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“Most Likely To Exceed”: The Supreme Court’s Cash Gift To Republican Candidates

The instant the Supreme Court demolished overall donation limits in April, the money burst forth from the dam. As The Washington Post reported this morning, more than 300 donors immediately wrote checks beyond the old limit of $123,200, adding $11.6 million to the political system that would not have been allowed earlier.

And unsurprisingly, twice as much of that money went to Republican candidates and their committees than to Democrats.

Before the court’s McCutcheon decision, in a two-year election cycle donors could not give more than $48,600 to candidates and $74,600 to parties and political committees. The original idea of the limit was to make sure that donors could not spread so much cash around to a party and its candidates as to become indispensible to an entire wing of American politics.

The court’s ruling, continuing in its absurd line of reasoning that such limits violate the First Amendment, effectively raised the overall limits to $3.6 million per election cycle, and many donors seem determined to approach that ugly new milestone.

One donor told The Post that he has given to 39 political action committees, 25 Senate candidates and 16 House candidates just this year.

Another, in an admission of charming if depressing naïveté, explained why he has given $177,000 to Republican congressional candidates in the last few months. “You have to realize, when you start contributing to all these guys, they give you access to meet them and talk about your issues,” said the donor, Andrew Sabin of New York, who owns a precious-metals refining business. “They know that I’m a big supporter.” Already, he boasted, he has received personal visits from Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and Gov. Rick Scott of Florida.

The candidates know which donors are most likely to exceed the old limits — some of them have familiar names like Adelson, Koch, and Soros — and are hitting them up hard, undoubtedly listening in earnest to whatever interests the donors have in Washington.

Small donors have no place in this intimate relationship. And yet, as an article in The Times this morning pointed out, they could have a much larger role if only they weren’t drowned out by the big guys. Last year’s New York City mayoral election, the first since 1997 without a self-financed billionaire on the ticket, was “the most wide-open” city election since the public financing system began 25 years ago. The system provides a matching incentive for candidates to raise small donations, which significantly increased the level of competition in city races last year.

Similar systems have been rejected in Albany and in Washington, largely by Republicans. Looking at the numbers, it’s easy to see why.


By: David Firestone, Taking Note, The Editorial Page Editors Blog, The New York Times, September 2, 2014

September 3, 2014 Posted by | Campaign Financing, Politics, Supreme Court | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“It’s A Sad State Of Affairs”: Is This Who We Want Driving Our Democracy?

On Tuesday, the Center for Media and Democracy released documents showing that mega-donor Charles Koch was a member of the far-right John Birch Society from 1961 to 1968, when the organization’s work opposing the civil rights movement was reaching a fever pitch.

From publishing materials calling the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King the “biggest” “liar in the country” and the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery a “sham and farce” to promoting pieces railing against the racial integration of schools, the 1960s saw the John Birch Society leading abhorrent attacks on the civil rights movement. According to The Progressive, Charles Koch was not simply a member of the society in name. He funded the organization’s campaigns, helped it promote right-wing radio programs, and supported its bookstore in Wichita.

Sound familiar? Though Charles resigned from the John Birch Society in 1968, he and his brother David are still using their wealth to support right-wing efforts — now through a complicated and secretive web of conservative groups. Put together, the groups in the Koch-backed network raised over $400 million in 2012 and have dumped heaps of cash into campaigns and projects to promote an anti-government and anti-worker agenda.

Unfortunately, today’s campaign finance landscape makes it easy for billionaires, corporations, and special interests to try and bend our political system to their will. In 2010, the Supreme Court infamously ruled in Citizens United v. FEC that corporations can give unlimited sums of money to independently influence elections. This year, the High Court made things even worse when they ruled in McCutcheon v. FEC that wealthy individuals can give significantly more money directly to candidates, parties, and committees than they could before, upwards of $3.5 million per election cycle.

It’s a sad state of affairs. But as the leader of a national network of progressive African American ministers, many of whom are working hard to raise awareness about the dangers of money in politics, I often remind people: Democracy is for all of us. Though it can feel like democracy in America today is only for the few — the elite donor class who can bankroll the candidates of their choice — I have faith that this is not how things will always be.

There’s an important proposal moving forward across the country and in Congress that would help shift the power in our political system away from people like the Koch brothers and towards everyday Americans. This week, the Senate Judiciary Committee is voting on a proposed constitutional amendment that would overturn decisions like Citizen United. Introduced by Sen. Tom Udall, the 28th Amendment would restore legislators’ ability to set commonsense limits on money in elections. While amending our nation’s guiding text is a weighty proposal, our country has a proud history of amending the Constitution, when necessary, to expand democracy and fix damaging Supreme Court decisions.

With the voices of everyday Americans increasingly being drowned out by the likes of the Koch brothers, fixing our democracy can’t wait.


By:Minister Leslie Watson Malachi, The Huffington Post Blog, July 9, 2014



July 10, 2014 Posted by | Democracy, Koch Brothers | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Decimating Every Legal Justification For Reform”: Can Reformers Save Our Election System From The Supreme Court?

Over the past few years, given the bad news that just keeps coming their way, America’s campaign-finance reformers have started to look like eternal optimists. They’ve pretty much had to be.

Take the one-two wallop they suffered early this spring. First, Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York state legislators killed reformers’ best chance of a breakthrough in 2014—a public-financing program in which small-dollar donations would be matched or multiplied by public funds. (New York City already runs its own “matching” program.) The idea was to give less-wealthy donors a bigger voice in legislative and gubernatorial races while decreasing the clout of those with deep pockets. Instead, reformers ended up with a microscopic pilot program for the state comptroller’s race. A few days later came much worse news: In McCutcheon v. FEC, the Supreme Court threw out the limit that Congress had put on the total amount wealthy donors can give to campaigns and political parties. While there are still caps on how much donors can give to a specific candidate, now anyone can give to as many campaigns as he or she pleases.

As they reeled from their latest setbacks, clean-election advocates tried to find a reason to be hopeful. Ian Vandewalker, counsel for the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, which advocated for the New York proposal, told me that in the wake of McCutcheon, “public financing is the most promising thing that’s left.” But McCutcheon illustrated just what makes the Roberts Court so pernicious when it comes to money and elections; slowly but steadily, decision by decision, the justices are decimating every legal justification for reform.

Underpinning the Court’s infamous 2010 Citizens United ruling was the belief that giving less-wealthy donors more of a voice in elections is not a good enough reason for Congress to regulate political money. A year later, in Arizona Free Enterprise Club v. Bennett, the Court struck down a public-financing program that tried to decrease the power of wealthy “self-funded” candidates.

The Arizona law offered grants to those who agreed to spend only $500 of their own money on their campaigns and agreed to debate their opponents. The funding increased as opponents and independent groups spent more; the idea was to prevent less-affluent candidates from being disadvantaged. The Arizona decision threw similar state programs into legal limbo. The Court decided the program was unfair to candidates who chose not to participate; in other words, candidates with more money to spend have a constitutional right to overwhelm their competition.

“Some people might call that chutzpah,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote in her dissent.

Even so, the Arizona decision left room for reformers to argue for a different kind of public financing system in the interest of quelling political corruption. McCutcheon put an end to that. The Court ruled that Congress and the states cannot justify limits on campaign donations because of concerns about corruption. In other words, if there isn’t a guy with a suitcase full of cash trading it for a lawmaker’s vote, it’s none of lawmakers’ concern.

The blow from McCutcheon has dire implications for American democracy. But it should not mark the end of the reform movement. While continuing to pursue reforms that haven’t yet been quashed, activists and legal scholars now must step back and cook up new laws, and new justifications for those laws, that could pass muster with the Court. Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig has been on a mission to fight originalism with originalism. The conservative justices base their decisions on a reading of the Founding Fathers’ original intent in writing the Constitution, so Lessig has been combing through the records of the framers, citing every use of the term “corruption” and showing how the Founders used the term to mean much more than “quid pro quo” bribery. Lessig writes that “corruption” encompassed “improper dependence” on the powerful as well. Trying to persuade the justices to change their minds may be an uphill struggle, but Lessig’s work may prove useful when new campaign-finance laws are defended in court.

Reformers’ fondest hope now lies with disclosure laws—a form of regulation the Supreme Court majority endorsed in Citizens United. Laws to make tax-exempt “social welfare” groups, which spend billions on elections, disclose their donors are percolating in the states. And in a demonstration of how un-killable the idea of reforming elections can be, some activists have come up with a new twist: If some groups are allowed to keep their donors’ names secret, why shouldn’t their political ads be required to say so? The idea is that when voters hear the words “This advertisement is sponsored by a group that does not disclose its donors,” it would make shadowy political groups look, well, shadowy.


By: Abby Rapoport, The American Prospect, May 21, 2014

May 23, 2014 Posted by | Campaign Financing, Democracy | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Time To Make A Choice”: Huge Wealth Gap Caused Backlash Before And May Again

A majority of the Supreme Court decided last week that the First Amendment protects the right of individuals to pour as much as $3.6 million into a political party or $800,000 into a political campaign.

The court said such spending doesn’t corrupt democracy. That’s utter baloney, as anyone who has the faintest familiarity with contemporary American politics well knows.

The McCutcheon vs. FEC decision would be less troubling were the distribution of income and wealth in America more equal. But over the last few decades it has become extraordinarily concentrated. The richest 400 Americans now possess more wealth than the bottom half of the U.S. population put together.

A few billionaires are now deciding on whom to place their bets for the next presidential election. Before McCutcheon vs. FEC, they had to resort to bulky super PACs and so-called “social welfare” organizations. Now they can dole out their money directly.

McCutcheon vs. FEC coincides with the publication in English of an important book by French economist Thomas Piketty, “Capital in the 21st Century.” Piketty sees the United States and most of the rest of the world returning to the vast inequalities of wealth that were taken for granted as late as the end of the 1800s.

“It is almost inevitable that inherited wealth will dominate wealth amassed from a lifetime’s labor by a wide margin, and the concentration of capital will attain extremely high levels,” Piketty writes. Those levels are potentially incompatible with the meritocratic values and principles fundamental to modern democratic societies.

Piketty shows that for several centuries before World War I, the financial returns to the owners of capital exceeded the rate of growth of modern economies, creating a widening divergence between wealth and incomes. That divergence meant widening inequality between the owners of those assets and the people who worked for a living.

The gap was reversed in the 20th century by two brutal wars and a Great Depression that wiped out the dynastic fortunes of Europe and the accumulated wealth of America’s Gilded Age. But in recent decades, slower growth and higher returns to the owners of capital have allowed the older pattern to reassert itself.

In this sense, McCutcheon vs. FEC marks another step back toward dynastic rule, enabling the owners of vast wealth to compound their holdings through politics.

Nonetheless, I think Piketty’s analysis is way too pessimistic. He disregards the political upheavals and reforms that such wealth concentrations have periodically fueled – such as America’s populist revolts of the 1890s followed by the progressive era before World War I, and the German socialist movement in the 1870s followed by Otto von Bismarck‘s creation of the world’s first welfare state.

Even at this particularly dark hour for democratic capitalism, we see evidence of a resurgent populism and progressivism in the United States. The so-called Tea Party movement is, in a sense, a populist revolt against large corporations, Wall Street and the Republican Party establishment. And the Occupy movement, although apparently short-lived, has found new voice in the recent electoral victories of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

Democratic capitalism might have within it a balance wheel that Piketty too readily discounts: a public that, once it catches on to what’s happening, refuses to cede control to concentrated economic power.

In turn-of-the-century America, when the lackeys of robber barons literally placed sacks of cash on the desks of pliant legislators, the great jurist Louis Brandeis warned that the nation faced a choice. “We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few,” he said, “but we can’t have both.”

Soon thereafter, America made the choice. After the turn of the century, public outrage gave birth to the nation’s first campaign finance laws, along with the first progressive income tax. The trusts were broken up and regulations imposed to bar impure food and drugs. Several states enacted America’s first labor protections, including the 40-hour workweek.

In the short term, McCutcheon vs. FEC might make it easier for today’s robber barons to take over American politics. But by inviting them to corrupt our democracy so brazenly, it also might fuel a popular backlash leading to a new era of reform. It has happened before.


By: Robert Reich, Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley; San Francisco Chronicle, April 11, 2014




April 14, 2014 Posted by | Campaign Financing, Economic Inequality | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“It’s Time To Get Creative”: Want To Cut The Rich’s Influence? Take Away Their Money!

Chief Justice John Roberts this week continued his gradual judicial elimination of America’s campaign finance laws, with a decision in McCutcheon v. FEC that eliminates “aggregate” contribution limits from individuals to political parties, PACs and candidates. The decision may not have a catastrophic effect, in a world where individuals were already permitted to donate unlimited sums to independent political organizations, but it is just another move toward the end of regulation of political spending altogether. If Americans want to limit the influence of money on politics, they will have to start getting more creative.

Roberts’ specialty is “faux judicial restraint,” in which he achieves his radical desired goals over the course of many incremental decisions instead of one sweeping one. In this case, as many observers have noted, Roberts pointed to our current easily circumvented caps on political spending as justification for lifting yet another cap, without noting that the Roberts court helped create the current system to begin with. Our campaign finance laws have not quite yet been “eviscerated,” but the trend is clear. Roberts and Justice Clarence Thomas, who penned a partial dissent calling for all regulation of political spending to be eliminated, have something close to the same end goal, but Roberts is willing to be patient in getting there.

As long as Roberts and his fellow conservatives dominate the Supreme Court — and it seems likely that they will continue to dominate it for years to come — campaign finance reformers are going to find themselves sabotaged at every turn. As Rick Hasen says: “It is hard to see what will be left of campaign finance law beyond disclosure in a few years.”

So, if we think that money in politics is a problem; if we think it creates the appearance of corruption, alienates non-wealthy citizens from the democratic process, perverts incentives for politicians and candidates, and creates an unequal system in which the speech of the rich drowns out the speech of everyone else — and all of those things are already the long-standing status quo — we can no longer seek to address the problem by preventing money from flowing into politics. The Supreme Court is clearly not going to meet a new spending restriction that it likes any time soon. Instead of attempting to dictate how the wealthy spend their money, we are probably just going to have to take away their money.

If the super-rich had less money, they would have less money to spend on campaigns and lobbying. And unlike speech, the government is very clearly allowed to take away people’s money. It’s in the Constitution and everything. I know it wasn’t that long ago that it also seemed obvious that the government could regulate political spending, but in this case the relevant constitutional authority is pretty clear and there is no room for a so-called originalist to justify a politically conservative reading of the text. Congress can tax income any way it pleases.

There is one glaring problem with my plan, of course, which is that Congress is already captured by wealthy interests, and is not inclined to tax them. But all I’m saying is that would-be campaign finance reformers ought to give up on their lost cause and shift their energies toward confiscation and redistribution.


By: Alex Pareene, Salon, April 3, 2014

April 14, 2014 Posted by | Campaign Financing, John Roberts | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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