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“An Outsized Voice”: There’s A Big Difference Between Union Money And Koch Money

For dozens of readers, our editorial this morning on the Democratic criticism of the Koch brothers left out something crucial: the big financial muscle of unions in backing liberal politcians.

“As the editors of The Times must know, unions in America far outspend the Kochs in their funding for Democratic candidates,” wrote Yitzhak Klein of Jerusalem wrote in the comments section. “What Harry Reid is doing is cheap demagoguery. Also this editorial.”

Mr. Klein, like many other commenters (some of whom are prominent) has his figures wrong. As the Washington Post and the Center for Responsive Politics recently reported, unions poured about $400 million into the 2012 elections. That almost matched the $407 million raised and spent by the Koch network in that same election cycle.

But think about what those numbers mean. Two brothers, aided by a small and shadowy group of similarly wealthy donors, spent more than millions of union members. The fortunes of just a few people have allowed them an outsized voice, and they are openly trying to use it to turn control of the Senate to Republicans.

The Koch group Americans for Prosperity has also joined the right-wing drive to reduce union rights and membership around the country, with the goal — made explicit at last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference — of muzzling the voice of union members in politics.

The Times has long deplored the vast amount of cash that is polluting politics, whether it comes from the right or left. (And we were critical of a Democratic donor who plans to spend $100 million this year against candidates who ignore climate change.) But for the most part, unions, unlike the Koch network, don’t try to disguise their contributions in a maze of interlocking “social welfare” groups. Their contributions on behalf of candidates or issues may be unlimited, thanks to Citizens United, but they are generally clearly marked as coming from one union or another. (They want Democrats to know which unions raised the money.)

Union members aren’t coerced into giving political money, either, despite the claims of several commenters. Thanks to a 1988 Supreme Court case, workers have the right not to pay for a union’s political activity, and can demand that their dues be restricted to collective bargaining expenses. The union members who contributed to that $400 million pot in 2012 opted into the system.

That’s still too much money. But there’s a world of difference between a small group of tycoons writing huge checks, and a huge group of workers writing small ones.


By: David Firestone, Taking Note, Editor’s Blog, The New York Times, March 11, 2014

March 12, 2014 Posted by | Campaign Financing, Koch Brothers, Unions | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“GOP’s Plot Against Democracy”: Why It Really Wants To Depress The Vote

The Presidential Commission on Election Administration has released its report and recommendations, and reasonable people everywhere rejoice. The bipartisan commission was formed by Barack Obama following the 2012 election, which was a bit of an embarrassment for a nation that considers itself something of a model democracy. Across the country (but mainly in urban areas and black and Latino neighborhoods), Election Day featured hours-long lines, broken voting machines, inaccurate voter rolls and confusing ballots.

“The Editors” of Bloomberg View declare the report “so resolutely practical that it’s hard to imagine its recommendations stirring much debate, much less controversy.” (They acknowledge that “not all politicians want to make it easier for Americans to vote,” but they fail to specify that that’s more or less part of the Republican Party platform.) Jeffrey Toobin calls it “an unexpectedly bold document.”

The commission’s key recommendations are eminently reasonable: Expand online voter registration, expand early voting, improve and modernize voting machines, and improve efficiency and alleviate wait times at polling places with better training and techniques that have been proven to work elsewhere. Everyone should be able to support all of this, and, best of all, the commission’s recommendations don’t require any federal action at all. They just need to be voluntarily implemented by state and local officials. And how hard could it be to convince state and local officials to make voting easier?

Here’s the first problem with the commission’s report: We already know what’s wrong with American elections and we already know how we should fix those problems. The last bipartisan commission on American elections released its report and recommendations less than a decade ago. That report followed up a major piece of federal election reform, the Help America Vote Act, which was the bipartisan response to the travesty that was the 2000 election. The Help America Vote Act created another bipartisan commission dedicated to making voting easier, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. That commission is supposed to have two commissioners from each party. Republicans in Congress have effectively killed that commission by refusing to appoint or approve any commissioners at all.

Despite that obstruction, the problems with American elections, and potential solutions, were already well-known to voting rights experts. The No. 1 culprit is our absurdly decentralized system, which makes implementing good ballot and registration and access and voting machine standards effectively impossible. But we knew that making registration easier and allowing early voting and voting by mail would improve turnout and make voting easier for the elderly and disabled. We knew urban election districts were at a disadvantage due to population size and density, and insufficient funding. We knew ballot size and clarity was lousy all over the country because of archaic or poorly written laws. The problem has always been finding the resources and political will to fix any of this. Because unless we nationalize voter registration and federal elections, the fixes will have to come not just in 50 separate state legislatures but also at thousands of city halls and county governments.

Which brings us to the second, bigger problem with the report: The commission was tasked with making it easier for Americans to vote. One of the two dominant American political parties is adamantly opposed to that goal. Despite the bipartisan trappings of the commission, despite the fact that Mitt Romney’s campaign lawyer was the co-chair, it is still the case that making it easier to vote is a priority of the Democratic Party. The more honest right-wingers make the argument explicit, but implicit in every voter ID law and attempt to shut down voter registration drives and restriction of early voting is the core conservative belief that voting should be as hard as possible, so that only the right people vote. It is only occasionally said out loud but most conservatives believe in the old saw, usually incorrectly attributed to de Tocqueville or a founding father, about democracy dying when the looters begin to “vote themselves largess from the public treasury.” Throughout American history, conservatives have opposed extending the franchise.

In addition to their philosophical opposition to democracy, Republicans have a more pragmatic reason to making voting as difficult as possible: Recent national election results show an unmistakable correlation between turnout and Democratic Party success. As Dave Weigel points out, some of the commission’s recommendations will make it easier for traditionally Republican blocs like religious voters (and military voters! and the elderly!) to vote, but Republicans believe, with plenty of supporting evidence, that in America in 2014, bigger turnout means more Democratic voters. A bipartisan commission won’t convince Republicans to abandon their campaign to use every tool at their disposal to depress the vote.


By: Alex Pareene, Salon, January 24, 2014

January 25, 2014 Posted by | Democracy, Voting Rights | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“A Regular Joe He’s Not”: Among The Common Folk, A Breakfasting John Boehner

From the “Politicians—they’re just like us!” file today, we have something seemingly aimed straight at one of my pet peeves, the habit of Blue Collar Chic among politicians (and to an even greater extent, certain bigshot media figures). Esquire magazine asked John Boehner to “endorse” something, and what he came up with was “breakfast at a diner,” which he says he has “most mornings when I’m in Washington.” You may have thought the Speaker was a merlot-sipping, golf-playing gent who had risen above his hardscrabble roots. Au contraire!

I sit at the counter in jeans and a ballcap. Order eggs, and sometimes sausage, but never on Fridays. (And never the bacon. My diner makes lousy bacon. I don’t know why.) I’m there maybe 15, 20 minutes.

It’s pretty much the same thing on the road. I’m always looking for new diners, and when I find one I like, I stick with it.

It’s an anchor to my day, a way to feel like I’m home in Ohio no matter where I am. That’s why I endorse breakfast at a diner.

Mr. Speaker, if you’re eating eggs and sausage at a greasy spoon every morning, legislation isn’t the only thing getting clogged. But how wonderful to know that just like ordinary folks, you wear “jeans and a ballcap”! Since you presumably go to work after this breakfast, do you get dressed in your jeans and ballcap, then go back home and change into the suit you’ll wear the rest of the day on Capitol Hill? Why not just put on the suit, get the breakfast, and then proceed to work? Is the costume change really necessary?

I realize I’m making too much of this. And of course, when a magazine asks you to do something like this, you’ll be conscious of the image you’re projecting. Unlike a political “endorsement,” this endorsement is not about explaining to readers the wonders of breakfast at a diner, but telling them who you are, and if Boehner had endorsed an earthy yet whimsical Chateau Latour, he would have been mocked for an entirely different reason. But I find the efforts of politicians to convince us they’re just ordinary joes so insufferable, especially when it’s this transparent.

It’s only partly their fault, though. Every election season we’re treated to an endless discussion about which candidate is more reg’lar and can do a better job relating to the common folk, without any explanation of what that has to do with their potential performance in office. Here’s a little piece of the column I linked to above, when the question consuming some in the media, none more than Chris Matthews, was whether Barack Obama was too much of an effete swell to win the Pennsylvania primary over the (allegedly) slightly more down-to-earth Hillary Clinton. We knew he wasn’t, because he committed the horrible sin of being a crappy bowler:

Every night at 5 and 7, Matthews acts like a psychic channeling the spirit of the working class. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, he insightfully informs his viewers, are just not the type to whom Joe Sixpack takes a liking: “Pennsylvania prefers a beefier sort to either of these people, Matthews claimed, “a more rustic, tougher sort than either of them.” When neither Obama nor Clinton turned out to be particularly skilled bowlers, Matthews said gravely, “Maybe that tells you something about the Democratic party.”

In the days since, he has returned to the alleged symbolic importance of Obama’s lack of bowling skills so often, and with such a combination of glee and indignation, that you would have thought that before launching a gutter ball, Obama had donned a powdered wig, sipped from a snifter of brandy, then smacked Rocky Blier across the face with his riding crop. “This gets very ethnic,” Matthews said at one point, a preface that no doubt made his producers whisper, “Oh God, please don’t.” He then went on, “But the fact that he’s good at basketball doesn’t surprise anybody, but the fact that he’s that terrible at bowling does make you wonder.” Makes you wonder what, exactly? Whether he would be a better president, were he a better bowler? No, what Matthews wonders is whether Obama can “woo more regular voters — you know, the ones who actually do know how to bowl.”

According to the Times Magazine article, Matthews makes a salary of $5 million a year. When it comes time to relax, he doesn’t head to the Jersey shore, where the typical blue-collar Philadelphian might go to get some sea air. Instead, Matthews repairs to his $4.35 million house on Nantucket.

I don’t mind that Chris Matthews has a house on Nantucket; maybe I would too, if I made as much money as him. And I don’t care whether John Boehner prefers a fine wine to a downmarket beer. My problems with Boehner have nothing to do with his personal tastes in food and recreation. The thing about politicians is that they take positions and perform official actions that give great insight into whether and how much they care about regular people. That’s the place to look if you want to know who they really are. You don’t have to ask where they eat breakfast.


By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, December 17, 2013

December 18, 2013 Posted by | John Boehner, Politics | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“John Roberts, Pitcher And Batter”: The Voting-Rights Decision Spells The End Of Fair Elections

The Supreme Court delivered a sucker punch to fair elections today, striking down a key part of the Voting Rights Act. It is a ruling that will make it much easier for partisan election officials and legislators to rig the voting system — and a lot harder for ordinary voters to participate in democracy.

The ruling is also a huge Supreme Court power grab. How big? In 2006, Congress reauthorized the Voting Rights Act by a vote of 98-0 in the Senate and 390-33 in the House (and President George W. Bush signed it into law). Now, five Justices have swept away the decision of all those elected leaders — over the vociferous dissent of four other Justices.

At his confirmation hearing, Chief Justice John Roberts — who wrote today’s majority opinion — famously declared that as a Justice, “my job is to call balls and strikes and not to pitch or bat.” But in nullifying one of the most important pieces of civil rights legislation in U.S. history, he picked up a bat and swung for the bleachers.

The part of the Voting Rights Act that the court held unconstitutional (Section 4) was a critical one: the formula that specifies which particular states and localities must clear significant voting changes in advance with the Justice Department. That process — “preclearance” — ensures that unfair voting rules can be stopped before they are allowed to interfere with actual elections.

An example of why it’s needed: in 2001, the all-white leadership of Kilmichael, Miss., abruptly canceled the town election when it looked like voters might elect the first black mayor. Using the Voting Rights Act, the Justice Department required that the election go forward — and a black mayor was elected. That was only one of more than 700 discriminatory voting changes the Justice Department blocked from 1982 to 2006.

The Supreme Court’s majority was troubled by the specific states and localities that the Voting Rights Act’s “preclearance” rules apply to. Why Alabama and not Vermont? Why Brooklyn and the Bronx, but not Lincoln, Neb.? The simple answer is that these are the jurisdictions Congress chose after careful consideration. It held 21 hearings and heard from scores of witnesses — it produced a 15,000-page record — before reauthorizing the law in 2006. Without doing any of that work, five Justices have said they know better.

Now that the formula has been thrown out, the whole process of preclearance is effectively thrown out as well. In theory, Congress could come up with another formula — and a list of states and localities — that the Supreme Court would find constitutional. But it would be a legislative nightmare for Congress to try to do that — and no one expects that to happen anytime soon.

So what does the gutting of the Voting Rights Act mean for American democracy? It will be easier for bad-apple election officials to revive classic vote-suppression tactics — like moving polling places at the last minute, so voters cannot find them, or getting eligible voters off the rolls. And it will be easier for state legislatures to draw district lines to divide up minority voters and dilute their power at the polls.

The majority dismisses all these very real concerns, arguing that “things have changed” since the bad, pre-civil-rights-era days. Of course, even if that were so, it would not mean that we don’t need the Voting Rights Act. As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the dissenters, that sort of logic is “like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.” Now that the Supreme Court has gutted the Voting Rights Act, we should get ready for an antidemocratic downpour.


By: Adam Cohen, Time, June 25, 2013

June 30, 2013 Posted by | Supreme Court, Voting Rights Act | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Tea Party Is An Election Category”: The IRS, Non-Profits, And The Challenge Of Electoral Exceptionalism

What the IRS scandal really shows us is that it’s getting harder and harder to draw a line between electioneering and political speech.

As the report of the IRS Inspector General shows, the agency’s scrutiny of conservative groups applying for non-profit status was, more than anything, a clumsy response to a task the IRS is ill-equipped to carry out – monitoring an accidental corner of campaign finance law, a corner that was relatively quiet until about 2010.

That corner is the 501(c)(4) tax-exempt organization, belonging to what are sometimes called “social welfare” groups, which enjoy the triple privilege of tax exemption (though not for their donors), freedom to engage in some limited election activity, and, unlike other political committees (PACs, SuperPACs, parties, etc.), freedom from any requirement to disclose information about donors or spending. The use of (c)(4)s as campaign vehicles didn’t originate with the Citizens United decision in 2010 (Citizens United, the organization that brought the case, was already a (c)(4)), but the decision seems to have created a sense that the rules had changed, and even small groups – especially, apparently, local Tea Party organizations — rushed to create (c)(4)s.

501(c)(4)s are not prohibited from engaging in political speech of most kinds. They are free to be “biased” without jeopardizing their tax exemption. They can advocate for or against legislation, they can lobby the government or criticize it. They don’t have to make any effort to be “non-partisan” – for example, they can support a proposal that is only supported by members of one party, or directly advise only members of one party. And they can engage in some activity directly intended to influence the outcome of an election, as long as that doesn’t constitute the organization’s primary purpose.

There’s some confusion about the definition of “primary purpose,” discussed in great depth elsewhere, but what the IRS was trying to do was to identify organizations that seemed more likely to be heavily involved in electoral activity. Since the organizations were new, there was no way to look at their actual activities to see whether they were mostly electoral. So the agency had to rely on clues in the applications, like names and telltale phrases. If organizations had words like “Democrat” or “Republican” in their titles, for example, it would be reasonable to look more closely at their election activities, or possible future activities, than an organization that called, for example, “Save the Turtles.” I’m told that organizations with the names of political parties do receive extra scrutiny, even if in some cases, like “Students for a Democratic Society,” the word might mean something unrelated to the name of the party. That’s what the closer scrutiny would find out.

“Tea Party” in 2009 and 2010 was unquestionably an election category – there were “Tea Party” candidates and there was a “Tea Party Caucus” in Congress. It was not unreasonable for the IRS to use that phrase as an indicator that an organization using that phrase might be more inclined to engage in elections. There are comparable phrases on the left – for example, the term “Netroots” might suggest election involvement, as there were groups that identified and endorsed “Netroots” Democratic candidates in 2006 and later. Perhaps there were simply fewer organizations applying for (c)(4) status with that word, or they came in before the 2010 flood, or perhaps the IRS did screen on that word – we don’t know.

While there’s a perfectly plausible case for the IRS to use flag-words that indicate an election-focused movement, the actual questions asked of the groups do raise some concerns. If accurate, they did seem to go beyond evidence that these organizations were primarily engaged in elections, such as questions about lobbying and the role of family members.

But the reason these questions are complicated for the IRS, or for any agency assigned to police these complicated distinctions, is this: The line between robust political speech and influencing elections has become frightfully difficult to draw. Finding the right line around what is an “election” is really the fundamental problem in campaign finance. Almost everyone accepts the premise of “electoral exceptionalism” – elections are structured and require some particular rules, different from the rules that apply generally to political speech. The rule in most states that keeps campaigners 75 or 100 feet from the voting booths is the most obvious uncontroversial restriction on political speech, and there is broad acceptance of the idea that direct contributions to candidates and campaigns should be limited to prevent corruption and dependence. But what happens after that? What about outside spending that looks just like campaign spending? We used to think there was a clear distinction between “issue ads” that were expressing a view on an issue and “electioneering communications” that were the equivalent of campaign contributions. That distinction is actually what the Citizens United case was about — the provision of the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act that defined broadcast communications that mentioned a candidate within 30 days before a primary or 60 days before a general election as electioneering, which had to be financed with regulated funds.

That was an improvised line then, and it’s gotten even blurrier since. Part of the problem is partisanship – it used to be, for example, that there were environmentalists in both parties, supporters of social spending in both parties. A political ad about the environment was just that. But what’s an ad or brochure attacking “Obamacare” during the election year? Every Republican opposes it, and they’ve given it the name of the president. The Tea Party was based on issues, yes, but above all else, it was based on unflagging, total opposition to Obama and congressional Democrats.

To figure out where election advocacy begins and regular political speech ends in these cases was certainly more than mid-level IRS bureaucrats in Cincinnati could handle. But it’s not an easy challenge for anyone. All the noise about IRS “targeting” and about free speech and corporate speech is a distraction from a real challenge of money in elections: finding an agreement on the line around an “election,” and establishing some clear rules for what happens within that line in order to ensure that elections are fair and open and don’t lead to corruption.


By: Mark Schmitt, The National Memo, May 16, 2013

May 20, 2013 Posted by | Campaign Financing, Internal Revenue Service | , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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