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“Wake Up, People, And See The Danger We’re In”: While Watching With Eyes Glazed, Democracy Is Being Stolen

This is a column about campaign finance reform.

And your eyes glazed over just then, didn’t they?

That’s the problem with this problem. Americans know that government truly of, by and for the people is unlikely if not impossible so long as the system is polluted by billions of dollars in contributions from corporations and individual billionaires. Half of us, according to Gallup, would like to see public financing of campaigns; nearly 80 percent want to limit campaign fundraising.

And yet somehow, the issue seems to lack a visceral urgency in the public mind. William Ostrander understands that all too well.

“There are people that will go nuts over the Second Amendment,” he says in a telephone interview. And not to diminish the importance of self-defense, he adds, but “when you look at the practical character of it, what’s going on in campaign finance corruption is far more injurious to their lives, their well-being and their children’s lives than anything most people have had to deal with with the Second Amendment.”

Ostrander is a farmer in tiny San Luis Obispo, CA, and the director of something called Citizens Congress 2014. Its members include a schoolteacher, a small-business man, a firefighter, a general contractor and a doctor — your basic average Americans — who have collectively invested thousands of volunteer hours to set up a summit (June 2-5) of lawyers, lawmakers, academics, advocacy groups and other experts.

Their aim: to brainstorm strategies and craft a plan of action to eliminate the influence of big money in politics.

Quixotic? Perhaps. But Ostrander says he has commitments from a number of high-profile individuals, including: former labor secretary Robert Reich, Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig; and Trevor Potter, the former chairman of the Federal Election Commission, who is probably best known for his appearances on The Colbert Report, where he helped Stephen Colbert set up a SuperPAC.

We should wish them success. Because truth is, while many of us watch with eyes glazed, democracy is being stolen right out from under us. Consider that last week, the Supreme Court issued a ruling further loosening the limits on campaign donations. Consider the unseemly way four presumptive presidential aspirants ran to Las Vegas to kiss Sheldon Adelson’s ring when the billionaire casino magnate announced he was looking for candidates to support. Consider what billionaire Tom Perkins said in February: Only taxpayers should have the right to vote and the rich should have more votes.

We’re already moving in that direction. As new Voter ID laws and other restrictive measures cull the electorate of poor people, brown people and young people, as the Supreme Court further tilts the playing field toward the monied and the privileged, the notion of one person, one vote, the idea that we each have an equal say in the doings of our government, comes to feel … quaint if not downright naive.

So the politician, though she came to office determined to do right by her constituents, finds she must pay greater attention to the needs of a large donor than to those of the people she was elected to represent. And you get paradoxes like the one last year, where, although 91 percent of us wanted criminal background checks for all gun sales, somehow that didn’t happen, didn’t even come close.

It’s not the politicians’ fault, says Ostrander. “There are some really great people in Congress, honestly. It’s the system that’s broken. The system needs an intervention.”

And that won’t happen until or unless more Americans wake up from their stupor and recognize this as the clear and present danger it is. Ever feel your government doesn’t represent you?

That’s because it doesn’t.


By: Leonard Pitts, Jr., Columnist, The Miami Herald; Published in The National Memo, April 9, 2014

April 10, 2014 Posted by | Campaign Financing, Democracy, Wealthy | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The War Against American Citizens”: Metastasizing Money Drowns Out The Voices Of Actual Americans

In 1971, before becoming a Supreme Court justice, Lewis F. Powell Jr. penned a memo to his friend Eugene Sydnor of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce advocating a comprehensive strategy in favor of corporate interests. Powell wrote, “Under our constitutional system, especially with an activist-minded Supreme Court, the judiciary may be the most important instrument for social, economic and political change.”

In last week’s ruling in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission , the Supreme Court was not a mere instrument so much as a blowtorch, searing a hole in the fabric of our fragile democracy.

This predictable decision from the 1 Percent Court to repeal federal limits on overall individual campaign contributions overturns nearly 40 years of campaign finance law.

It also completes a trifecta of rulings that started in 1976 with Buckley v. Valeo, and the Midas touch of judicial malpractice, turning money into speech. As Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in an impassioned dissent to McCutcheon, taken together with the 2010 ruling in Citizens United, “today’s decision eviscerates our Nation’s campaign finance laws, leaving a remnant incapable of dealing with the grave problems of democratic legitimacy that those laws were intended to resolve.”

This, foreshadowed in Powell’s decades-old memo, has always been the right’s plan — to shift the system in favor of the wealthy and powerful. Put it this way: If the limit hadn’t existed in 2012, the 1,219 biggest donors could have given more money than over 4 million small donors to the Obama and Romney campaigns — combined.

But McCutcheon was not the only body blow to our democracy, in what was possibly the worst week in the history of campaign finance reform.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) let his proposal for publicly financed statewide elections die after years of promises to restore the public trust. In a state that’s often a laboratory of democracy, the governor has agreed to what is little more than a clinical trial — a single comptroller’s race this year — that some experts claim is “designed to fail.”

The American experiment seems to be run by a smaller and smaller control group as billionaires — like the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson — get expanding seats at the shrinking political table.

NASCAR drivers wear the corporate logos of their sponsors on their suits. The justices who sided with plutocracy ought to wear sponsorship logos on their robes, too.

Conversations about court rulings and policy proposals can obscure what’s really at stake: the well-being of the American people. The Court and Cuomo gave the 1 percent even more opportunities to, effectively, buy the kind of access to elected officials that most voters and small donors could never dream of. The weakening of campaign finance laws tracks with the widening income gap, as the wealthiest have secured policies, from lower taxes to deregulation — that enrich themselves at the expense of everybody else.

This, to paraphrase Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D), is why the system is rigged. Metastasizing money drowns out the voices of actual Americans, and suffocates policies such as raising the minimum wage and equal pay that would benefit workers. It also skews the playing field, not just between the haves and have-nots, but also between male and female candidates.

We live in a world where elected officials care less about checks and balances and more about their checkbooks and balance sheets. Where fundraising is more important than legislating. Where public policy is auctioned off to the highest bidder.

That’s why getting money out of politics is not a partisan issue. According to Gallup, nearly eight out of 10 Americans think campaigns should be limited in what they can raise and spend, while a 2012 CBS poll shows that about two-thirds of Americans believe in limiting individual campaign contributions.

Hopefully, popular outrage will boost the pressure for reform; there has already been a sharp increase in grassroots action. In the hours and days after the ruling, coalitions such as Public Citizen have mobilized thousands of people in 140 demonstrations across 38 states to protest the McCutcheon ruling. Nearly 500 local governments and 16 states and the District have called for a constitutional amendment to wrest our elections back from the elite. Move to Amend, which supports a constitutional amendment to reverse Citizens United and McCutcheon, and end the fiction that corporations are people and money equals speech, already has over 300,000 members.

A resolution from Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) — with a House companion introduced by Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) — calling for a constitutional amendment to allow Congress to fully regulate campaign contributions, and to encourage states to regulate and limit campaign spending, already had 29 co-sponsors and picked up 3 more on the day the Roberts Court announced its decision. Citizens in New York, who are furious at Cuomo for failing to enact reform, are renewing the drive to hold him accountable for his actions. And even while pushing for a constitutional amendment — an uphill battle —supporters of clean elections in Congress and outside are fighting for increased disclosure and public financing of elections.

The all-out assault against campaign finance reform, on the heels of the Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder , is just one more example of our democratic system in crisis. “Under the leadership of Chief Justice John Roberts,” my Nation colleague Ari Berman recently wrote, “the Supreme Court has made it far easier to buy an election and far harder to vote in one.” But the fear of democracy’s premature death doesn’t look like it’s silencing people; instead, it is inspiring a renewed commitment to fight for its survival.


By: Katrina vanden Heuvel, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, April 8, 2014

April 9, 2014 Posted by | Campaign Financing, Democracy, SCOTUS | , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“Beyond Corruption”: A Campaign Finance System Warped Beyond What It Would Be Under Any Reasonable Conception Of Democracy

There was a time in our history, thankfully long past now, when bribery was common and money’s slithery movement through the passages of American government was all but invisible, save for the occasional scandal that would burst forth into public consciousness. Today, we know much more about who’s getting what from whom. Members of Congress have to declare their assets, lobbyists have to register and disclose their activities, and contributions are reported and tracked. Whatever you think about the current campaign finance system, it’s much more transparent than it once was.

But if outright bribery is rare, should we say that the system is good enough? It’s a question we have to answer as we move into a new phase of the debate over money in politics. In the wake of last week’s Supreme Court decision in McCutcheon v. F.E.C., many liberals are nervous that the Court’s conservative majority is poised to remove all limits on how much can be donated to candidates and parties. For their part, conservatives seem to be preparing to open a new front in this seemingly endless battle, this time on the disclosure requirements that allow us to track who’s spending money to get their favored candidates elected. But those of us who worry about money’s distorting effects on the process would do well to acknowledge that the combination of more transparency and more money—much, much more money—has created a new reality with dangers that aren’t well described by the traditional conception of “corruption.”

Over the last few decades of campaign finance history, the immediate arguments have changed many times. Sometimes we argued over “soft money” contributions to political parties, sometimes we argued over phony “issue ads,” or 527 organizations and 501(c)(4) organizations, or corporate contributions and aggregate contributions. The specific locus of controversy keeps changing because political money always seems to find its way around whatever obstacles are placed in its path. And the fundamental divide that runs through all these arguments is, just as it has always been, that liberals want to reduce money’s influence over politics while conservatives want to increase it.

Conservatives might protest that that’s not really true; they just care deeply about freedom. But no one buys that for a minute. Their position on the issue is both practical and ideological. They know that if the super-wealthy are allowed to put as much of their money as they want into elections, Republicans will benefit more than Democrats. It’s no wonder that Republican party chair Reince Priebus called the McCutcheon decision a “very big victory for the RNC.” And they genuinely believe that’s as it should be; both the poor person and the rich person have the same right to donate large amounts of money to candidates, and if in practice it’s a right only the rich person can exercise, well that’s the way of the world.

And exercise it they do, with candidates, parties, and independent groups the grateful recipients of that civic-minded largesse growing larger with each passing election. But if your idea of “corruption” is only that which is illegal under bribery laws, that isn’t a problem that demands a solution. In the McCutcheon decision, Justice Roberts was quite clear in his belief that “Any regulation must…target what we have called “quid pro quo” corruption or its appearance…a direct exchange of an official act for money.” Large donations meant to gain the donor access or mere influence over lawmakers, he argued, aren’t enough. In his dissent, Justice Breyer took issue with this rather pinched view, saying “we can and should understand campaign finance laws as resting upon a broader and more significant constitutional rationale than the plurality’s limited definition of ‘corruption’ suggest.”

So maybe what we have here is in part a problem of nomenclature. If you don’t want to call it “corruption,” call it “distortion”—the creation of a system that is warped far beyond what it would be under any reasonable conception of democracy, even if nobody’s breaking any laws.

There is a meaningful difference. Most of the benefits big money looks for these days are spread beyond an individual, sometimes to an entire industry (like banks or oil companies) and sometimes to an even larger group of people and entities who have a common interest, like wealthy people who want to keep taxes on investment income lower than taxes on wage income. If someone like the Koch brothers succeeds in getting their favored candidates elected and their favored policies enacted, many billionaires and corporations will smile in appreciation. They won’t be doing it just for themselves.

There’s an important caveat, which is that money can have a great influence on the arcane details of legislation, where the public neither knows nor particularly cares what’s going on. Lobbyists still give plenty of money to members of Congress, and they do so to ensure the access that allows them to nibble at the nation’s laws for their clients’ benefit. In and of itself, money may not be able to buy a big, visible policy change—a reduction in the top tax rate or the killing of a minimum wage bill, for instance. But it can still buy an obscure provision in the nation’s banking laws, one that could be worth billions to some very interested parties but makes no front-page news.

Even disclosure of all campaign contributions to every type of independent group would probably have just a small impact in reducing the distortion money imposes on the system, in part because citizens can’t be expected to expend the effort to follow its every tendril. When a voter sees an ad casting aspersions on Senator Smiley’s opponent and hears “Americans for an American America is responsible for the content of this advertising,” what can she conclude? Not much, unless she happens to also read an article informing her that AfaAA is a creation of Oswald Greedyhands, whom some consider a heroic job-creator and others consider a nefarious exploiter of working people. Then she’s going to have to think about Oswald’s relationship with Senator Smiley, and learn about the Senator’s legislative record to see what favors he might have done for Greedyhands Industries. It’s a lot to expect of a citizen who has her own life to lead.

So even if the information is out there somewhere, and activists sound the alarms, so long as the money keeps pouring in, the system will bend inexorably toward the interests of those who fund it. A plutocratic system of government of, by, and for the wealthy isn’t necessarily “corrupt,” in the sense of being awash in specific, explicit bribes. But it isn’t particularly democratic, either.


By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The National Memo, April 7, 2014

April 8, 2014 Posted by | Campaign Financing, Democracy, Wealthy | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Politics Of Losing Sorely”: How McCutcheon, Citizens United And Voting Restrictions Are Hurting Our Democracy

So let’s get right down to it: when you really think about it, what makes America different from other countries? Yes, there are lots of good answers, but if you ask me, it has something to do with this: one person, one vote.

It’s a pretty simple phrase, but in it lies the promise that no matter who you are, or where you come from, when the rubber hits the road your voice is worth just as much as anyone else’s. You have a say. And no one else’s say is more important than yours.

But for that to work, every citizen in good standing has to have a meaningful opportunity to participate in the process. And the question before us today is: Is that getting easier or harder, and which option is more consistent with our concept of American democracy?

Take a look at cases like Citizens United and, this week, McCutcheon, for example. They do one thing: give the very wealthy more influence over elections in the United States. It’s like saying: instead of an electoral process where everyone’s voice is given the same weight, some people, by virtue of their wealth, are going to get megaphones. Yes, that’s been true, in one way or another, for years, but in its recent rulings the Supreme Court’s been busy making those megaphones even louder.

Something similar is happening on the state level, if only from a different direction. You can see it in the tougher voter ID requirements, the diminution of early voting, law after law aimed at making it harder for some people to vote – in this case, people who just happen to be more likely to vote Democratic. The end result is an electorate with an artificially higher concentration of conservative voters. Terrific for Republicans. Less good for democracy.

Take the federal and state efforts together and it’s a kind of a pincer movement aimed at producing a “representative” government that’s actually a lot more conservative than its constituents, a representative government that’s not really all that, you know, representative.

This is what happens when one segment of the population says: We’ve been losing too much and we’re sick of it. But instead of retooling our arguments to better match where the American electorate is, or trusting in the traditional American way of persuading a skeptical audience, we’re instead going to lift the hood on the democratic process itself and see if we can change the system so that outcomes we prefer become more likely – not because they are more representative of the American people but because we’ve figured out how to get a few more of our fingers on the electoral scale.

But here’s the thing: being a good loser is, actually, an essential part of the American system. Every few years, we expect our politics to spit out a government that roughly reflects the priorities and interests of a majority of its citizens, because we all get to participate in the process equally. We may not like what that government looks like, but we don’t go storming across the Rubicon, angry pitchforks in hand because the inclusiveness of the process gives it a kind of legitimacy that you don’t find in a lot of other places. We live with it because we know it basically reflects the views of our peers (as opposed to: some remote cabal) and because we’ll have a meaningful opportunity to change it next time around.

And the fact of the matter is: its good for the process when someone loses on the merits. Because losing fair and square encourages the loser to stop regurgitating the same losing arguments over and over again, and instead to come up with something better. Isn’t that what we want the competition of ideas that plays out in every election to produce? Or are we instead going to stand by and let the sorest of the losers say: If I can’t win the game as its supposed to be played I’m going to change the game, and I don’t much care if doing so undermines one of the very things that makes America a beacon of liberty in an increasingly Putinized world.

Of course, it isn’t entirely up to us, but that’s what happens when the Supreme Court steps in. For me, that only increases the urgency of the following question: is there a point at which changing the nature of electoral inputs, either by giving some outsized influence over the process or making it harder for others to participate at all, gets so out of whack that it begins to undermine the legitimacy of electoral outcomes? If you really love America qua America, you know that’s a place we should never be.

No we’re not there yet.

But it’s sure not getting any easier.


By: Anson Kaye, U. S. News and World Report, April 4, 2014

April 7, 2014 Posted by | Democracy, Electoral Process, SCOTUS | , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

“Reared In The Game”: On Our Highest Court, A Former Lobbyist Guts Campaign Finance Reform

For a large and bipartisan majority of Americans, the increasing power of money in politics is alarming, but not for the conservative majority of the United States Supreme Court, whose members appear to regard the dollar’s domination of democracy as an inevitable consequence of constitutional freedom — and anyway, not a matter of grave concern. Expressed in their decisions on campaign finance, which continued last week to dismantle decades of reform in the McCutcheon case, the Court’s right wing sees little risk of corruption and little need to regulate the flamboyant spending of billionaires.

Given the behavior of certain conservative justices, such as Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito – who flout the rules that govern partisan behavior among lower-court judges – it is easy to regard their rulings as partisan cynicism. But there is also an element of willful naiveté when the conservatives claim, for instance, that corrupt donations will be exposed by the instant transparency of publication on the Internet. Any reporter who has covered elections can attest that there are dozens of ways for wealthy donors to avoid public scrutiny until it is much too late to matter.

But if right-wingers like Scalia and Thomas are simply pursuing ideological objectives, what about Anthony Kennedy, the Reagan appointee from California who was long seen as a moderating influence and a “swing vote”? On the issue of campaign finance, Kennedy has marched along with the majority, seeming just as fervent in his urge to destroy every regulation and protection against the “malefactors of great wealth” erected since the days of Theodore Roosevelt.

It was Kennedy who wrote the majority opinion in Citizens United, which dismissed the notion that corruption will arise from unlimited political campaign contributions because they will all be disclosed. “Citizens can see whether elected officials are ‘in the pocket’ of so-called moneyed interests …and disclosure permits citizens and shareholders to react to the speech of corporate entities in a proper way,” he wrote. “This transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages.”

But if any Supreme Court justice knows how ridiculous that sounds, it must be Kennedy – whose own background as a corporate lobbyist and son of a lobbyist has been forgotten in nearly three decades since his Senate confirmation in 1987.

Yes, Kennedy was a respected appellate court judge before Reagan appointed him to the high court. But before that, he grew up and then worked as an attorney in Sacramento, where his father became a “legendary” lobbyist in a state capital renowned as “freewheeling” (a polite term that means “routinely corrupt”).

His father, Anthony “Bud” Kennedy, was a backslapping, hard-drinking partner in a powerful lobbying law firm run by one Arthur “Artie” Samish, “the “secret boss of California” who finally went to prison on tax charges in the mid-1950s, while young Tony was studying to enter law school. Samish liked to brag that he had amassed more power than anyone else in the state, including the governor, that he could buy any legislator with “a baked potato, a bottle, or a broad,” and that he was able to “unelect” any lawmaker who didn’t vote his way.

The major clients of Samish and Kennedy were racing, entertainment, and liquor interests, notably including Schenley Industries, then run by J. Edgar Hoover’s mobbed-up pal Lewis Rosenstiel. When Bud Kennedy died suddenly in 1963, young Tony was only two years out of law school. But he went into the family business and inherited his late father’s clientele.

While Kennedy always insisted that lobbying was only a “sideline” in his law practice, his billings were substantial – the equivalent of hundreds of thousands or more in today’s dollars. In 1974, he pushed through a bill for Capitol Records that saved the company (and cost the state) millions in sales taxes.

How did he do it? The same way that special interests work their will today – by doling out huge wads of cash to lawmakers on behalf of his clients. The single largest recipient of Kennedy lobbying largesse, according to the Los Angeles Times, was a legislator who introduced a bill to benefit the opticians’ lobby that Kennedy himself had drafted (it passed). He gave that guy alone about $6,500 in campaign contributions over six years, or roughly $40,000 in today’s dollars.

So if anybody on the Court knows how the political and legislative process is greased in this country, that would be Anthony Kennedy. After all, he was reared in the game. And it shouldn’t deceive anyone when he sounds as if he doesn’t understand how things work or who wins in that perverse process – and how everyone else loses.


By: Joe Conason, Editor in Chief, The National Memo; Author, Big Lies: The Right-Wing Propaganda Machine and How It Distorts the Truth; Published in The National Memo, April 4, 2014

April 6, 2014 Posted by | Anthony Kennedy, Campaign Financing, Lobbyists | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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