taxpayers and communities increasingly vulnerable to predatory “privatization” of government services and public infrastructure. “Desperate government is our best customer,” says one finance company executive specializing in the privatization of public infrastructure. A new report from People For the American Way documents that the push to privatize public services and assets often reduces the quality of services, burdens taxpayers and threatens democratic government.
A copy of the full report, Predatory Privatization: Exploiting Financial Hardship, Enriching the One Percent, Undermining Democracy [pdf] is available here: http://site.pfaw.org/pdf/Predatory-Privatization.pdf
“The combination of budget deficits, anti-tax ideology, and financial predators can be deadly to the interests of citizens and communities,” said People For the American Way President Michael Keegan. “Right-wing anti-government and anti-union ideologues are exploiting tough economic times and taking advantage of desperate public officials. The public picks up the tab but gives up control and accountability. The public good should never be on the auction block. If citizens are not vigilant, they will end up paying a terrible long-term price for deals to plug short-term budget holes. ”
Among the examples examined in Predatory Privatization:
The report also gives individuals advice on how to protect the public interest by responding strategically to privatization schemes, including a set of crucial questions that public officials should be forced to answer before voting on any proposal.
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.
People For the American Way today applauded hearings held in the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights, chaired by Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, exploring ways to reverse Citizens United by amending the Constitution and other means.
“Today’s hearing is an important step towards reclaiming our democracy for the people, not deep pocketed special interests,” said Michael Keegan. “Since the Supreme Court handed down its decision in early 2010, we’ve seen hundreds of millions of dollars contaminate our electoral system and profoundly distort our democratic process. I’m proud of the work done across the country by PFAW’s members and activists to reverse the decision. Today’s hearing is a testament to the grassroots efforts of the millions of Americans who want our country to be of, by and for the people.”
Since the Court handed down its decision, a growing movement has coalesced behind amending the Constitution to limit corporate power in our elections.
“This is a movement moment,” said Marge Baker, Executive Vice President of People For the American Way. “Americans across the political spectrum support amending the Constitution to ensure that people, not special interests, hold the power in our democracy. Today’s hearing is an important step in the right direction. I’m grateful for the support we’ve received from members of the Sub-Committee as well as from their colleagues in the House and Senate. I’m eager to continue the fight to make Citizens United a thing of the past.”
Today, concerned citizens and organizations delivered 1,959,063 signatures calling for overturning Citizens United and related cases by amending the Constitution. The petitions were delivered in connection with hearings held by the Constitution Subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee to examine the impact of Citizens United, Speech Now and related cases and the need for constitutional remedies to restore the democratic promise of America. The millions of Americans whose names appear on these petitions reflect the deep-seated public concern about the state of our democracy and the growing grassroots movement to restore government, of, by, and for the people.
Marge Baker, Executive Vice President of People For the American Way:
“The interests of the American people should be front and center in our elections, and today, 1.9 million Americans made that point loud and clear. But despite the message we sent Congress today, all over the country, our voices are being drowned out by the powerful corporations and the super wealthy. Short of changing who sits on the Supreme Court, amending the Constitution is the only way to undo the damage done to our democracy by Citizens United. The American people overwhelmingly support that idea, and 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.”
Leslie Watson Malachi, Director of African American Ministers in Action, a program of People For the American Way:
“This petition drive proves that our collective voice can be the spark of change. Because millions of people have signed their names to proclaim that our democracy is not for sale, this grassroots movement has the power to take back our elections and ensure government by people through fair and transparent elections. We’ve made it clear to our elected representatives that a constitutional amendment is necessary to uphold that ideal. These hearings show how far this movement has come.”
Robert Weissman, President of Public Citizen:
“The choice is simple: We can have a working democracy, in which the people rule, or we can have a Citizens United-facilitated plutocracy, in which giant corporations and the super-rich dominate elections. Rescuing our democracy requires that we overturn Citizens United and other decisions that constitutionalize the “right” of corporations and the super-rich to buy elections. With no prospect of the Court revisiting the damaging decisions it has inflicted, we need a constitutional amendment to reestablish the simple principle that Democracy is for People.”
Justin Ruben, Executive Director of MoveOn.org Political Action:
“We've seen this summer how a handful of billionaires are trying to buy the election. That's one of the reasons nearly 700,000 MoveOn members have spoken out in favor of overturning Citizens United, getting big money out of our elections, and preventing our democracy from being sold to the highest bidder.”
Becky Bond, Political Director of CREDO Action:
“How can the American people have an equal voice in our democracy when corporations are flooding the political system with millions in secret campaign donations? We must pass a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United, end corporate personhood and help get shadowy money out of politics for good.”
Bob Edgar, President & CEO of Common Cause:
“Super PACs have transformed our elections into the sport of kings. Billionaires and corporations are pooling unlimited sums of money into joint accounts, pledging astronomical sums in support of or opposition to candidates, and recklessly drowning out the voices of the American people. These corporations and mega donors are motivated by an expectation of influence and access, often at the expense of the public interest. We cannot afford to auction off our vibrant democracy to the highest bidder.”
Lisa Graves, the Executive Director of the Center for Media and Democracy/ ALECexposed.org:
"While billionaires are openly writing million-dollar checks to Super PACs, millions more is being secretly funneled to front groups whose ads may affect who wins and wields power over people and policy. Deceptively named nonprofit groups are becoming the Swiss bank accounts of elections, receiving secret multi-million dollar gifts that buy ads to influence how Americans vote. We may never know the true identity of those attempting to buy our elections through such shadowy groups -- whether they are corporations or people, domestic or foreign -- but we do know American democracy is increasingly for sale and that's why We the People are demanding that the Constitution be amended to fight this corruption."
Peter Schurman, Campaign Director at Free Speech For People:
“For a campaign we all knew would be difficult, the Senate hearing today is a major milestone: it shows that the growing movement for a constitutional amendment is starting to make a dent in Washington. It's time for Congress and the states to overrule the Supreme Court and make it clear that we the people, not we the corporations, are in charge of American democracy.”
Kaitlin Sopoci-Belknap, National Field Organizing Director, Move to Amend
"In community after community citizens are making clear through ballot initiatives and resolutions that they want their elected representatives to pass an amendment to overrule the Court by abolishing corporate personhood and the doctrine of money as free speech. These hearings are one step toward achieving that amendment, and we won't stop our efforts until the majority of the members of Congress are behind us and show that they understand that their job is to serve the people, not corporations or the privileged few."
David Levine, American Small Business Council CEO and Co-Founder:
“Business leaders would rather invest their money to create jobs than have to compete with big business bank accounts to be heard, and they are fighting back. More than 2,000 business leaders have joined the American Sustainable Business Council's (ASBC) Business for Democracy campaign to fight for a constitutional amendment that overturns the Citizens United decision.”
Eric Byler, President of the Coffee Party Board of Directors:
“Public awareness about money in politics is growing rapidly and crossing all cultural and political divides. Just like the founders of this nation, we are responding to an abuse of power by elite profiteers who feel entitled to govern over people. The task before us is to finish what our founders started — not to start a revolution but to complete one — by amending the Constitution and reestablishing the right to self-governance for people; not profiteers.”
Blair Bowie of U.S. PIRG:
“For nearly forty years, the Supreme Court has been driving us down a road that will inevitably dead end in the demise of American democracy. In equating money with speech the Court rejected the notion that in a democracy the size of your wallet should not determine the volume of your voice. Instead it enshrined the rights of artificial entities and ultra-wealthy individuals to drown out the voices of ordinary citizens in a flood of often secret cash. Ultimately, we can only get out of this judicial rut by amending the U.S. Constitution to clarify to the Supreme Court that the first amendment was never meant to be used as a tool for special interests to co-opt our democratic process. Today’s hearing and the massive citizen mobilization across the country since Citizens United show that the American people are ready to turn this car around.”
Stephanie Taylor, Co-Founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee:
"An unprecedented amount of secret money is already surging through our political system because of the Citizens United ruling. As we’re demonstrating today, there is huge public support for passing a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. Americans want to take our democracy back from big corporations and billionaires. Passing this amendment is a critical first step.”
Bob Fertik, President of Democrats.com:
“The Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United was catastrophic for American democracy. The American people now see the results in the form of endless TV attack ads, most of which are aimed at destroying President Obama. The Super PAC Billionaires who bought these ads remain largely anonymous, like hidden puppeteers pulling on strings. One million members of Democrats.com are united in our determination to pass a Constitutional Amendment to overturn Citizens United and replace Super PACs and other corrupt election money with clean public funds. Money out, voters in!”
Christopher Campbell, Wolf PAC:
"Our democracy is in serious trouble. It's time to change that. It's time we end the corporate takeover of our government. The only way to do that is to bypass the corporate-owned Congress and Supreme Court – and pass a constitutional amendment. We must pass a 28th Amendment saying that corporations are not people and they do not have the right to buy our elections."
Larry Cohen, President of Communications Workers of America:
“Our electoral process should be about the rights of individuals to participate in our nation's politics. That's what democracy looks like. The Communications Workers of America commends elected officials at every level of government who are fighting to restore fairness to our political process. The role of money in politics must be completely overhauled. Today it dwarfs everything else and is distorting our democracy. Working with other progressive organizations, CWA is committed to stopping the flow of secret cash to political campaigns and making it clear to all dollars are not speech. This effort will require constitutional changes and other measures to overturn the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which opened the floodgates for secret spending and today enables billionaires to buy our nation’s elections. We also will work for the public financing of elections, because without these very real changes, the one percent will continue to control our politics.”
Natalie Foster, CEO of Rebuild the Dream:
"Throughout U.S. history, whenever something in our democracy hasn’t been working, we’ve amended the Constitution. We’ve amended the Constitution to protect and extend the right to vote. Even basic rights we take for granted, like freedom of speech, are from amendments. Now, we must get big money out of our politics. This is another moment to make history and form a more perfect union together. "
The vast majority of Americans oppose Citizens United and related cases, and a grassroots movement calling on public officials to take action is growing stronger. This year, 51 organizations submitted a letter to congressional leaders calling for these very hearings, and more than 1,800 public officials from 41 states are already on record in support of constitutional remedies. More information on the effort to amend the Constitution can be found at www.united4thepeople.org.
The following originally appeared at Huffington Post.
Yesterday, Senate Republicans voted, for a second time in two days, to continue their filibuster of the DISCLOSE Act, a bill that would simply require outside groups spending money on elections to tell the public where their money comes from. At the same time, not surprisingly, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is in hot water for failing to disclose more than the minimum of personal tax returns and lying about his history at the company that made his fortune -- all while we know that a portion of his wealth was hidden in infamously secretive Swiss bank accounts.
Senate Republicans and Romney are spending a lot of time and energy this week to keep their financial histories secret. It's only natural to ask: What do they have to hide?
You would think the DISCLOSE Act would be an easy bill to pass. In fact, many Republican Senators were "for it before they were against it". What it does is simple: it requires any organization -- corporation, union, super PAC or non-profit -- that spends money influencing elections to report within a day any election-related expenditure of $10,000 or more. It also requires that these organizations make public the names of the individuals and corporations contributing $10,000 or more to fund this election spending. In short, all those front groups that have been pouring money into elections since Citizens United will have to disclose who their major donors are. Voters would know who was trying to tell them what.
This is not a partisan issue. Disclosure requirements, like those in the DISCLOSE Act, were endorsed as constitutional by the Supreme Court majority that handed down Citizens United. Even the conservative justices who saw no problem with more money in politics assumed that disclosure would be a check on the integrity of the election process.
But Republicans in Congress have been fighting tooth and nail to keep DISCLOSE from the books. Why? The fact that they might not want to publicize the motives of some of these super donors, and the fact that the new flood of outside political spending overwhelmingly favors conservatives, might have something to do with it.
Meanwhile, Mitt Romney is having disclosure problems of his own. It's standard practice for presidential candidates to release their past tax returns -- President Obama has made public his returns from the past dozen years. Even Romney called on his gubernatorial opponents in Massachusetts to release their returns. (In a classic Romney flip-flop, when he was later asked to hold himself to the same standard, he said his original demands had been wrong).
The only conclusion to draw from Romney's tax-return reticence is that there's something he doesn't want us to see. The recent revelations that Romney has told conflicting stories about when he left his job at Bain Capital might give us a taste of what he's kept hidden. And hiding part of his fortune in tax havens like the Cayman Islands and in Swiss bank accounts that have for centuries epitomized financial secrecy doesn't help.
The issue of financial disclosure isn't a sideshow to this election -- it's a big part of what this election is about. How can we trust senators who spend more time covering up the sources of election spending on their behalf than they do legislating? How can we trust a candidate who won't be open and honest with voters about the source of his personal fortune and the taxes he has paid?
Full disclosure should be a no-brainer in honest politics. The public knows that. Even the Supreme Court knows that. The only people who seem to be missing the message are the politicians who are desperately trying to win elections without telling voters who might be buying them.
Today, Monday July 16th 2012, the U.S. Senate will vote on whether to end the filibuster of the DISCLOSE Act, and more likely than not, the effort to bring the popular bill to a final floor vote will fail. Yet the DISCLOSE Act is a bill so fundamentally logical and conspicuously necessary for the health of our democracy, it is mind boggling that even one U.S. Senator would dare to not support it - let alone label it so extreme that the Senate should not even be allowed to vote on it.
The bill is about transparency, and the American people’s right to know who’s funding the campaign ads that are flooding our airwaves and influencing our opinions.
Here’s a brief history on how we got here:
On January 21st, 2010, the Supreme Court issued its landmark ruling in Citizens United v. FEC, overturning key provisions of the McCain-Feingold Act, creating a new campaign finance system in which corporations and unions could use treasury funds to influence elections.
Three months later, the D.C. Court of appeals struck down federal law limiting contributions to entities engaged in independent expenditures in the case SpeechNOW v. FEC. To reach their decision, the lower court relied upon the rationale put forth in Citizens United, particularly that “independent expenditures … do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.” The Roberts Court declined to consider an appeal of the lower court’s ruling in SpeechNOW, and thus ushered in the era of the super PAC.
Yet anonymous spending was not supposed to be the result of these rulings.
In the opinion of Justice Kennedy, writing for eight of the nine justices on the Court, it was assumed that disclosure requirements were constitutionally permissible and would serve as a check in this new I.E. spending reality.
With the advent of the Internet, prompt disclosure of expenditures can provide shareholders and citizens with the information needed to hold corporations and elected officials accountable for their positions and supporters.
… citizens can see whether elected officials are ‘in the pocket’ of so-called moneyed interests.
… disclosure permits citizens and shareholders to react to the speech of corporate entities in a proper way. This transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages.
But that transparency has not been codified into law. At present, there is no law or statute that requires entities that make independent expenditures to disclose to the general public the identities of those who gave money to the entity specifically for political ads and other spending.
Following Citizens United in 2010, Congress came close to mandating disclosure when the House passed the DISCLOSE act. The bill had strong majority support in the Senate, so the Republicans filibustered it. Unfortunately, the effort to end the filibuster failed in the Senate by one vote. It died on the Senate floor with a 59 to 39 split on a cloture motion, presciently extending what historian Robert Caro wrote about the Senate of the late 1950’s to the present day, that “For almost a century, [the Senate] had not merely embodied but had empowered, with an immense power, the forces of conservatism and reaction in America.”
Yet disclosure should not be a conservative issue or a liberal issue. This is a democratic issue, with the fundamentals of our democracy at stake. In 2012 America however, Republican political partisanship and hunger for power at all costs have taken precedent over the need for reform; and Republican Senate leadership is holding firm. Issues vital to the health of our democracy - whether they be voting rights or campaign finance rules - are now warped into partisan issues.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and opponents of the DISCLOSE act are desperate to find ways to discredit it and justify their unjustifiable opposition.
Take for example, McConnell’s piece in the USA Today, "Disclose Act is un-American," where he writes:
The Supreme Court, in Citizens United v. the FEC, correctly ruled that Congress may not ban political speech based on the identity of the speaker. (sic)
The Disclose Act would make this and any future administration's ability to punish and intimidate its political enemies even easier. It is the Democrats' attempt to get around the court by compelling certain targeted groups to disclose the names of their donors, while excluding others, such as unions, from doing the same.
While Senator McConnell cries out "un-American" and "unions" to scare his base - like Senator McCarthy once cried out "communists" on the Senate floor - the facts are irrefutable. Under the bill’s provisions, unions are treated equally to for-profit corporations. Case closed.
Furthermore, supporting the DISCLOSE Act is not a political power grab; however to reject it is, since the majority of the undisclosed money is benefiting the Republican party. So it goes for the bill’s opponents. Take reality and turn it on its head.
McConnell then declares:
This bill calls for government-compelled disclosure of contributions to all grassroots groups, which is far more dangerous than its proponents admit.
The Supreme Court addressed this issue in 1958 in NAACP v. Alabama, ruling that forced disclosure of the NAACP's member lists by Alabama would discourage people from freely associating with a cause or group.
Once again, McConnell has to obfuscate the truth to hide the fact that he has no real argument.
The bill requires organizations (corporations, unions, super PACs, non-profits) to report within 24 hours of making an election expenditure of $10,000 or more. Donors that give $10,000 or more to the organization would be made public, unless they specify that their contributions to the organization cannot be used for election spending. The idea that every grassroots group will have to turn in their membership lists to the evil federal government is a scare tactic, and unsubstantiated.
The bill is designed to remove the added layer of anonymity ‘speakers’ are currently hiding behind by donating to nondescript (c)(4) and (c)(6) organizations that – unlike for-profit corporations, advocacy groups, and unions – do not operate in the public sphere, and whose purpose generally is unknown to the public.
One would imagine that halting this egregious process would be a quick fix. But one would also imagine the same for voting on judicial nominations, or extending the debt ceiling, or allowing Americans to cast a vote on Election Day. Unfortunately, that’s not how 2012 America functions.
The most unbelievable part of McConnell’s and Republican obstruction is that this DISCLOSE act is a watered-down version of its original. The 2010 provisions that would have required funders to “Stand By Their Ads” has been removed, as have the prohibition on electoral advocacy participation by corporations that received TARP funds. The bill will not be effective until 2013, so would not even affect this election cycle. But in the end, it’s definitely a step in the right direction and should be a no brainer for any elected official committed to the integrity of our elections.
Yet we are bound to hear the absurd cry of “union carve-out” tonight on the Senate floor when the bill is debated, and all the other diversionary arguments. The obstructionists need straw men, since without them, there could only be silence.
Today, Assembly Joint Resolution 22 passed the California Senate with a 24-11 vote, and thus California became the sixth state – joining Hawaii, New Mexico, Vermont, Maryland and Rhode Island – to call upon Congress to propose an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to overturn the Supreme Court’s disastrous 2010 Citizens United decision. That decision opened the floodgates to corporate and special interest spending in our elections; and sparked a grassroots movement to amend the Constitution and restore government of, by, and for the people.
AJR 22 was introduced by Assemblymember Bob Wieckowski, who stated, “Today’s vote sends a clear message that California rejects this misguided ruling made by the conservative activists on the Supreme Court.” That same block of conservative Supreme Court justices who supported the majority opinion in Citizens United just weeks ago summarily reversed a case brought to the court by Montana, which refused to strike down their century-old anti-corruption law prohibiting corporate expenditures in elections – proving now, more than ever before, the need for an amendment to overturn the ruling.
California’s largest cities, Los Angeles and San Francisco, have already passed amendment resolutions, as have well over 30 other municipalities in the state. Support for the amendment strategy has been following this bottom-up trend (from grassroots to local; local to state; and state to federal) in a democratic surge of activism that demonstrates the power of the movement. As recently witnessed in Philadelphia, public officials take note when these resolutions pass.
It is now the responsibility of the Californian congressional delegation to join – if they have not already – the growing list of public officials who have pledged their support for constitutional remedies. And it is the responsibility of Californians, and people across the nation, to keep fighting and pushing for an amendment.
The money in politics problem is not going away … but neither are we. Onward!
PFAW staff, members and activists have been very busy in Wisconsin working to turn out every last progressive vote in the final days leading up to the June 5 recall election.
Here's PFAW Political Director Randy Borntrager at a field office with our great partners at Voces De La Frontera, who headed up canvassing efforts in the Latino community:
Here he is giving a radio interview:
And canvassing door to door with volunteers from Voces:
These are just a few images from GOTV weekend... as members of our team return home and things become less intense, we'll have more pictures to share with you from various activies and events from our Recall the Right campaign in Wisconsin.
One of the last acts of Justice John Paul Stevens on the Supreme Court bench that he sat on for nearly thirty-five years was to read a summary of his scathing dissent of the Citizens United v. FEC decision, aloud, stating repeatedly, in one form or another that corporations “are not themselves members of ‘We the People’ by whom and for whom our Constitution was established.” Unfortunately, this view, which the vast majority of Americans agree with, and which seems so self-evident, was not held by the majority of the court.
To read the decision aloud was noteworthy; justices typically do so on cases they believe have special merit. And Justice Stevens correctly understood then that Citizens United was just that.
Over two years later, as the effects of Citizens United take hold, as corporate and special interest spending flood the 2012 elections and overwhelm the political process, Justice Stevens revisited the topic at the University of Arkansas’ Clinton Schools of Public Service. As reported by the Huffington Post, Justice Stevens took to the lectern Wednesday to address the inherent legal contradictions that are still outstanding under Justice Kennedy’s lead opinion.
Stevens alluded to President Obama’s apprehension, voiced in his 2010 State of the Union Speech, that the decision would “open the floodgates to special interests -- including foreign corporations -- to spend without limit in our elections.” Stevens stated (emphasis added):
… the former professor of constitutional law at the University of Chicago Law School [President Obama] made three important and accurate observations about the Supreme Court majority's opinion …
… third, the logic of the opinion extends to money spent by foreign entities. That is so because the Court placed such heavy emphasis on the premise that the First Amendment generally prohibits the suppression of political speech based on the speaker's identity. Indeed, the opinion expressly stated, “We find no basis for the proposition that, in the context of political speech, the Government may impose restrictions on certain disfavored speakers.”
Justice Stevens is correct that the logic of the Court’s opinion in Citizens United extends to permitting foreign corporations to make independent expenditures to influence U.S. elections. As he pointed out in his Citizens United dissent, the majority opinion’s failure to take on the issue of foreign corporate spending when striking down portions of the McCain-Feingold Act is a glaring omission, one that exposes the logical flaws in Kennedy’s argument. And as more cases like Bluman v. FEC arise – in which foreign nationals sought, and were denied the right to make electoral contributions and expenditures – the court will need to further clarify its position on why domestic corporations, and not other “speakers” have the right “to speak.” On the subject, Stevens reasoned:
… in due course it will be necessary for the Court to issue an opinion explicitly crafting an exception that will create a crack in the foundation of the Citizens United majority opinion. For [Justice Alito's] statement that it is "not true" that foreign entities will be among the beneficiaries of Citizens United offers good reason to predict there will not be five votes for such a result when a case arises that requires the Court to address the issue in a full opinion. And, if so, the Court must then explain its abandonment of, or at least qualify its reliance upon, the proposition that the identity of the speaker is an impermissible basis for regulating campaign speech. It will be necessary to' explain why the First Amendment provides greater protection to the campaign speech of some non-voters than to that of other non-voters.
It is very possible that a plethora of cases like Bluman v. FEC will reach the district courts. And it’s very possible that the lower courts will begin to poke so many holes in the Citizens United rationale that the Supreme Court will have no choice but to revisit the case.
Watch Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's Democratic challenger Tom Barrett wipe the floor with the Tea Party's favorite poster boy in their first debate. Then share the videos (especially with people in Wisconsin) to help get people fired up for the election this Tuesday, June 5!
If there was any question that the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United skews the balance of influence in our elections to the rich, an analysis by Rolling Stone shows that the real beneficiaries of the decision are really the very very rich. This profile of the 16 donors who have given at least $1 million to super PACs supporting Mitt Romney, including hedge fund managers, hotel tycoons, oil barons and of course, William Koch, reveals who is making the biggest impact in the presidential election.
In a democracy, we should be electing those who represent vast swaths of the American people. But one thing is clear: the special interests propping up Romney’s campaign have very little in common with average Americans. As Rolling Stone notes:
Most of the megadonors backing his candidacy are elderly billionaires: Their median age is 66, and their median wealth is $1 billion. Each is looking for a payoff that will benefit his business interests, and they will all profit from Romney's pledge to eliminate inheritance taxes, extend the Bush tax cuts for the superwealthy – and then slash the top tax rate by another 20 percent. Romney has firmly joined the ranks of the economic nutcases who spout the lie of trickle-down economics.
How are these individuals able to throw so much of their wealth into the race? Essentially, Citizens United allows individuals and corporations to skirt the caps on contributions to campaign treasuries by funneling money through entities like Super PACs and 501c4 organizations:
Under the new rules, the richest men in America are plying candidates with donations far beyond what Congress intended. "They can still give the maximum $2,500 directly to the campaign – and then turn around and give $25 million to the Super PAC," says Trevor Potter, general counsel of the Campaign Legal Center. A single patron can now prop up an entire candidacy, as casino magnate Sheldon Adelson did with a $20 million donation to the Super PAC backing Newt Gingrich.
It’s unlikely that these donors are throwing so much money into the race solely for bragging rights – they certainly have agendas of their own. Most of the individuals profiled in the article stand to benefit from Romney agenda: more tax cuts to the rich, lax regulation of Wall Street and other industries, a hamstrung E.P.A, lucrative government contracts – and their outsized contributions demonstrate their belief that money buys influence. Citizens United exacerbated this unfortunate reality. At least that can be fixed by the people, with an amendment to the Constitution.
Amazon.com is now the 16th major corporation to cut ties to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), according to reports. The announcement came after more than 500,000 petition signatures– collected by People For the American Way, ColorOfChange.org, CREDO Action, Progressive Change Campaign Committee, SumOfUs and Fuse Washington – were delivered at an event outside the company’s shareholder meeting in Seattle. The petition called on Amazon.com and other corporations to stop funding ALEC, of which Amazon.com had been a member since 2011.
Michael Keegan, President of People For the American Way, issued the following statement:
“Amazon.com has heard the voices of the half million people who signed this petition, and today they did right by their customers. But the ALEC agenda continues to harm many more people across the country. Responsible businesses have no reason to fund ALEC’s agenda, which hurts the working families they depend on. The corporations that have yet to leave ALEC should realize that standing up for their consumers is the best business decision they can make.”