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“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

“CPAC’s Bleeding-Heart Conservative”: A Misleading Appearance Of A Movement Crackling With Spirited Intellectual Frisson

Conservatives who hope to distance themselves from the whackadoodlier elements of CPAC often refer to the conference as a sideshow.

But this year, the sideshow has a sideshow: not a more extreme iteration, but an ideological double negative.

Down the hall from the main stage, there’s a three-day 9-to-5 “activist bootcamp” going on. Coordinator Matt Robbins considers it the first “comprehensive, timely, practical” attempt to turn CPAC’s unkempt exuberance into strategic, ground-game-winning competence.

If CPAC seems crazy to outsiders, it has something to do with the conference’s fundamentally incompatible aims: You can’t both serve as a training ground for future leaders and have speakers on the main stage regularly rattle off the reasons why civilization is doomed.

The conference’s young attendees, largely libertarian-leaning and not worldly enough to think that compromise is necessary, are presented with a slate of panels that give the misleading appearance of a movement crackling with spirited intellectual frisson.

At the same time, would-be presidential candidates deliver the same calculated one-liners designed to elicit hoots of agreement but are largely devoid of substance. No wonder it’s failed to produce an actual youth movement.

In the cocoon of CPAC, the next generation of leaders hears no good argument to change anything about the last generation’s approach.

They are New Coke (if you’ll pardon the pun) distributors at a New Coke conference where the liveliest debate has to do with why more people don’t like New Coke, and the loudest cheers are for the insults heaped upon those who refuse to drink it.

Robbins is here to tell them that some people do not like New Coke.

He is president of American Majority, a nonprofit [501c4] founded in 2010 to focus exclusively on state-level races and below. They say they have 2,700 trainees go on to run for office and 300 in office today—almost all of them at the county or even school board level.

CPAC has featured career fairs and activist workshops in the past, but, says Robbins, “those were mainly about how to get jobs in the movement. I don’t care about that. I want to get people elected.”

The solutions are, admittedly, mostly cosmetic and familiar to anyone that’s been around organizing of any kind—database building, coalition management, social media-tending.

But Robbins also wants to deliver a sharp message to a soft audience completely unprepared for criticism.

“This conference hasn’t been about actually winning for years.”

He gives only one workshop personally, “7 Grassroots Cheats Never Heard Of,” and it is less Alinsky than Oprah. He stresses making voters feel good about their choices. It is aggressively non-party-specific. Do listen to people you don’t agree with! Don’t manage your own social media!

His advice for a candidate posed the “gotcha” question as to whether Obama loves America is to take the political rhetoric out of the issue.

“Every president loves his country,” he says. “Every executive loves their country,” should be the response. “You may disagree, but that has to be the message.”

Toward the end, one audience member seems put off by the lack of red meat and asks, pointedly, why do conservative candidates need to do all this image-management stuff.

“If we can get the message out past the mainstream media,” he says, “the ideas can sell themselves.”

Robbins looks tired and amused.

“Can I be honest with you?” he says, not waiting for an answer: “No one cares. No one cares about our economic policy. No one cares about small-government federalism. No one cares about white papers.”

He returns to teaching mode and asks the audience, “You’re a candidate and you knock on someone’s door, what’s the first thing they want to know?”

“Who are you?” shouts someone. Robbins shakes his head.

After a few more guesses, Robbins interrupts.

“No, not ‘Who are you and what can you do for me,’ but, ‘Are you authentic, and do you care about me?’”

Voters want to know that the candidate is looking out for them, he explains. They will let the details slide.

This is clearly a sore spot. For another 10 minutes, Robbins harps on the GOP’s empathy gap almost exclusively.

It’s his theory for what’s behind the GOP’s slow-motion demographic implosion: Not enough candidates that seem genuinely interested in the problems of voters, whereas Obama definitely projects concern and Bill Clinton “was like a puppy dog in his enthusiasm for people.”

This seems, at first read, like an elegant way to get around the real problem: not the lack of empathic Republican politicians, but the lack of empathy that’s built into Republican policies.

This thought occurs to me after Robbins’ workshop, and I admit I am delighted, because it means I will get to ask someone my very own “gotcha” question.

When I follow up with him later, I deliver as rehearsed: “Do you think the fact that you have trouble recruiting empathetic candidates might have to do with how conservative policies themselves don’t appeal to people that have a lot of empathy?” Pencil poised, I await stammering. I am not rewarded. Or, rather, I am, but not by telltale hemming and hawing, but a simple, “You have point.”

“If you’re a small government-minded conservative, and you enact those policies, someone is going to lose. Something is going to get cut,” he admits, and people attracted to that philosophy have to be OK with that.

He suggests that perhaps such surety is the luxury of those who have never met those on the receiving end. Robbins worked in the Virginia statehouse and recalls being floored by the constant roll call of emergency requests: “There were tens of thousands of Virginians without running water… people going hungry…with mental health problems out on the street…These are people with real needs and there’s no homeschool association to take care of them, no church that can take care of them, no neighborhood group—it’s a situation where government does seem like the answer.”

“I am not sure most conservatives believe that world exists,” he says. “Or, they do, but since they think those problems exist because of Democrats’ policies, those problems SHOULDN’T exist, and then their brains lock up and start to smoke when you ask for a solution.”

So, how do you fix that? I ask.

“If I had my way, every candidate would go on a ride-along with police on the coldest night of the year, when they pick people up because they literally won’t survive otherwise.”

And, he said, there needs to be more conservative candidates and fewer movement activists, period—more people faced with the task of looking in the eyes of those on the other end of an philosophically unpalatable policy “and trying to thread that needle.”

“You know it only costs, on average, $2,000 to $4,000 to run for school board? How many people here do you think could afford that? Stop watching Fox News and go run.”


By: Ana Marie Cox, The Daily Beast, February 27, 2015

February 28, 2015 Posted by | Conservatives, CPAC, GOP Presidential Candidates | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“On His Extremist Island”: Clarence Thomas Would Turn Back The Clock

In yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling on official government prayers at town-council meetings, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the 5-4 decision arguing that such practices are permissible under the First Amendment. There was a separate concurring opinion from Justices Samuel Alito and Antonin Scalia, but then Justice Clarence Thomas decided to go further than any of his colleagues.

As Dahlia Lithwick noted, Thomas made the case “that in his view the First Amendment religion clauses don’t apply to the states in the first place.”

Wait, really? Yep, that’s what Thomas actually believes.

…Thomas couldn’t get Scalia’s signature for another part of his dissenting opinion, in which Thomas – not for the first time – disputes the notion that the 1st Amendment’s ban on the “establishment” of religion even applies to state and local governments.

Here’s the deal: the first 16 words of the First Amendment reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Nearly a century ago, under something called the incorporation doctrine, courts ruled that most of the Bill of Rights applies to state and local government, too.

In other words, under the literal text of the Constitution, Congress can’t pass laws interfering in religion, abridging the freedom of speech, or undermining a free press, but once the Bill of Rights was applied more broadly, neither can states or municipalities.

Thomas, however, wants to turn back the clock. If policymakers in your state chose today to establish Christianity as the official state religion, Clarence Thomas believes that would be entirely permissible under the First Amendment. So long as Congress didn’t pass the law, he says, it’s kosher.

Even Scalia, hardly a moderate, seems to think that’s nutty, but Thomas just doesn’t care.

As Michael McGough’s report added, “Thomas has argued, the Establishment Clause ‘is best understood as a federalism provision – it protects state establishments from federal interference but does not protect any individual right.’”

This is clearly quite radical, even by contemporary standards, though Thomas isn’t entirely alone on his extremist island – it was just last year when North Carolina Republicans considered legislation that read, “The North Carolina General Assembly does not recognize federal court rulings which prohibit and otherwise regulate the State of North Carolina, its public schools, or any political subdivisions of the State from making laws respecting an establishment of religion.”

That bill ultimately failed, as did Thomas’ effort to find justices who would endorse his perspective, but as conservative politics moves sharply to the right, it’ll be worth watching to see just how many Republican officials end up embracing this argument.


By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, May 6, 2014


May 7, 2014 Posted by | Constitution, Public Prayer, Separation of Church and State | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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