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“A Stinking Open Sewer”: Unhappy Anniversary: How Anthony Kennedy Flooded Democracy With ‘Sewer Money’

On today’s anniversary of the Citizens United decision, which exposed American democracy to increasing domination by the country’s very richest and most reactionary figures – the modern heirs to those “malefactors of great wealth” condemned by the great Republican Theodore Roosevelt – it is worth recalling the false promise made by the justice who wrote the majority opinion in that case.

Justice Anthony Kennedy masterminded the Supreme Court’s January 21, 2010 decision to undo a century of public-interest regulation of campaign expenditures in the name of “free speech.” He had every reason to know how damaging to democratic values and public integrity that decision would prove to be.

Once billed as a “moderate conservative,” Kennedy is a libertarian former corporate lobbyist from Sacramento, who toiled in his father’s scandal-ridden lobbying law firm, “influencing” California legislators, before he ascended to the bench with the help of his friend Ronald Reagan.

While guiding Citizens United through the court on behalf of the Republican Party’s billionaire overseers, it was Kennedy who came up with a decorative fig leaf of justification:

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. This transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages.

 As Jane Mayer’s superb new book Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right reveals in excruciating but fascinating detail, Kennedy’s assertion about the Internet insuring disclosure and accountability was nothing but a little heap of happy horse-shit. “Independent” expenditures from super-rich right-wing donors have overwhelmed the opponents of their chosen candidates, promoting a durable Republican takeover of Congress — often through the deployment of false advertising and false-flag organizations.

Late last year, Kennedy confessed that his vaunted “transparency” is “not working the way it should,” a feeble excuse since he had every reason to know from the beginning that his professed expectation of “prompt disclosure” of all political donations was absurdly unrealistic.

The Citizens United debacle led directly to the Republican takeover of the Senate as well as the House. Last week, the Brennan Center for Justice released a new study showing that “dark money” – that is, donations whose origin remains secret from news organizations and voters – has more than doubled in Senate races during the past six years, from $105 million to $226 million in 2014.

During the past three election cycles, outside groups spent about $1 billion total on Senate races, of which $485 million came from undisclosed sources. In the 11 most competitive Senate races in 2014, almost 60 percent of the spending by “independent” groups came from those murky places, and the winners of those races benefited from $171 million of such spending.

In elections gone by, when anonymous smear leaflets would appear in local races — funded by nobody knew whom — political operatives would shake their heads and mutter about “sewer money.”

Today we can thank Anthony Kennedy, who was either poorly informed or willfully ignorant, for turning American democracy into a stinking open sewer.

What a legacy.

 

By: Joe Conason, Editor in Chief, Editor’s Blog, The National Memo, January 21, 2016

January 21, 2016 Posted by | Anthony Kennedy, Citizens United, Democracy | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“A Perfect Cauldron Of Corruption”: Campaign Finance Will Have To Be Addressed…Someday

When the Federal Elections Commission chair says that her department is “worse than dysfunctional,” that there will not be any enforcement of the rules, and other commissioners say that no one obeys the few rules that are left, it seems that should raise more than a few alarm bells, no?

The chairwoman of the Federal Election Commission says she’s largely given up hope of reining in abuses in raising and spending money in the 2016 presidential campaign and calls the agency she oversees “worse than dysfunctional….”

Ravel said she plans on concentrating on getting information out publicly, rather than continuing what she sees as a futile attempt to take action against major violations, the Times reported in a story posted to its website Saturday night. She said she was resigned to the fact that “there is not going to be any real enforcement” in the coming election, the newspaper reported.

“The likelihood of the laws being enforced is slim,” said Ravel, a Democrat. “I never want to give up, but I’m not under any illusions. People think the FEC is dysfunctional. It’s worse than dysfunctional.”

With more dark money than ever flowing into presidential contests and with SuperPAC-holding billionaires openly staging their own private primaries, the American campaign finance system has moved from tragedy to farce.

Political scientists like to argue that after a certain point the extra money doesn’t actually affect outcomes that much–and they’re likely right. But what they overlook is the fact that politicians can’t assume this is true and don’t want to be outspent in their campaigns.

The biggest problem with outrageous amounts of money in elections isn’t so much that the money will necessarily sway elections, as that whoever gets elected will be too afraid to act against the bidding of those moneyed interests once they hold office, or feel like they owe favors to the interests that funded them. Add to that the fact that it’s increasingly impossible for the public to know where the money even comes from, and it’s a perfect cauldron of corruption without even necessarily influencing who actually wins at the ballot box.

This will ultimately have to be addressed for any real progress on core economic issues to be made. Maybe not now, but someday soon.

 

By: David Atkins, Political Animal Blog, The Washington Monthly, May 3, 2015

May 4, 2015 Posted by | Campaign Financing, Democracy, Federal Election Commission | , , , , | 2 Comments

“The Sheldon Adelson Primary”: The GOP Presidential Primary; A Brawl Of Billionaires?

There are few spectacles more absurd or horrifying (depending on your perspective) than a group of political leaders who want to be president of the United States trooping to the lair of a billionaire to genuflect before him in hopes of winning his favor — and, of course, his money.

If you’re looking for a symbol of what presidential politics has become, particularly in the Republican Party, look no further than the festival of grovelling that will occur this weekend in Las Vegas. Alex Isenstadt reports:

Before Iowa and New Hampshire, GOP candidates are competing in the Sheldon Adelson primary, and some will travel to his posh Venetian hotel in Las Vegas this weekend in hopes of winning it. But one candidate — Marco Rubio — has emerged as the clear front-runner, according to nearly a half-dozen sources close to the multibillionaire casino mogul.

In recent weeks, Adelson, who spent $100 million on the 2012 campaign and could easily match that figure in 2016, has told friends that he views the Florida senator, whose hawkish defense views and unwavering support for Israel align with his own, as a fresh face who is “the future of the Republican Party.” He has also said that Rubio’s Cuban heritage and youth would give the party a strong opportunity to expand its brand and win the White House.

Adelson came to many people’s attention when he dropped $20 million in a vain attempt to get Newt Gingrich the GOP nomination in 2012, an effort doomed by the identity of his chosen candidate. It’s a good reminder that money is a necessary but not sufficient requirement for winning the primary. I suppose there might be some level of funding that could propel even someone as ridiculous as Gingrich to victory, but whatever it is — $200 million? $500 million? — it’s more than even someone like Adelson is going to spend in a primary, particularly when there are other billionaires out there doing the same thing.

We may be about to see an unprecedented arms race among Republican plutocrats. The Koch brothers are supposedly leaning toward Scott Walker, though they haven’t made a final decision; they’ll be holding their own audition for candidates this summer. Ted Cruz is backed by a hedge fund magnate named Robert Mercer; investment manager Foster Friess will once again keep Rick Santorum funded, as he did in 2012.

But the real question isn’t whether a candidate can find the one donor that will bring him to victory, it’s what happens when the next president takes office.

All this money — not just the volume but the way it’s being moved around — is making a mockery of our already porous campaign finance laws. One of the last restrictions on funding that the Supreme Court has left standing is the limit on direct contributions to candidates. This year, if you’re a billionaire, you can only give Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign $2,700 for the primary and $2,700 for the general election, because everyone agrees it would be inherently corrupting if you could just write him a check for $1 million or $10 million or $100 million.

But that won’t stop you. Here’s what you can do. You can go over to the Right to Rise PAC, which exists in order to make Jeb Bush president, and write it a check for that $1 million. And since Jeb is not officially a candidate, he can raise money for the PAC, and plan and shape its strategy for the election. After he declares himself a candidate he will no longer be allowed to coordinate with it, but by then the preparatory work will be done.

Which is why, in an unprecedented move, Bush has decided to outsource entire sectors of his campaign to the PAC, like advertising and ground organizing, while the official campaign will do far less. It could well be the future of presidential campaign organization. Election law expert Rick Hasen explains why this is so troubling:

In the old days (think the days of the fundraising of Bush’s brother, George W. Bush), the main way of gaining influence was by becoming a campaign bundler. Bundlers not only give the maximum few thousand dollars to the candidate’s campaign; they also get friends, relatives, and acquaintances to do the same. Now, one doesn’t have to become a bundler for the campaign to curry favor: One can simply write a check for $1 million or more to Right to Rise.

By signaling that Right to Rise is his campaign arm, Jeb Bush has broken down the wall between his super PAC and his campaign committee in the eyes of donors. Preventing coordination and preserving independence was one of the last walls that were left.

The next step will be simply handing $1 million checks to candidates. Right now that’s still illegal, but campaign finance opponents will challenge those candidate contribution limits as ineffective since (the Bush campaign will show) super PACs can serve almost the same purpose. Indeed, campaign lawyer Jim Bopp (the brains behind the Citizens United lawsuit) signaled as much this week, arguing that the way to take unaccountable money out of politics is to let individuals give whatever they want directly to candidates.

I suspect Hasen is right about this: Democrats are going to say that 2016 shows we need stronger campaign finance laws, while Republicans will say 2016 shows that the laws are toothless and irrelevant, so we might as well just remove the restrictions altogether.

The candidates themselves probably aren’t too worried about getting attacked as bought and paid for. They see the benefit they’ll get from being backed by a donor like the Kochs or Adelson on the one hand, and the bad press they’ll get from seeming like they’re in the pocket of a billionaire on the other hand, and say it’s a deal worth taking. What’s a few reporters’ questions that can easily be batted away (“I’m grateful for the support of any American who shares my vision for the future”) against all that cash?

“Dark money” — cash which is channeled through shadowy groups, obscuring where it originally came from — is extremely worrisome. But this new development is something else entirely. Sure, we’ll maintain the fiction that these PACs are “independent” and therefore there’s no corrupting influence associated with that money. But if you actually believe that at the end of a campaign in which he was showered with eight or nine figures worth of casino money, President Rubio wouldn’t be particularly open to hearing what Sheldon Adelson has to say about, say, internet gambling (which the magnate has worked hard to stamp out), I’d have to wonder whether you get to drink rainbows and ride unicorns on the fantasy planet you live on.

 

By: Paul Waldman, Senior Writer, The American Prospect; Contributor, The Plum Line Blog, The Washington Post, April 23, 2015

April 24, 2015 Posted by | Campaign Financing, GOP Presidential Candidates, Plutocrats, Sheldon Adelson | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“This SCOTUS Destroyed America”: How Citizens United Is Ruining More Than Our Elections

In the years since conservative Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s landmark Citizens United v. FEC decision gave wealthy interests the political power they’d apparently lacked, the media has mostly been interested in how the ruling was affecting elections. On the presidential level, the consensus, at least among political scientists, is that the impact has been marginal. But in less rarefied air, like the grubby environs of Congressional campaigns or the sometimes sordid realm of state and municipal politics, the consequences of the ruling have been substantial. It is quite likely that dozens of state governments in the U.S. will reflect Kennedy’s vision — as well as that of the Koch brothers — for decades to come.

What has gone less-examined, however, is the role that dark money — which is spending by groups that are supposedly devoted to “social welfare,” and that consequently don’t have to reveal their donors — has played since 2010 in the crafting of legislation. This is somewhat odd, in retrospect, since the ostensible point of winning an election, after all, is to legislate. But perhaps the political and media class’s lack of attention to the new reality of sausage-making can be attributed to a campaign-finance version of climate change fatalism. One can gaze up at only so many seemingly insurmountable obstacles before wondering if one’s time would be better spent coming to terms with giving up.

And make no mistake: The reality of lawmaking in post-Citizens United Washington is enough to make even the most stalwart campaign finance reformers wonder if their advocacy and organizing is little more than professionalized windmill tilting. As the Huffington Post showed this week in a lengthy, impressive and profoundly dispiriting report, the walls separating the interests of the wealthy from the legislative process that a century of reformers fought to build have been leveled. They were never as lofty or sturdy as reformers would have wished, of course. But they now exist as little more than rubble and dust.

One of the things the report from HuffPo’s Paul Blumenthal and Ryan Grim makes clear is the way Citizens United’s pernicious effect on lawmaking is at once deliberately opaque and ploddingly simple. To take one of the many examples of now-kosher corruption they detail as a case in point, look at the story of the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America (PCI) and the 2014 election. Blumenthal and Grim note that PCI is lucky enough to have two former aides to Speaker of the House John Boehner on its lobbying team. Even better for PCI, the trade group had the foresight to donate significant chunks of money as of late to pro-Republican outside groups: $185,000 since 2012, they report.

But they weren’t done there. In addition to all of those obviously stringless donations to arms of the GOP machine, PCI also decided to give $75,000 to Crossroads GPS, the Karl Rove-affiliated “social welfare” nonprofit, and $25,000 to the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition, a “non-partisan” nonprofit. Both organizations, according to HuffPo, are run by Steven Law, who just so happens to be a member of now-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s “inner circle.” Incidentally, both groups also happened to spend large amounts of money to support McConnell in his 2014 campaign against Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes. Outside groups spent $1.3 million in support of Grimes and $16.4 million in opposition, while McConnell got $5.7 million outsider bucks in his favor and $10.5 million going the other way.

For PCI, the pro-McConnell donations ended up being money well spent. McConnell obliterated Grimes after a campaign that had been, for the most part, surprisingly competitive. And because GOP Senate candidates in Iowa and Georgia, who also were supported by outside groups using PCI money, defeated their Democratic opponents, too, McConnell became the new majority leader of the Senate. And wouldn’t you know it, one of the first things the McConnell-run Senate did with the reins of power was to pass a provision rolling back capital standards on insurance companies that were implemented by Dodd-Frank. Believe it or not, this was an act of deregulation that PCI strongly supported.

Now, is this all proof that McConnell engaged in a quid pro quo with PCI and other members of the insurance industry? That the current Senate majority leader told the folks at PCI to make a gesture or two (or three, or 4,000) to show how much they care about supporting a “coalition” to enhance Kentucky’s “opportunity”? No, it’s not. It may be suggestive — and to the jaundiced eye, extremely so — but it’s hardly irrefutable evidence. As defenders of these types of arrangements are quick to note, it’s eminently possible that removing obscure provisions of Dodd-Frank just happens to be an issue on which the Kentucky senator and big insurance fortuitously agree.

But what’s lost in all the fuzziness, which Blumenthal and Grim deftly filter out, is that the world Justice Kennedy’s decision created was, by his own admission, supposed to be one in which even the appearance of corruption was negated. Democracy would suffer no harm, Kennedy assured us, by letting “independent” groups like Crossroads GPS or the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition spend at will with precious little regulation. “[I]ndependent expenditures do not lead to, or create the appearance of, quid pro quo corruption,” Kennedy writes in the majority opinion for Citizens United. “That speakers may have influence over or access to elected officials does not mean that those officials are corrupt,” he assures. “And the appearance of influence or access will not cause the electorate to lose faith in this democracy.”

At the time that the ruling was delivered, Kennedy’s faith that access and influence would not corrupt the system was exceeded in curiousness only by his belief that the American people would feel similarly. But as the years have passed, and as studies showing the U.S. to be a donor-run system akin to oligarchy have gone mainstream, his declaration has begun to make a bit more sense. Just so long as “the electorate” is defined as the lobbying industry and its clients, his prediction looks downright clairvoyant. I bet the fine people at the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America — who are probably investing right now in the Jeb Bush-affiliated Right to Rise “social welfare” group — would strongly agree.

 

By: Elias Isquith, Salon, February 28, 2015

March 4, 2015 Posted by | Campaign Financing, Citizens United, SCOTUS | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“A Crash Course In Congressional Mischief”: Voters Have An Entirely New Reason To Scorn Congress

After years of excoriating Congress for not legislating, Americans got a crash course Tuesday night about the mischief that can transpire when Congress actually fulfills its duties.

With both parties (for a change) committed to passing a spending bill by Thursday to avoid a government shutdown, the comprehensive legislation became a lobbyist’s delight. These omnibus last-minute bills traditionally pass Congress with virtually no debate. And since Barack Obama would never veto legislation to fund the government over minor provisions, anything small snuck into the bill is as good as inscribed into law.

Which brings us to the gem that Matea Gold of the Washington Post discovered on Page 1,599 of the 1,603-page bill. The provision — inserted in the legislation by persons unknown — would suddenly allow a married couple to give as much as $1.56 million to their political party and its committees in a two-year election cycle.

No, that isn’t a typo. Without resorting to Super PACs or taking advantage of a new loophole from the Supreme Court, couples or individuals could give roughly eight times more to their party in 2015 than they could in 2014. As election law expert Kenneth Gross told the Washington Post, “The cost of an ambassadorship just went up.”

Technically, this new giving can only go to three designated areas — convention costs, recount expenses and building funds. But while nothing is certain until regulations are written, it is a safe bet that these categories are likely to be porous. Hypothetically, funds for a new addition to the Democratic National Committee that houses the computers that contain the party’s voter files might also be used to update these registration lists. If nothing else, the parties would no longer have to take money from their general operating funds to pay for these activities.

A case can be made for strengthening the political parties in a Super PAC era. If the parties were too financially powerful in the 1990s when they were the only conduits for unregulated “soft money” contributions, now they are suffering from, in effect, being mere millionaires in a billionaire age. This is especially true as Super PACs are beginning to take on many of the traditional functions of parties like candidate recruitment, voter contact and polling.

It is worth recalling that parties are a force for responsibility and moderation in politics — since their ultimate goal is winning elections rather than enforcing an ideological agenda. Also, as ongoing organizations, the Republican and Democratic National Committees will still be around when the enthusiasms of the current generation of Super PAC donors wane or turn to art collecting and buying sports teams.

As a result, there could have been a robust public debate over the best way to fund political parties in this new electoral environment. Both Republican and Democratic party leaders — as well as the candidates themselves — should come to realize that they are the big losers when the mega-rich dominate campaigns through Super PACs.

It would have been possible to imagine bipartisan legislation in the next few years that would have traded increased legal contribution limits for enhanced disclosure of Super PAC and “dark money” spending. Or even swapped more generous giving for a functioning Federal Election Commission.

Instead Congress in its infinite wisdom decided that “dark money” legislating was a wiser solution. And blaming this one exclusively on the Republicans is probably not true, especially since the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee is currently $20 million in debt.

The result is that the McCain-Feingold legislation, signed with such high hopes 12 years ago, is now as outmoded as Morse Code. And voters (or, at least, that small remnant who still care) have an entirely new reason to scorn Congress. Quite an accomplishment for a group of stealth middle-of-the-night legislators.

 

By: Walter Shapiro, Brennan Center For Justice, December 10, 2014

December 15, 2014 Posted by | Campaign Financing, Congress, Omnibus Spending Bill | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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