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“Incorruptible?”: Trump Hates Lobbyists—Except The Ones Running His Super PAC

Donald Trump says he hates what lobbyists and super PACs are doing to our political system. According to him, his most attractive quality as a candidate—besides, obviously, his terrific looks—is his wealth, because it means Trump will never find himself beholden to anyone but Trump.

At a press conference in Dubuque, Iowa, on Tuesday evening, Trump told reporters, “I know the system better than anybody. The fact is that whether it’s Jeb, or Hillary, or any of ’em—they’re all controlled by these people! And the people that control them are the special interests, the lobbyists and the donors.”

He smiled slightly.

“You know what’s nice about me?” he asked. “I don’t need anybody’s money.”

In practice, however, the candidate seems willing to associate himself with just about anyone offering support—even if that support comes in the form of everything he hates rolled into one: a super PAC run by lobbyists.

On July 1, a pro-Trump super PAC, Make America Great Again PAC, filed with the FEC.

The organization listed on its paperwork a New York City address, which Bloomberg traced to a Midtown FedEx store. The address the PAC provided for supporters to mail their checks to was a Midtown UPS store. Calls to the group’s listed phone number went unanswered, as did an email. The treasurer who submitted the form to the FEC signed it “Les Caldwell,” short for Leslie, and Leslie refused to comment on the record to Politico, while just about every Leslie Caldwell listed in New York chose not to answer or return any of my calls.

Curiously, a closer look at the group’s filing reveals a return address not in New York City but in Colorado.

That address belongs to Jon Anderson, a lobbyist whose “practice is focused on corporate compliance and representing clients before federal, state and local government,” according to the website of his firm, Holland & Hart.

A consultant for the PAC, Mike Ciletti, also from Colorado, is also a lobbyist. He has his own group, New West Public Affairs, which he co-founded in 2009, according to his LinkedIn profile. His clients include the Community Financial Services Association, the trade association for payday lenders, which are often accused of predatory lending.

Anderson didn’t return a call, and Ciletti responded to interview requests with frustration that his activity with the PAC had placed him in the spotlight. “Personally I am waiting to see what other email addresses, phone numbers you can find to try to reach me at. Hats off to you,” he said in an email. “I am not interested in going on the record at this point, perhaps in the future. The focus should be on the candidates.”

At first glance, Make America Great Again PAC seems like it could be a so-called scam PAC, or a fake political operation intended to do nothing more than help its founders get rich. Scam PACs have been cropping up since the rise of the Tea Party. A Politico investigation in January found that of the $43 million that 33 PACs together raised in the 2014 election cycle, only $3 million was spent on candidates. The rest, well…

But Trump seemed to quash those concerns when in mid-July he attended a 200-person fundraiser organized by Make America Great Again PAC at a private home in Manhattan. “It was a combination of friends that have known Mr. Trump for years while others were meeting with him for the first time,” press-shy Ciletti told the press.

Make America Great Again PAC is one of four PACs supporting Trump’s candidacy, though it is the only one to receive his endorsement in the form of a fundraiser appearance.

It might even be said that, when you really assess the pillars of Trump’s campaign platform, he might be known as the Buddy Roemer of 2016—if Trump weren’t so bombastic and intent on incessant racial insensitivity.

To the extent that he is selling a political philosophy, it’s this: “I’m really rich.” He’s not just bragging when he says that. What he means is that the system is so broken that anyone who is not really rich is at the mercy of their financial backers. “I’m really rich” is Trump’s way of saying he is, by virtue of his terrific wealth, incorruptible.

Trump is a cynic. In his view, the only way to fix the broken process by which candidates are elected using massive sums of money funneled to them by shadow organizations and power-hungry billionaires looking to get favors in return is to evade the process altogether by supporting someone like him—someone with the capacity to be their own biggest donor, and thus to answer to no one but themselves.

 

By: Olivia Nuzzi, The Daily Beast, August 26, 2015

August 26, 2015 Posted by | Campaign Financing, Donald Trump, Super PAC's | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Making Congress More Stupider”: Making Congress Dumber Has Not, In Fact, Made Government Smaller

You may recall Paul Glatris and Haley Sweetland Edwards’ cover article, “The Big Lobotomy,” from the June/July/August 2014 issue of the Washington Monthly. It documented how congressional Republicans had worked for decades to reduce Congress’ capacity for intelligent decision-making–while making it vastly more dependent on lobbyists and special interests–via reductions in appropriations for staff and committees and research initiatives.

The article clearly made an impression on Harry Stein and Ethan Gurwitz of the Center for American Progress, who cited it in reporting the latest self-lobotimizing effort in Congress in the FY 2016 appropriations process:

As Congress writes spending bills that attempt to implement the first year of its budget resolution, it is clear that the legislative branch intends to continue operating with one hand tied behind its back.

On June 12, 2015, the Senate Appropriations Committee advanced the fiscal year 2016 legislative branch appropriations bill, which would cut funding for the legislative branch by 17 percent from inflation-adjusted FY 2010 levels. The House of Representatives has already passed its version of the FY 2016 legislative branch appropriations bill, which makes roughly the same overall funding cuts as the Senate bill. These cuts may seem like a good way to score cheap political points at a time when Congress is deeply unpopular, but in the long run, they only increase congressional dysfunction and make the federal government less efficient and responsive to the American people.

The fact remains that the legislative branch includes much more than just members of Congress. When members vote to slash legislative spending, they undermine the professional staff and independent agencies that make it possible for Congress to oversee federal programs and understand complex policy questions. As funding and staffing levels for these legislative branch institutions have declined, Congress has become increasingly dependent on privately funded lobbyists and outside policy experts.

As the CAP article notes, the cuts include those unique legislative branch entities the Congressional Budget Office and the Government Accountability Office–both essential for understanding and reforming government spending.

The House’s FY 2016 legislative branch appropriations bill cuts the GAO budget by 15.4 percent from its FY 2010 inflation-adjusted level, while the Senate bill cuts GAO funding by 14.9 percent. If every $1 cut from the GAO equates to $15.20 of unexposed waste, fraud, and abuse, cuts of this magnitude could result in about $1.4 billion in missed opportunities for government savings, or between $7 billion and $8 billion based on the larger return-on-investment ratio of 80 to 1.

Even for conservatives who want a smaller federal government, Glastris and Edwards note that “making Congress dumber has not, in fact, made government smaller.” It just makes government less effective.

If you don’t really believe in any legitimate mission for the federal government beyond national defense, of course, this this is a distinction without a difference. But the rest of us are saddled with big, dumb government.

 

By: Ed Kilgore, Contributing Writer, Political Animal Blog, The Washington Monthly, June 16, 2015

June 18, 2015 Posted by | Congress, Conservatives, Federal Budget | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“An Indictment Of The ‘Pay-To-Play’ Political System”: Did the Chemical Industry Write Its Own Oversight Legislation?

For an instructive example of how unfettered money in politics corrupts the legislative process, consider a chemical-safety bill under deliberation in the Senate.

The legislation, sponsored by Louisiana Republican David Vitter and New Mexico Democrat Tom Udall, would reform the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which the chemical industry and environmental and public health advocates alike say is severely outdated. In the absence of solid federal protection from the roughly 1,000 chemicals that the Environmental Protection Agency judges as potential health hazards, more than half the states have picked up the slack by putting their own regulations in place. The bill’s opponents warn it would undermine these state laws, without strengthening the EPA’s oversight powers enough to compensate. Unsurprisingly, the proposed overhaul has the “unequivocal support” of the chemical industry.

One of the bill’s chief critics is Barbara Boxer, the ranking Democrat on the Environment and Public Works Committee. Boxer, who has introduced a competing bill with stronger consumer protections, has been highly critical of the role chemical companies have played in the development of the Udall-Vitter legislation. “I’ve been around the Senate for a long time, but I have never before seen so much heavy-handed, big-spending lobbying on any issue,” Boxer was quoted saying in a New York Times article in early March. “To me it looks like the chemical industry itself is writing this bill.”

Boxer may have been right to question its authorship. Early in the week Hearst Newspapers got its hands on a draft version that was circulated by Udall’s office in anticipation of a committee hearing on Wednesday. Someone at Hearst checked the authoring information contained in the Word document—and found that it originated with the American Chemistry Council, the “leading trade organization and lobbyist for the chemical industry.”

Although Udall has a strong environmental record, he’s become cozy with ACC and other industry groups over the two years he’s spent working on the TSCA overhaul, as the same Times article revealed. He has raised “tens of thousands” of dollars from chemical interests, and the ACC even ran a television ad on his behalf. “The leadership he is providing is absolutely critical,” the group’s president and lobbyist Cal Dooley told the Times. Udall and the other sixteen cosponsors of his legislation received, on average, about 70 percent more from chemical companies than other senators.

Udall’s office and ACC insist the digital link between the document and the lobby group indicates only that after Udall’s office circulated the draft to stakeholders, someone at ACC saved a version and sent it back to the senator’s staff. But the Environmental Working Group, one of the bill’s chief opponents, and Boxer’s office told the SF Gate the draft version they received had the same authoring information.

Even if the bill didn’t fully originate with ACC, it’s clear that the chemical industry—which has a financial incentive to keep regulations loose—has left its mark on the Udall-Vitter legislation. The bill would bar states from regulating a chemical once the EPA designates it as “high priority” for assessment, a process that can take up to seven years. It requires the EPA to start reviewing a minimum of twenty-five chemicals within five years, but at that rate, it could be centuries before the agency got through the 1,000 chemicals it says need assessment. (To make matters worse, the underfunded EPA is known for missing deadlines.) To date the EPA has only ever banned five chemicals, and mandated testing on a mere 200 of the 80,000 in use in the United States.

Consumer advocates worry that if the bill passes, protections already in place would be completely undone while the EPA proceeds to examine only a small number of chemicals at a glacial pace. A number of organizations including Physicians for Social Responsibility, the Natural Resources Defense Council, United Steelworkers and the Breast Cancer Fund, along with eight state attorneys general, have pointed out these and other serious flaws. Some, like the Environmental Working Group, consider it worse than the existing regulatory framework; EWG says it “fail[s] to ensure that chemicals are safe, fail[s] to set meaningful deadlines for safety reviews, fail[s] to provide EPA with adequate resources and [denies] states the ability to protect public health and the environment.”

Nevertheless, in a sign of how broken the 1976 law is—the oft-repeated example is that it doesn’t even allow the EPA to ban asbestos—other health and environmental groups support the bill anyway. Anything stronger, they say, and it will lose Republican support, making it impossible to pass. “I don’t want to be facing another Senate committee twenty years from now, testifying about a sixty-year-old law. Nor do I want have to tell my daughter that she and her future children will not have a greater level of protection because we failed to pass a good, even if not perfect, law,” Lynn Goldman, a professor of environmental health at George Washington University, testified before the Senate committee on Wednesday.

It may be true that a bill that truly protects consumers from harmful chemicals can’t pass Congress in its current form. But that’s a stone that shouldn’t be cast against advocates for something better than the Udall-Vitter compromise. It’s an indictment of the pay-to-play political system and the legislators who gamely reward their corporate sponsors.

 

By: Zoe Carpenter, The Nation, March 19, 2015

March 20, 2015 Posted by | Chemical Industry, Environmental Protection Agency | , , , , , , | 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

“ALEC Cookie Cutter Legislation”: Wisconsin Anti-Union Bill Is ‘Word For Word’ From Rightwing Lobbyist Group

Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin who is considering a Republican presidential run, has promised to sign into law an anti-union bill targeted at the state’s private sector workers that is an almost verbatim copy of model legislation devised by an ultra-rightwing network of corporate lobbyists.

On Friday, Walker dropped his earlier opposition to a so-called “right to work” bill, which he had described as a “distraction”, signalling that he would sign it into law should it succeed in passing the Wisconsin legislature. Republican members are rushing through the provision, which would strip private sector unions of much of their fee-collecting and bargaining powers.

On Monday, the bill cleared a committee of the state senate. A vote of the full chamber is slated for later this week, and of the assembly early next month.

The resumption of union battles in Walker’s home state comes at an awkward time for the probable 2016 candidate, as he seeks to shift attention away from Wisconsin and towards a national political platform. On Thursday he will speak at the high-profile Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington, where he will seek to press home his recent meteoric rise from a relatively obscure midwest executive to a leading contender among top Republicans.

It has now been disclosed that the Wisconsin 2015 right to work bill is a virtual carbon copy of a model bill framed by the American Legislative Exchange Council (Alec). The council acts as a form of dating agency between major US corporations and state-level Republican lawmakers, bringing them together to frame new legislation favorable to big business interests.

The Center for Media and Democracy (CMD), which monitors the activities of Alec, has compared the Alec model bill and the new Wisconsin proposal and found them to be nearly identical.

“This bill is word for word from the Alec playbook, and that’s no surprise as the Wisconsin legislature is dominated by Alec members,” said the CMD’s general counsel, Brendan Fischer.

Walker too has close ties to Alec. He actively supported several Alec bills between 1993 and 2002, when he was a member of the Wisconsin assembly. On Sunday Alec posted to its Twitter feed a photograph of Walker with the Alec chief executive, Lisa Nelson, in which she said: “Great to be with Alec alumni @ScottWalker”.

The governor is no stranger to fighting unions. His current ascendancy is in part due to the national name recognition he gained when taking on public sector unions at the start of his first term in office, leading to headline-grabbling mass demonstrations.

To some extent, a renewal of such battles could play to his favour among the hardcore of rightwing Republicans who tend to determine the outcome of the party’s primary elections. On the other hand, any suggestion that Walker gave his backing to cookie-cutter legislation devised by a corporate lobbying group could hand the Democratic party valuable ammunition should Walker win the nomination and go on to face a general election.

He has already provided his opponents with considerable material for potential attack ads. In a recent trip to London to burnish his foreign policy credentials, he dodged a question about whether he believed in evolution. In December he got his “Mazel tovs” confused when he signed a letter to a Jewish constituent: “Thank you again and Molotov.”

The brewing union confrontation comes as Walker is increasing the pace of his exploratory activities around a 2016 campaign. The son of a preacher, he has been wooing evangelical Christian conservatives who are a key constituency in the opening caucuses of the presidential election in Iowa.

He has also stepped up meetings with prominent Republican donors.

The Wisconsin right to work bill is just one part of a nationwide push by Alec to undermine union power and rein in minimum wage levels. Twenty-four states currently have right to work laws and a rash of state legislatures are taking up the issue, partly under Alec’s encouragement.

 

By: Ed Pilkington, The Guardian, February 23, 2015

February 28, 2015 Posted by | ALEC, Right To Work Laws, Scott Walker | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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