It’s hard to know where to begin when running down the list of harmful special interest giveaways in the omnibus spending bill narrowly passed by the House yesterday. Earlier this week, we wrote about a rider in the bill that would allow the amount of money rich donors can give to political parties to skyrocket. The legislation moving through Congress also includes a provision that would have the effect of allowing mountaintop mining companies to keep filling Appalachian streams with toxic waste. Yet another rider is a “Wall Street giveaway,” actually drafted by Citigroup’s lobbyists, that would repeal a piece of financial regulation and let banks take part in more kinds of high-risk trading deals with government backed money.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren railed against the Wall Street rider on the Senate floor:
[Americans] see a Congress that works just fine for the big guys, but it won’t lift a finger to help them. If big companies can deploy armies of lawyers and lobbyists to get the Congress to vote for special deals that benefit themselves, then we will simply confirm the view of the American people that the system is rigged.
It is, as Sen. Warren says, hard not to think that “the system is rigged” when members of Congress use a spending bill to sneak through major policy shifts that benefit wealthy political donors, Wall Street executives, and big businesses, while leaving the majority of Americans with an even weaker political voice.
This is especially true when you consider that those who voted for the rider-filled spending deal were, by and large, the members who received bigger contributions from the benefitting industries. The Washington Post compared the House spending bill votes with Center for Responsive Politics data on campaign contributions to each representative from the finance, insurance, and real estate industries. What they found is disheartening, but not surprising:
On average, members of Congress who voted yes received $322,000 from those industries. Those who voted no? $162,000.
And that doesn’t even take into account the dark money whose source is unknown to the public (but likely known by the officials who benefit from it).
It’s one more example of the influence that money can buy in our current system, where big gifts from corporate spenders pave the way for corporate political victories. When Wall Street lobbyists can literally write the laws they want, no matter the impact on ordinary Americans, it’s clear that we need serious reform to the rules governing money in politics.
The infusion of big money into our democracy is helping to perpetuate racial inequalities, according to a report released yesterday by Demos. As we have seen in recent election cycles, the most aggressive and influential political donors are overwhelmingly white and affluent, paving the way for elected officials to be beholden to a donor class and far less concerned about the needs of most Americans.
While the economic biases of money in politics are clear, the report, called “Stacked Deck: How the Racial Bias in Our Big Money Political System Undermines Our Democracy and Our Economy,” also highlights some unsettling information on how elections dominated by wealthy special interests impede efforts for a more racially diverse and responsive political system:
Elections funded primarily by wealthy, white donors mean that candidates as a whole are less likely to prioritize the needs of people of color; and that candidates of color are less likely to run for elected office, raise less money when they do, and are less likely to win. Ultimately, people of color are not adequately represented by elected officials.
• A recent study of black candidate success concluded that “the underrepresentation of blacks is driven by constraints on their entry onto the ballot” and that the level of resources in the black community is “an important factor for shaping the size of the black candidate pool.”
• Candidates of color raised 47 percent less money than white candidates in 2006 state legislative races, and 64 percent less in the South.
• Latino candidates for state House raised less money than non-Latinos in 67 percent of the states where Latinos ran in the 2004 election cycle.
• In a typical election cycle, 90 percent or more of the candidates who raise the most money win their races.
• Ninety percent of our elected leaders are white, despite the fact that people of color are 37 percent of the U.S. population.
• In a 2011 study, researchers found that white state legislators of both major political parties were less likely to reply to letters received from assumed constituents with apparently African American names (like “DeShawn Jackson”).
Tellingly, a governing body that skews heavily white also creates policies that can have detrimental impacts on racial minorities. The report also compiled case studies that demonstrate how big money disrupts progress on racial equality on a variety of issues, including:
• Private Prisons and Incarceration. Incarceration in the U.S. has increased by 500 percent over the past three decades, with people of color vastly over-represented in our nation’s prisons and jails. This is the result of policies that have put more people in jail for longer sentences despite dropping crime rates, policies boosting the bottom line of the growing private prison industry.
• The Subprime Lending Crisis. Because of rampant discriminatory lending practices, the subprime-lending crisis hit people of color especially hard. Banks and other mortgage lenders used millions of dollars of political contributions and lobbying to weaken and circumvent consumer-friendly regulations, resulting in the largest loss of wealth in communities of color in American history.
• The Minimum Wage. The federal minimum wage has remained stagnant, losing real value over the past several decades. Raising the wage to $10.10 an hour would lift more than 3.5 million workers of color out of poverty, but Congress has instead prioritized policies favored by the wealthy.
As money continues to dominate the process by which we elected public officials, our government moves further away from the true definition of a democracy and continue to serve only a very narrow segment of Americans.
The government spending bill released by the House last night includes a rider that would drastically increase the amount of money the super-rich can give to national party committees. The language included in the spending deal would allow wealthy donors to give ten times the current limit to political parties.
Adam Smith at Public Campaign put the potential new limits into perspective in a powerful graphic:
With the new annual individual party limit expected to be more than six times the median household income, it’s clear that this shift is simply about handing the wealthiest political donors even more power and access. A tiny fraction of the country already dominates political spending; these changes would make it even harder for ordinary Americans to have a seat at the table.
What’s more, these provisions, which would have major implications for the health of our democratic process, were not even debated by Congress. They were simply snuck into an omnibus spending bill – a quiet attack that threatens to further undermine what’s left of our country’s common-sense rules limiting big money in politics.
After the midterm elections, exit polls found that nearly two-thirds of voters said that our system already favors the wealthy. Americans are ready for a government that works for everyone. But it looks like what we’re getting instead are Congressional leaders increasing committed to big money donors at the expense of everyone else.
Speaking on a panel about immigration at conservative pundit David Horowitz’s “Restoration Weekend” last month, Rep. Louie Gohmert recounted a conversation he had with “a Hispanic border patrolman” which he said proved that the crisis of children fleeing to the U.S. border from violence in Central America was a hoax.
Insisting that “not a single child, young child, ever comes across unaccompanied” because many came with the help of smugglers, the Texas Republican said that the fact that some of the children were brought to the border by people affiliated with gangs shows that they were not actually fleeing gang violence.
Gohmert quoted the border patrolman, who he said told the children: “Now you may find some gringo who buys that stuff, but you and I know you paid a gang to bring you into this country, so don’t tell me you came to escape gang violence!”
Gohmert has previously claimed that the Central American children where lying about gang violence.
In the same panel discussion, Rep. John Fleming of Louisiana claimed that unlike “the way it worked traditionally in America,” today’s immigrants “come from countries where they look to the government, that’s their tradition is that the government takes care of them.”
“Now when it destroys their civilization, when it destroys their economy, they look for another place to go. And where do they come? They come here. And then what you see is a progressive lower standard of living.”
“Many of them now when they come they refuse to learn our culture, they refuse to learn our language, they refuse to build the skills necessary to be successful in America,” he added.
Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who is poised to become the new Senate Majority Leader when Republicans take over the Senate in January, is well known for his opposition to limits on big money in politics – whether through his unabashed support for the disastrous Citizens United ruling or his filibusters to prevent Senate votes on laws requiring more campaign finance disclosure. Now, before he even becomes Majority Leader, McConnell has already tried to further dismantle commonsense rules on money in elections.
McConnell attempted to add a rider to an omnibus appropriations bill – which must pass in order to prevent another government shutdown – that would “effectively chip away at direct contribution limits for candidates.” After opposition from sitting Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Rules Committee Chairman Charles Schumer (D-NY), Senator McConnell has backed off his proposal for now. Nonetheless, the writing is on the wall. McConnell wants to further deregulate the spending of private money in political campaigns.
Under current law, contributions to candidates in a two-year cycle are limited to $5,200 per donor. Donors can also give $20,000 to state party committees and more than $60,000 to national party committees. Currently candidates are limited in their ability to coordinate spending with the party committees that support them. If passed, McConnell’s measure would have effectively allowed party committees to fully coordinate with candidates in spending campaign funds.
While Senate Democrats rejected the rider, Sen. McConnell’s actions clearly show his intentions to further roll back existing campaign finance laws and threaten efforts to limit big money in politics when Republicans take charge of the Senate in January. This is likely a preview of what’s in store for us in the coming years.
Small business owners are in favor of reforming our current campaign finance system, according to a new opinion poll from the Small Business Majority. In a nationwide survey last month, 77 percent of small business employers said that “big businesses have a significant impact on government decisions and the political process,” and nearly as many (72 percent) said they believe major changes are necessary to reform campaign finance laws. Only four percent of respondents said they believe no changes are necessary.
Yesterday Sam Becker from the Wall Street Cheat Sheet highlighted the conclusions of the survey:
[T]here is significant concern about the political and economic landscape, and the growing influence of corporate power on the parts of small business owners. With nearly three-quarters of small businesses saying they feel that they are at a disadvantage because of corporate influence in politics, it lends extra credence to the notion that our election process — which typically tends to cater heavily to the small business crowd — is in need of some serious reforms.
This is a good reminder that when enormously powerful corporate interests claim to speak for “the business community,” they are not necessarily speaking for the small businesses that play such an important role in our economy and in our communities. The results of this survey underscore the idea that campaign finance reform enjoys broad support among Americans of diverse professions and backgrounds. Religious organizations, labor unions, and business associations – in addition to many groups in the progressive nonprofit community – are mobilizing around solutions to big money in politics. These solutions include transparency in political donations and public financing of elections, as well as a constitutional amendment to overturn Supreme Court decisions such as Citizens United v. FEC, which opened the floodgates to unlimited corporate spending in politics.
A top Susan B. Anthony expert is once again taking to task the anti-choice group Susan B. Anthony List for using the name of the women’s rights pioneer to push its anti-abortion political agenda.
What drew the latest criticism from Deborah L. Hughes, president of the National Susan B. Anthony Museum & House in Rochester, New York, was a pre-election Iowa mailer from the Susan B. Anthony List that looked like an official “public health alert” but that was in fact a slam on pro-choice Senate candidate Bruce Braley. SBA List vowed to spend $3 million in the 2014 election cycle to support Senate candidates who oppose abortion rights.
In an October 31 statement, Hughes said that SBA Lists’s “tactics repeatedly cross a line that is outrageous and inconsistent with who Susan B. Anthony was” and that Anthony’s “good character is being defamed by their actions.”
The recent activities of the Susan B. Anthony List, a 501(c)(4) organization, and its affiliated political action committee, the SBA List Candidate Fund, have raised concerns for the Anthony Museum & those dedicated to protecting the legacy of the great reformer.
The List’s assertions about Susan B. Anthony’s position on abortion are historically inaccurate. “We can make room for a different interpretation of history, and we certainly support political engagement,” says Hughes, “but their tactics repeatedly cross a line that is outrageous and inconsistent with who Susan B. Anthony was. Her good character is being defamed by their actions. People are outraged by their actions, causing harm to Anthony’s name and the mission of our Museum.”
The most recent example is an election mailer that voters in Iowa received this week. The outside of the mailer looks like an official announcement of a disease outbreak, “PUBLIC HEALTH ALERT: CHILDREN IN YOUR AREA ARE VULNERABLE TO A PUBLIC HEALTH THREAT THAT CONTINUES UNCONTROLLED. . .” Inside, it diagnoses that public health threat as the Democratic Senatorial candidate.
“Depending on how you feel about the political issue, you might say The List and this mailer are ‘brilliant’ or ‘horrific.’ That isn’t our issue,” says Hughes. “Our concern is that a national political lobbying group is using Susan B. Anthony’s good name for their benefit, and they are damaging her reputation in the process.”
This isn’t the first time Hughes has tussled with the anti-choice political group. Two years ago, she issued a statement clarifying that her museum was not related to the Susan B. Anthony List, saying that while she was “delighted that the once-reviled radical feminist has earned such a high place of honor and authority that everyone seems to want her for their champion” that people should “not be confused by political parties, caucuses, or groups that claim they know what Susan B. Anthony would say about a contemporary issue.”
In an interview with Bill Moyers, Hughes went into more depth about why she disagrees with SBA List’s insistence that Susan B. Anthony was an opponent of abortion rights. Other Susan B. Anthony experts have also disputed SBA List’s historical claims.
Today Right Wing Watch reported on Citizens United president David Bossie bragging that the Supreme Court decision bearing the organization’s name “leveled the playing field, and we’re very proud of the impact that had in last night’s election.”
It’s pretty hard to figure how Citizens United, the 2010 decision that opened the floodgates for unlimited outside political spending, could be understood to have “leveled the playing field.” As outside spending has skyrocketed in the years since that disastrous decision, it has become increasingly hard to hear the voices of everyday Americans over the roar of big money. Far from leveling the field, decisions like Citizens United have drastically tilted the field even more toward wealthy special interests and away from ordinary people.
But Bossie is right about one thing: Citizens United certainly had a big impact on the 2014 midterms. In an election where Republicans beat Democrats across the board, the millions spent by conservative outside groups “dwarfed” that spent by liberal groups, Politico’s Kenneth Vogel noted today. “Establishment Republican money finally got what it paid for,” he wrote.
That Bossie is proud of the decision’s impact on an election expected to go down as the most expensive midterm in history reveals a very different agenda behind the conservative organization’s work. Hint: it’s not about a level playing field.
Last night's "I Stand Sunday" rally opened with remarks from some of the Houston pastors who had their sermons subpoenaed by the government as part of the lawsuit seeking to overturn the city's nondiscrimination ordinance, with pastors from Cuba and Vietnam warning that America was now falling under tyranny, just like the nations they had fled.
Magda Hermida declared that she and her husband had fled Cuba's police state because their rights to free speech and free exercise of religion were oppressed by the government only to discover that now the same thing is happening in America.
"This mayor wants to use her power to see the sermon of our pastor and use them against us," she said. "The police state this creates is that same that my husband and I experienced in Cuba."
Khanh Huynh echoed that statement, declaring that he and millions of others had fled Vietnam because "the freedom of speech and freedom of religion were among the first to be lost in Vietnam and now I'm facing the same marching boot of tyranny right here where I live."
Finally, Willie Davis railed against the city's nondiscrimination ordinance, asking "how can you call something right when it's all wrong" and declaring that since the city had no problem with anti-gay discrimination, the ordinance has ended up needlessly dividing the city because gay rights is not a civil rights issue.
"I'm deeply offended simply by this ordinance," Davis stated, because "it piggy-backs on the 1964 Civil Rights Act which has nothing to do with this [issue]." With the crowd giving him a standing ovation, Davis declared that they will continue to fight against this ordinance until it is repealed "for we know it's what's right in the sight of God":
In Congressional races across the country, the issue of big money in elections is making its way into campaign speeches, debates and media coverage. Hundreds of millions have already been spent by anonymous sources through shadowy “dark money” groups that aren’t required to disclose their donors, and this influx of untraceable money will undoubtedly escalate as Election Day draws closer.
In Kentucky, where Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is locked in a close race with Democratic challenger Alison Grimes, the issue of big money in politics was recently brought up in a televised debate. “The only person Washington’s been benefiting is Senator McConnell and the millionaires and billionaires that have bankrolled him,” Grimes said, with McConnell essentially dismissing the assertion. Indeed, McConnell has repeatedly defended the role of outside money in politics, even going as far as to say that the current state of campaign finance is the “most free and open system we've had in modern times.” PFAW activists on the ground in Kentucky have been hard at work calling McConnell out for his record of blocking efforts to get big money out of politics.
At a recent debate in Arkansas, Sen. Mark Pryor criticized his Republican challenger Rep. Tom Cotton for taking money from political action groups that receive funding from billionaires like Charles and David Koch. Sen. Pryor went on to call out Rep. Cotton for praising the Koch network at an exclusive event hosted by the brothers this past summer, where he credited his political rise to the support of Koch-funded groups such as Freedom Partners and Americans for Prosperity.
In Kansas, the home state of Koch Industries, Senate candidate Greg Orman, who is running as an independent, has pledged to support a constitutional amendment to overturn Supreme Court decisions such as Citizens United. In response, Republican incumbent Pat Roberts has criticized him in a TV ad for supposedly seeking to take away free speech. Of course, the amendment would do nothing of the sort – it would simply restore legislators’ ability to set reasonable limits on money in elections.
If one thing can be learned from the 2014 midterms, it’s that without reform, the enormous amount of money being spent in elections will continue to grow. The need for a constitutional amendment is becoming increasingly clear, with public support on the rise. Over 550 towns and cities, 16 states, 200 members of Congress and nearly three and a half million people have called for an amendment. By the 5th anniversary of Citizens United, coming up in January, a diverse group of organizations seeks to gather over five million signatures and send a strong statement when the 114th Congress convenes next year.
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We know from polls that Americans on the left, right and everywhere in between are fed up with the destructive role of big money in politics and are ready for a solution to the unchecked flood of spending that has been released by a recent string of Supreme Court decisions.
But that idea got a surprising endorsement from Rep. Michele Bachmann, the ultraconservative Minnesota Republican, who in response to a question after a speech at the Heritage Foundation on Wednesday (10/15), lamented the “ridiculous,” “crazy,” “bizarre and absurd” level of money that is now saturating elections.
Money in politics clip starts 49 minutes in:
“I think it’s ridiculous the amount of money we spend on these elections,” she said. “It’s gone into the level of the bizarre and absurd.”
Recalling her 2010 reelection battle, for which she raised over $13 million, Bachmann said, “That’s crazy money. That’s crazy that any candidate should have to raise that kind of money.”
“Money is buying influence rather than real people going to the polls,” she said.
Bachmann didn’t propose any solution to the surge of money in politics, except hinting at spending limits for campaigns — which were struck down by the Supreme Court’s 1976 Buckley v. Valeo decision. But her comments mark a rare occasion in which a Republican member of the 113th Congress – a Tea Partier no less – has gone on record to acknowledge the troubling influence of big money in politics.
Conservative legal advocates from throughout the country have been quietly pouring money into a Montana state supreme court race, hoping to topple a court majority that has bucked the U.S. Supreme Court on campaign finance issues and could soon have a voice in cases with national implications involving abortion rights and LGBT equality.
The Right’s chosen candidate is Lawrence VanDyke, a former state solicitor general with a perfect pedigree for pro-corporate and Religious Right donors. Not only has VanDyke indicated his support for the U.S. Supreme Court’s dismantling of campaign finance laws and lamented that the current Montana high court is insufficiently “pro-business,” but, in his position as solicitor general, steered the state government toward taking positions against abortion rights, marriage equality and gun restrictions in other states.
What's more, in his writings as a law student, VanDyke was unguarded in his social conservative views, fretting about same-sex marriage, endorsing discredited “ex-gay” therapy and defending the teaching of anti-scientific “Intelligent Design” in public schools.
The Right Sees An Opportunity In Montana
At last month’s Values Voter Summit in Washington, the Family Research Council’s political action committee hosted a private $100-a-head reception featuring conservative luminaries including Rick Santorum, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, GOP congressmen Steve King, Vicky Hartzler and Mark Meadows, and congressional candidate Dave Brat of Virginia, who unseated former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in an upset primary election this year.
A flyer for the event announced that along with those national Republican politicians, FRC would be “showcasing a very important State Supreme Court candidate, Lawrence VanDyke of Montana, who we hope can flip the court in that state.”
VanDyke’s presence on the fundraiser’s roster was telling. As FRC’s flyer made clear, a VanDyke victory would change the ideological balance on a court that has been a thorn in the side of opponents of campaign finance reform and could soon be facing nationally watched cases on abortion rights and marriage equality.
VanDyke has not yet submitted a campaign finance report showing how much money, if any, FRC was able to bundle for him at the fundraiser, and his campaign did not respond to our inquiry about whether he was personally present at the Values Voter event. But a review of VanDyke’s campaign finance reports shows that his candidacy has attracted keen interest from out-of-state donors, including some of the country’s leading conservative legal activists.
[UPDATE: VanDyke's Oct. 20 fundraising report revealed some of the contributions from FRC and its allies.]
Since filing for the race to unseat sitting Supreme Court Justice Mike Wheat in March, VanDyke has raised about $78,000, more than one-third of which — roughly $29,000 — has come from 114 individual out-of-state donors. By contrast, Wheat has raised just under $85,000 for his reelection bid, only $1,100 of which came from just five out-of-state donors.
Among those who have contributed to VanDyke’s campaign are recognizable names in conservative legal circles. Kelly Shackelford, president of the right-wing legal group Liberty Institute (a major sponsor of the Values Voter Summit) contributed $100, while another top Liberty Institute official, Hiram Sasser, gave $320, the maximum gift allowable as of VanDyke's last fundraising report. Carrie Severino, chief counsel of the Judicial Crisis Network and a Harvard Law School classmate of VanDyke’s, and her husband Roger also each maxed out with $320 contributions. Thomas Spence, an official at the conservative Regnery publishing house also sent the maximum contribution to VanDyke’s campaign. Two employees of the Arizona-based Alliance Defending Freedom have together contributed $370. Christopher Murray, a lawyer who served on Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, also contributed $320.
Nearly $7,000 of VanDyke’s contributions have come from employees of the law firm Gibson Dunn, where Vandyke worked before entering public service. That includes $320 each from Theodore Olson, the conservative attorney argued the Citizens United case (but who has become better known as a marriage equality advocate), and controversial Bush appeals court nominee Miguel Estrada. VanDyke’s campaign also received $320 each from Eugene Scalia — the son of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and a Wall Street reform-buster in his own right — and his wife.
Montana’s Cowgirl Blog notes that prominent Montana social conservatives Greg and Susan Gianforte — who fund creationist efforts and support anti-gay policies — have also each contributed the maximum amount to VanDyke’s campaign. He has also received the maximum contribution from the Montana Gas & Oil PAC and — in the form of an in-kind gift of catering — from the PAC’s treasurer, Dave Galt.
Cowgirl Blog also notes that VanDyke got a major assist last month from a newly created group called Montanans for a Fair Judiciary, which sent a statewide mailer in favor of his candidacy. The group, which was registered last month, is staffed by a former Montana GOP official and a corporate lobbyist for oil and gas clients, among others.
And just last week, a Washington, D.C.-based group called the Republican State Leadership Committee Judicial Fairness Montana PAC — an offshoot a national group funded by big business interests including the Reynolds tobacco company and Koch Industries — bought $110,000 worth of television ads supporting VanDyke and slamming Wheat as soft on crime. The group has also been mailing out leaflets accusing Wheat of siding with “environmental extremists.”
All of this attention from national activists and corporate backers has caught the attention of a group of six retired Montana Supreme Court justices, who signed a letter last week calling VanDyke an “unqualified corporate lawyer,” adding, "Given [his] background, Mr. VanDyke is an excellent corporate pick although that is obviously not good news for Montanans.”
The letter from the judges notes that VanDyke has received the maximum allowable campaign contributions from numerous out-of-state lawyers who represent major corporations, including more than 20 at the Gibson firm - including at least one who represented Citizens United.
"Corporations are buying judicial races because they want judges who will not hold them accountable," the draft letter from the retired justices says. "If the disinformation they are spreading successfully manipulates Montanans into electing an unqualified corporate lawyer, we will lose our fair and impartial court."
‘Changing The Face of the Montana Supreme Court’
While VanDyke’s personal connections seem to behind quite a bit of his financial support from out-of-state conservative leaders, his featured spot at the Values Voter Summit hints that the conservative legal movement and the Religious Right see an opportunity in his candidacy.
Montana conservatives have made no secret of their desire to pack the state Supreme Court with justices in their ideological mold. Last year, the Great Falls Tribune published leaked emails between conservative Republicans in the state senate discussing a “long term strategy” for displacing more moderate Republicans in the state legislature and “changing the face of the Montana Supreme Court.”
One lawmaker wrote of the need to “purge” the party of moderates, after which “a new phoenix will rise from the ashes.”
In 2012, Montana conservatives were able to elect the likeminded Laurie McKinnon to the state Supreme Court thanks in part to a dark money group called the “Montana Growth Network” run by a Republican state senator that spent at least $42,000 on her campaign — more than the candidate spent herself. The “Montanans for a Fair Judiciary” group that has been campaigning for VanDyke is linked to the firm that was employed by the “Montana Growth Network” to boost McKinnon.
National conservative groups have good reason to take an interest in the race as well.
Montana’s Supreme Court gained national attention in 2011 when it bucked the U.S. Supreme Court on the issue of campaign finance regulation, ruling that the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United did not invalidate Montana’s century-old ban on corporate spending in elections. The 5-2 decision, in which Justice Wheat joined the majority, openly defied the Supreme Court’s controversial ruling. One of the two dissenting justices wrote that the state court must follow the high court’s precedent but used the opportunity to excoriate the Supreme Court for its Citizens United logic. On appeal, the Supreme Court summarily reversed Montana’s opinion, ending the state’s corporate spending ban.
Montana’s Supreme Court may soon also be in the center of the legal debates on same-sex marriage and abortion rights. State anti-choice groups have indicated that they might challenge Montana’s abortion clinic buffer-zone bill in the wake of the Supreme Court’s striking down of a similar bill in Massachusetts. In addition, marriage equality cases are working their way through both state and federal courts in Montana.
A Movement Candidate
Although Montana’s judicial elections are ostensibly nonpartisan, VanDyke’s resume makes him seemingly a perfect candidate for conservative activists hoping to drag the state's high court to the right. At Harvard Law School, VanDyke was active in the conservative Federalist Society and wrote an article for the school’s law review favorably reviewing a book arguing for allowing public schools to teach anti-scientific Intelligent Design.
In an article for another school publication, VanDyke lamented that courts in Canada had been “forcing same-sex marriage on the populace” and warned of a “trend of intolerance towards religion as homosexual ‘rights’ become legally entrenched.” In the same article, he cited a study supporting debunked “ex-gay” therapy to support the “view that homosexuals can leave the homosexual lifestyle.” (The author of that study has since recanted.)
After graduating from law school, VanDyke clerked for D.C. Circuit Judge Janice Rogers Brown, perhaps the most stridently conservative of that court’s activist pro-corporate wing, known for her extreme opposition to government regulation and her writing of a prequel to the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision. After a stint at Gibson Dunn, VanDyke became an assistant solicitor general in Texas and was named solicitor general of Montana early last year.
In public statements, VanDyke has indicated that he would have sided with the U.S. Supreme Court on Citizens United, defending the decision in a debate last month. And although his race is officially nonpartisan, VanDyke has made it very clear which side of the aisle he falls on, accusing his opponent of judging “like a liberal Democrat” and being “results-oriented” in his rulings — a loaded accusation favored by conservative activists.
VanDyke has also hinted that he would be more favorable to business interests on the court, touting an endorsement from the Montana Chamber of Commerce and saying, “I don’t think anybody who follows our court thinks it’s a pro-business court.” On his website, he backs efforts to “produce and preserve” natural resources, which he contrasts with his opponent's siding with preservationists in a dispute over drilling gas wells. In September, he spoke at a “Coal Appreciation Day” sponsored by a coal industry group.
VanDyke’s website also touts his support for the death penalty and an expansive interpretation of the Second Amendment, noting his work as state solicitor general defending a bill that would have invalidated federal firearms regulations on weapons manufactured and kept in Montana. (The law was ultimately struck down in federal court). In that position, VanDyke also pushed for Montana signing on to Alabama briefs in favor of overturning semiautomatic weapon bans in New York and Connecticut. At the time, he bantered over email with Alabama’s solicitor general, Andrew Brasher, about shooting elk with semi-automatic firearms, attaching a picture of himself hunting with “the same gun used by the Navy Seals.”
VanDyke recently announced that he had been endorsed by the National Rifle Association.
In his role as solicitor general, VanDyke also worked on efforts to oppose same-sex marriage and abortion rights, including signing on to amicus briefs filed in other states.
VanDyke, meanwhile, is running on the message that he will follow “the law, not politics” and accusing Justice Wheat of being overly partisan. In the same interview in which he lamented that the current state supreme court was unfavorable to business interests, he said, “I have not promised anybody that I’m going to be a pro-business judge or that I’m going to be a conservative judge...I’m going to be a fair and balanced judge.”
Judicial Elections Draw More And More Big Money
Last year, Justice at Stake reported on the fast increase of spending in judicial elections, leading to judicial races seeming “alarmingly indistinguishable from ordinary political campaigns” and blurring “the boundaries that keep money and political pressure from interfering with the rule of law.”
Part of this increase was attributable to the 2010 Citizens United decision, which allowed outside groups to spend unlimited amounts supporting and opposing candidates. In the case of judicial elections, those candidates could be the ones deciding on the future of that very campaign spending.
It’s no wonder that the corporate right and the Religious Right have joined forces to back VanDyke’s candidacy. A little-noticed nonpartisan race in Montana could prove to be an effective long-term investment for a movement that’s trying to solidify a pro-corporate grip on the courts and win back lost legal ground abortion rights and LGBT equality.
This post has been updated to clarify the status of marriage equality cases in Montana.
Sen. Ted Cruz has spent the past several months railing against a proposed constitutional amendment to undo the Supreme Court’s decisions in Citizens United and related campaign-finance cases, which would restore to Congress and the states the ability to “set reasonable limits” on election spending.
Cruz has gone into full hyperbole mode over the amendment, claiming that the campaign to narrowly roll back what many legal experts believe is an erroneous interpretation of the First Amendment is in fact an effort to “repeal the First Amendment,” silence pastors and imprison old ladies.
So, of course, it was no surprise at all yesterday to see Cruz himself proposing to amend the Constitution to reverse what he sees as an erroneous interpretation by the courts, this time on the issue of marriage. Roll Call reported on Cruz’s reaction to the Supreme Court’s "tragic" decision yesterday to decline hearing any marriage equality appeals, thus letting same-sex couples in several states get married:
While most Republicans shied away from commenting Monday on the Supreme Court’s historic decision to let stand a slew of lower court rulings legalizing gay marriage, Sen. Ted Cruz torched the court’s decision.
The Texas Republican called the decision “tragic and indefensible” and said he would introduce a constitutional amendment that would ensure states can ban gay marriage.
“By refusing to rule if the States can define marriage, the Supreme Court is abdicating its duty to uphold the Constitution. The fact that the Supreme Court Justices, without providing any explanation whatsoever, have permitted lower courts to strike down so many state marriage laws is astonishing,” he said in a statement.
“It is beyond dispute that when the 14th Amendment was adopted 146 years ago, as a necessary post-Civil War era reform, it was not imagined to also mandate same-sex marriage, but that is what the Supreme Court is implying today. The Court is making the preposterous assumption that the People of the United States somehow silently redefined marriage in 1868 when they ratified the 14th Amendment,” he said.
“Nothing in the text, logic, structure, or original understanding of the 14th Amendment or any other constitutional provision authorizes judges to redefine marriage for the Nation. It is for the elected representatives of the People to make the laws of marriage, acting on the basis of their own constitutional authority, and protecting it, if necessary, from usurpation by the courts.”
For the record, here is the section of the 14th Amendment that courts have been relying on to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples:
All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
LEXINGTON, KY — Thursday afternoon, People For the American Way members and activists joined members of MoveOn.org, Kentucky AFL-CIO, and other allies to protest Sen. Mitch McConnell’s pro-corporate agenda outside of a high-dollar fundraiser for the senator featuring Mitt Romney. Tickets for the Mitt and Mitch event were priced at $1,000-$5,000 a ticket.
Activists called for Sen. McConnell to listen to the voices of everyday Kentuckians rather than pushing an agenda that benefits billionaires and corporations.
Kentucky AFL-CIO President Bill Londrigan was on-site at the protest along with PFAW organizers and grassroots activists.
“This fundraiser is just one more example of how Sen. McConnell focuses on the interests of the millionaires and billionaires who fund his campaign,” said PFAW Political Director Randy Borntrager. “But as we saw at the protest, Kentuckians are standing up against his billionaire-funded politics that only allow the most privileged to be heard.”
It’s no secret that our country’s elections have been taken over by out-of-control spending, and this year’s rapidly approaching midterms are no exception. Maybe that’s why it’s so refreshing to read about some recent progress in the fight to reclaim our democracy from corporations and billionaires. Today the Montgomery County Council in Maryland is set to vote on legislation that would create a system of small-donor public financing for local elections — and it’s looking likely to pass.
It’s a system based on a simple premise: swap in lots of small donations from local community members in place of a handful of large donations from powerful interests. Encourage local people to give money to candidates they support by matching those donations with public funds. Not only does this empower regular people to get involved in campaigns, since they see their dollar going further, but it makes it smart for candidates to seek support from, and be accountable to, their own community members rather than wealthy special interests.
The Baltimore Sun explains how it would work in Montgomery County:
Beginning in 2015, candidates for county executive or council would qualify to have their political campaigns publicly funded if they attracted a sufficient number of small contributions of $5 to $150. In the case of a council race, for instance, it would be 125 donations adding up to at least $10,000. After that, campaigns would be largely publicly financed on a matching basis….The system would be voluntary, but participants would not be able to accept donations larger than $150 or from political action committees or labor organizations.
Public financing has worked in other cities across the country. Take New York City as an example. A 2012 Brennan Center analysis of the effects of the city’s public finance model found that the matching system helped “bring participants into the political process who traditionally are less likely to be active.” The study suggested that the model encouraged candidates to reach out to a more diverse group of people to support their campaigns, rather than centering all of their efforts on the wealthiest donors.
And when candidates start getting into office because of the support of their constituents, rather than because a few wealthy special interests have bankrolled their campaigns, the policy agenda can shift from one designed to keep powerful interests happy to one designed to serve the common good.
Legislators across the country should take note of what’s happening in Montgomery County. Polling consistently shows that the overwhelming majority of voters want to see elected officials work to lessen big money’s impact on our elections. In other words, Americans understand the problem but are hungry for solutions. Along with long-term fixes like pushing to amend the Constitution to overturn decisions like Citizens United, small donor public financing can be a way to put everyday Americans’ voices at the center of our political process, where they belong.
In a recent interview with the New Republic, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg reiterated her belief that Citizens United v. FEC was the worst ruling to be handed down from the Roberts court:
“If there was one decision I would overrule, it would be Citizens United. I think the notion that we have all the democracy that money can buy strays so far from what our democracy is supposed to be.”
The interview goes on to cover a range of topics, including her growing notoriety as an internet sensation as well as her plans to stay on the court as an active justice.
“As long as I can do the job full steam, I will stay here. I think I will know when I’m no longer able to think as lucidly, to remember as well, to write as fast. I was number one last term in the speed with which opinions came down. My average from the day of argument to the day the decision was released was sixty days, ahead of the chief by some six days. So I don’t think I have reached the point where I can’t do the job as well.”
In previous interviews Justice Ginsburg has described this Court’s campaign finance decisions as its biggest mistakes, alluding to the way in which money is “corrupting our system.”
Our affiliate PFAW Foundation recently released a report examining Justice Ginsburg’s vital role dissenting against the increasingly conservative rulings of the Roberts Court.
On Monday city council members in Atlanta overwhelmingly passed a resolution (12-2) in support of the Democracy for All amendment, joining the list of more than 550 towns and cities across the country that have called on Congress to address our broken campaign finance system. Last week 54 senators voted in support of the proposed amendment, which would overturn decisions like Citizens United and allow legislators to set reasonable limits on money in election. One additional cosponsor of the bill was unable to attend the vote, so the total number of U.S. Senate supporters is 55.
The recent votes in Washington and in Atlanta indicate a clear trend: people are tired of big money buying influence in our elections. Local and state victories are a key step toward the passage of a 28th amendment, which requires approval of 2/3 of Congress and ¾ of the states. A growing coalition of organizations are mobilizing their members around this issue, with groups now working together on the local, state and national level.
Passing a constitutional amendment is no easy feat, though with concerted effort and determination history has proven it can happen, as it has 27 times thus far. In less than five years since the Citizens United v. FEC decision was handed down, the progress that has been made in enacting a solution is substantial: 3.2 million people, 55 senators, 16 states and over 550 municipalities have all called for a constitutional amendment. Through the continued leadership of cities such as Atlanta, the will of the people can be made unmistakably clear to those in Washington. This is a debate, and an amendment, that the American people are willing to fight for.
To: Interested Parties
From: Marge Baker, Executive Vice President, People For the American Way
Date: September 16, 2014
Subject: Constitutional Amendment to Overturn Decisions Like Citizens United Debated in U.S. Senate, 55 Senators in Support
On Thursday, September 11th the U.S. Senate had a historic vote. After a week of debate about the Democracy for All Amendment, a proposed constitutional amendment that would overturn decisions like Citizens United v. FEC and allow legislators to put reasonable limits on money in elections, 54 senators went on record to stand up for the voices of everyday Americans. Including Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), an amendment cosponsor who was not able to be there for the vote, there are now 55 senators on record in support of the amendment.
The 55 senators in support put amendment proponents only 12 short of the 67 votes needed to pass a constitutional amendment through the Senate. While no Republican senators voted in support of the amendment, Washington D.C. appears to be the only place in the nation where the issue is partisan. Past amendments that similarly attempted to restore the ability of Congress and the states to enact reasonable campaign finance regulations until recently enjoyed bipartisan support from Congress and an amendment continues to be widely popular among the general public. According to a recent poll, nearly three-fourths of voters, including Republicans by a margin of 26%, are in favor of a constitutional amendment to limit the influence of big money in our elections.
This vote in the Senate marks an important milestone, with a majority of senators responding to a grassroots movement calling for an amendment to curtail the influence of money in politics. Less than five years after the Supreme Court made its radical decision in Citizens United, this proposed 28th Amendment has already had a majority vote on the Senate floor. This victory resulted from a massive mobilization of grassroots activists and progressive organizations, a coalition consisting of civil rights, social justice, environmental and labor advocacy groups.
Amending the Constitution is not a simple or fast process, as well it shouldn’t be. Yet, nearly every generation has amended the Constitution to address some of the most serious issues of their day. Money in politics is the underlying problem that prevents progress on many of the major issues of this generation, such as climate change, healthcare, minimum wage, and equal pay for equal work. This effort will likely take years, perhaps even decades.
Many inside the Beltway media have portrayed the Democracy for All amendment in a cynical light. What Washington insiders fail to grasp is that this is the debate that everyday Americans want to have, and this is the beginning of a long-term, concerted effort to protect American democracy.
The New York Times Editorial Board made this point in an editorial last week:
“They are not under the illusion that it will become the 28th Amendment soon, if ever. But their willingness to undertake a long and difficult effort shows the importance they attach to restoring fairness to American politics by reducing the influence of big money … and amending the Constitution should not be taken lightly. It is a last resort to fix a grave civic problem. But the backers of this amendment recognize that the nature of American democracy is at stake.”
We urge you to use the opportunity created by this historic vote to tell the story of the grassroots movement to get big money out of politics and to hold your senators accountable for their votes. To aid in that process, below you will find a list of facts about the grassroots movement to overturn Citizens United, as well as links to some of the media coverage of the Senate vote.
Facts About the Grassroots Movement for an Amendment
• Americans have protested the Citizen United decision consistently for nearly five years including 150 rallies in 41 states on the day of the McCutcheon decision.
• 16 states and 550 cities have passed resolutions urging Congress to begin the process of amending the Constitution.
• 3.2 million Americans have signed petitions calling for an amendment.
• 159 local, state, and federal Republicans have criticized Citizens United and/or called for an amendment, including former Senator Alan Simpson who endorsed the Democracy for All Amendment on the first day of debate, and former communications director to President George W. Bush, Mark McKinnon, who said of the amendment, “We have to battle [money in politics] on every front every single day.”
• A diverse coalition of citizen organizations and small business leaders representing millions of Americans have issued statements of support.
Media Coverage (Full list here)
Amendment to Cut Political Cash by New York Times Editorial Board:
“Republicans, fearful of deflating their cushion of cash, are trying to portray the amendment as an assault on the Bill of Rights. But writing unlimited checks on behalf of politicians was never part of the American birthright. This measure defines protected “speech” as it had been understood in the First Amendment for 185 years until the Buckley decision: actual words uttered or written by natural persons, not money spent, and certainly not from corporate treasuries.”
Bipartisan case for a Constitutional amendment on campaign finance by former Republican Senator Alan Simpson and Sen. Tom Udall in The Hill:
“Our founders...would be appalled by corporate spending in elections and unlimited personal donations by billionaires. The solution is to clarify the Constitution so that the people may decide how, when and why to regulate campaign finance…Amending the Constitution is difficult – as it should be – but it is long past time to have an honest and thoughtful national dialogue about our broken electoral process and how we voters can fix it.”
This Is a ‘Pivotal Moment’ for the Movement to Remove Big Money From Politics by John Nichols at The Nation:
“Make no mistake, there will be a Twenty-Eighth Amendment; there must be if the American experiment is to survive as anything akin to a democratic republic. As with past amendments, however, this initial proposal for updating the Constitution will likely be altered—with language strengthened or weakened based on the ability of mass movements to place demands for more or less radical change.”
On Friday, PFAW members and local activists came out to Sen. Mitch McConnell’s West Louisville campaign office to hold him accountable for his support of big money in politics and for voting against the Democracy For All Amendment during this week’s Senate vote.
The rally included PFAW Regional Political Coordinator Scott Foval, along with MoveOn Council’s Ann Hardman, University of Louisville’s College Democrats President Connor Allen, and local activist Bonifacio “Flaco” Aleman. Activists had a giant “King Mitch” holding fake money and signs saying “Money Is Not Speech” and “Mitch: Go Filibuster Yourself!” and more.
McConnell led the fight to block the Democracy for All Amendment during Senate debates this week. As a leading voice against efforts to get big money out of elections, McConnell has fought hard for years to protect billionaires’ and millionaires’ influence in our elections instead of protecting the average Kentuckian’s interests.
This rally along with over 15,000 signatures on a petition delivered to McConnell last week should make it clear to “King Mitch” that Kentuckians support an amendment to overturn decisions like Citizens United and #GetMoneyOut. Polling also shows that three in four voters support the measure nationally.
There were not sufficient votes to pass the proposed amendment this week, but a majority of the Senate did vote on Thursday in support of the Democracy for All Amendment despite “King Mitch’s” best efforts.