Author Archives: Janos Marton

A Coordinated Assault: How the Right Wing and Corporations are trying to pick apart clean election laws

We are all familiar with the devastating Supreme Court decision, Citizens United v. FEC that went down this January. However, corporate interests, in conjunction with the political right, have mounted a serious offensive to the entire clean election infrastructure. They are led by Republican operative/lawyer James Bopp, whose end goal is a United States “free” of campaign finance laws, where corporations can make unlimited contributions to elections anonymously.  The legal battlefield of campaign finance reform is fierce, and I’ve outlined some key cases below, which I’ll break down in greater detail once the Supreme Court releases its decisions.

For starters, check out the Campaign Legal Center, which has put together an absolutely incredible document outlining the corporate right’s grand plan for methodically eviscerating campaign finance laws.  It’s a long read, but here’s part of the intro:

Instead, their apparent goal is to go back nearly a century and dismantle many of the campaign finance reforms that have governed elections for decades, and to revert to the era of unregulated political spending that characterized the turn of the 20th Century.
It is clear that even disclosure laws – which conservatives have long championed as the only legitimate form of campaign finance reform – are under attack.
James Bopp, the attorney who initiated Citizens United and a longtime member of the RNC, for instance, has made no secret of the fact that his ultimate goal is the elimination of virtually all campaign finance restrictions including the reporting of donors.  In January, he told the New York Times that, “[g]roups have to be relieved of reporting their donors if lifting the prohibition on their political speech is going to have any meaning.”

The litigation effort against decades’ worth of campaign finance laws are concentrated in five principal subject matter areas:

I.          Attacking Limits on Use of Corporate and Union Treasury Funds
II.        Undermining Meaningful Political Disclosure
III.       Going After the “Soft Money” Ban and Coordinated Spending Limits
IV.       Challenging Public Financing Programs
V.        Attempting to Deregulate “527 Group” Spending

There are several cases we should be watching closely in the coming days and weeks.

Doe v. Reed:  This case, brought by James Bopp, representing Washington state anti-gay activists, asks the Court for a constitutional right of anonymity for individuals who sign ballot initiative petitions.
The plaintiffs feebly argued petition signatories might face dangerous retaliation for their anti-gay views.  During oral arguments, Justice Scalia mocked this concern, “The fact is that running a democracy takes a certain amount of civic courage. And the First Amendment does not protect you from criticism or even nasty phone calls when you exercise your political rights to legislate or to take part in the legislative process.”
The real purpose of this case was not to protect anti-gay Washingtonians, however, but to weaken disclosure requirements in election law. Bopp has a long term strategy to undermine disclosure requirements for corporations, so that they can funnel unlimited money into elections anonymously.
This decision could come down as soon as Tuesday.

McComish v. Bennett: This case was brought by independently wealthy and heavily funded Republicans for state office challenging the Arizona Citizens Clean Elections Act, which provides public matching funds to candidates running with only public financing. The law was passed in 1998 after a series of embarrassing scandals in which Arizona legislators were caught taking campaign bribes in exchange for votes.
The plaintiffs claim that public funding chills their free speech rights, because whenever they raise money, their opponents would receive matching funds to use speech against them.  They also claim that the reasoning behind the Arizona Citizens Clean Elections Act was undercut by the Supreme Court’s holding in Citizens United that campaign spending was not inherently tied to corruption. The Ninth Circuit soundly rejected both arguments, finding that the Arizona law responded to an important state interest in promoting clean elections, and that the candidates’ speech rights had not been chilled.
Now the plaintiffs have asked Justice Kennedy to stop Arizona from distributing public matching funds until the Supreme Court hears the case.  Justice Kennedy will probably bring the case to the conference and issue some sort of decision in the coming days. Imagine, the Arizona government actually on the right side of justice in this case…

Credit rating agency cases:  As lawsuits and legislatures go after the credit rating agencies that misled investors, rating agencies are hiding behind the First Amendment. It’s an argument we’ve seen time and time again from corporations, who claim free speech to shake off regulation and dupe consumers.  I’ll be giving this issue its own full post soon, but here’s the legal issue in a sentence: Rating agencies are claiming the same First Amendment rights as news organizations, arguing that an “actual malice” needs to be applied to their thoroughly misleading bond ratings, which cost investors millions.  This difficult to meet legal standard is not invoked for information that is privately disseminated, so expect that to be the key issue in a number of suits going forward.

Corporations will not rest until they can run rampant over the American people, and they have an army of corporate lawyers helping them.  Unless you are an attorney with lots of pro-bono time on your hands, there is not much you can do to help win the cases, but we need all hands on deck to get this critical issue out there. The silver lining of Citizens United was alarm bells it set off as corporate thugs and their robed cronies were stealthily trying to rewrite the Constitution.

So, spread the word, tell the people, and fight back. Fight back in your local paper, in your state legislatures, and in the upcoming elections.  And pace yourself, because the battle for clean elections is one for the long haul. Without clean elections, all other issues will die a quiet death.

……………..
In the interest of full disclosure, something that I support as policy, I am assisting two coalition groups, Free Speech for People and Move to Amend.  Both groups are focused on passing a Constitutional Amendment to address the role of corporations in elections (and possibly the larger issue of corporate personhood- but that’s a topic for another time).  They are both involved in waking people up to this corporate assault on democracy.

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Letter to Representative Nadler

Dear Congressman Nadler,

Thank you for your service to our district.   You have long been our Congressman, and will likely serve in that capacity until you choose to retire.  That is why we are writing you to express concern with the state of campaign finance reform in the United States, and your own role with respect to this issue.

While you have generally supported progressive legislation regarding campaign finance reform, including the Fair Elections Now Act, I wonder why you do not set a stronger example for your fellow Congressmen with your actual fundraising behavior.  This election cycle (09-10) you have raised nearly a million dollars, including over $277,000 from PACs, which we believe have a deleterious effect on the democratic process.   Everyone knows that you will win any primary or general election challenge easily, if one even exists. Do you really need to raise this much money, especially from PACs?

The recent D.C Circuit ruling in Speech Now, following on the heels of Citizens United, will allow for unlimited donations to PACs, increasing their undemocratic roll in the election process.  Why would you embrace the PAC system, when other Democrats have been able to fundraise sufficiently without using them?

Your two biggest donors, according to OpenSecrets.org, are Newmark Knight Frank and the Loews Corporation.  The former describes itself as a major global real estate investor; in fact, real estate is the largest source of your contributions.   We have long understood the real estate lobby in New York to be opposed to the interests of renters, who make up the overwhelming majority of your constituents.  If we are inaccurate in that assumption, please let us know.  More troubling is the Loews Corporation, which touts itself, among other things, as a major oil and gas explorer.   In fact, Loews is a majority shareholder in Diamond Offshore Drilling, which, as the name suggests, engages in off-shore drilling.  We are not sure why your fundraisers feel that you need to bring in money from these dubious sources, and regardless of your voting record, it troubles us to think what kind of access these corporations believe they are buying.

Mr. Nadler, you will have our support for Congress in 2010, as you always have. But with the system in Washington as broken as it is, we need more representatives who will lead by example, particularly when their stature and electoral situation affords them the ability to do so.

Sincerely,

Janos Marton and Cristina Castro

An Earnest Letter Writing Campaign Begins

This week we are going to begin participating in a tradition as old as the republic- writing a letters to our elected representative.  We are not sending an email, or an electronic petition, or a form letter signed on the street, but rather a real letter, with stamps and everything.  There is general consensus that elected officials and their staffs are more likely to respond to snail mail, probably because the extra effort that goes into sending a letter demonstrates a more intense commitment to an issue than an email.

Our first set of letters will deal with the issue of campaign finance reform.  Some progressives will dislike the idea of focusing critical energy on people like Jerrold Nadler (the recipient of our first letter). After all, isn’t he one of the good guys?  But these letters are not intended to be adversarial, and as an important Congressman from Manhattan and Brooklyn, Mr. Nadler seems like a perfectly appropriate official to send our questions to.  Furthermore, if a self-described liberal with little election opposition cannot practice sound fundraising practices, who in this Washington climate can?  The first letter, dealing with some of Mr. Nadler’s major donors, will be sent tomorrow, at which point its contents will be posted on the website.  We will also post any response his office sends us.

The Bull Moose Movement’s main goal is increasing civic engagement, and not focusing on the top-down model of elections and advocacy for specific bills.  However, if indeed letters are a more substantive way to engage elected officials than other approaches, that is a worthwhile tool to pass on to people looking to advocate for themselves and help formulate the policies that will affect their lives.  Rather than push for individuals to co-sign pre-written letters, we will push for people to write letters reflecting how they feel about their government’s policies- if the politicians will listen.

Today’s Stories of Interest

“What the hell did we do to deserve this?” says BP CEO to fellow executives. Hmm… how about ignoring the serious risks inherent with off shore drilling, insisting on industry self regulation and failing to implement key safety technology that would have allowed the oil leak to be easily shut down almost immediately.

A barn-burning look at how fraud, corruption and corporate influence peddling has soaked itself into virtually every aspect of governance and politics.

The Supreme Court takes another right turn, this time upholding corporate rights and dismissing workers’ rights in arbitration cases. Not a sexy subject, but one that could apply to any one of us- see banking agreements, phone contracts, etc.

How’s this for a change of pace?  Two leading candidates for Mayor of New York in 2013 are jockeying over who can better bring sunlight to NYC’s budget process.

“Happy Tax Day” from the Bloated Pentagon War Machine

This Tax Day, why not take a moment to think about how sad and wasteful it is that so much of our hard-earned salaries are going to our bloated Pentagon budget?

Despite tough words from President Obama and Secretary Gates, the $704 billion defense budget is the highest ever, with the $549 billion non-war spending a 3.4% hike over last year.  $704 billion.  Isn’t that nuts? It’s actually almost double what we spent in 1998, which weren’t exactly shabby times for the military-industrial complex.  This Tax Day let’s take a second to think about the cash we throwing into the deserts of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the billions more we are happy enough blowing without even being at war.

Let’s start with our two favorite wars. Yes, we may have spent $983 billion in Iraq and Afghanistan, but even if these wars ended tomorrow, American taxpayers would be saddled with all kind of hidden costs, as Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes explain in their excellent book, The Three Trillion Dollar War:

To date, we have spent close to $1 trillion in upfront out-of-pocket costs — but the war will cost at least $2 trillion more, when we include the cost of paying for veterans disability compensation, veterans health care, replacement of armaments, and damage to the US economy.

Then there’s our regular old, non-war, run of the mill, gargantuan Pentagon expenditures. At the State of the Union, President Obama regrettably (but predictably) continued the hero worship of the Pentagon by exempting it from his proposed “spending freeze”.

This year the  U.S will account for 47% of the world’s military spending.  In case you wonder why some foreigners love calling us imperialists (NOT a term I agree with), consider that our military budget is barely matched by the rest of the world combined, let alone our quasi-rivals China ($130 billion) or Russia ($80 billion).

We certainly don’t this much money to militarily confront our Axis of Evil buddies.  Dave Lindorff, an investigative journalist who does great work in this area, notes that North Korea and Iran each have military budgets of about $5 billion, roughly equal to what the U.S military will spend next year on “childcare and youth programs, morale and recreation programs and commissaries on its bases.”

Nowadays the news is all about deficit reduction.  The Democrats are in charge, so of course now it’s time for tough, politically loathsome choices.  Many here would agree that Democrats should be categorically opposed to balancing the budget on the back of critical social spending programs.  I’d argue that Democrats should make a stand and oppose the slashing of entitlement, education and anti-poverty program spending without a commensurate cut in military spending.

This is unlikely to happen, of course, because military production in this country is often government workfare by another name.  Witness the bipartisan outrage that bonded Ted Kennedy and right-wing loon John Thune when President Bush tried to shut down several non-essential military plants, including a South Dakota plane manufacturer and a Massachusetts navy shipyard. I remember watching the news coverage thinking, ‘This is the only time in my life I will side with George Bush over Ted Kennedy.’

Hey, but a job is a job, even if it’s a job making something we don’t need, manning a base we don’t need or transporting oil at $400 a gallon (yep, $400 a gallon) in a war we don’t know how to end.

I’ll give our President credit for his rhetoric, which is a first step. Declaring, “Even though the Department of Defense is exempt from the budget freeze, it’s not exempt from budget common sense,”  Obama scrappedthe C-17 transport plane program ($2.5 billion) and research on a second engine for the F-35 fighter plane ($465 million)

Gates and Obama used the Quadrennial Defense Review as a shield against criticism.  The QDR is a somewhat laughable audit, given its composition of war hawks and industry reps, but if even they suggest cutting a program, it must be really useless.  Unfortunately, as the name suggests, the QDR Report is only completed every four years, so who knows how rigorously Gates and Obama will approach program slashing in next year’s budget.   And even these modest program cuts spawned rabid howls of outrage from the right, though hopefully by now Obama just brushes that dirt of his shoulders.

I could ramble on about what the U.S government or American taxpayers could do the hundreds of billions of dollars we’d have to work with if we ended both wars and slashed the Pentagon budget, but I’ll leave that to the creative imaginations of Kossacks.

If you’re not in a creative mood, Cost of War has a nifty function where you can calculate how the money from our ongoing wars could have been spent in your local community. Binghamton Mayor Matt Ryan is taking that idea to the next level, raising private funds to install a Cost of War clock at City Hall so all residents can see how much of their tax dollars are going to support the Pentagon.

I could ramble on about the 7006000 military bases we are currently maintaining around the world, a figure that the internets has some trouble coming up with, but I’ll let words like ‘imperialism’ get thrown around in the comment section.  It’s Tax Day, and the focus today is cold hard cash.

It’s worth noting, as always, that this is not an anti-veterans post by any means.  The profiteers of war are not the folks going door to door in the middle of the night in Kandahar or Basra looking for suspected insurgents.

Also, I’m certainly not pinning this all on President Obama.  Though he is our Commander-In-Chief, no one person set this black hole of public funds in motion. But if Obama is serious about his rhetoric, this is definitely going to be one of those issues where “we make him do the right thing.”

Finally, it stings to see taxes ripped out of your paycheck.  That’s a pain we can all relate to.  But while some right-wingers want to respond by drowning government in a bathtub (except the Pentagon, of course), folks like us recognize the important programs our tax dollars are funding.  That includes maintaining an adequate military to keep America safe. In 2010, during a recession, however, I cannot stomach that $704,000,000,000 being spent by the war machine.

Charlie don’t surf and we think he should
Charlie don’t surf and you know that it ain’t no good
Charlie don’t surf for his hamburger Momma
Charlie’s gonna be a napalm star

Everybody wants to rule the world
Must be something we get from birth
One truth is we never learn
Satellites will make space burn

We’ve been told to keep the strangers out
We don’t like them starting to hang around
We don’t like them all over town
Across the world we are going to blow them down

The reign of the super powers must be over
So many armies can’t free the earth
Soon the rock will roll over
Africa is choking on their Coca Cola

It’s a one a way street in a one horse town
One way people starting to brag around
You can laugh, put them down
These one way people gonna blow us down

-The Clash, “Charlie Don’t Surf”

Coffee Party Takes a Strong Step Forward

This morning the Coffee Party announced that it will be focusing its attention on financial reform and campaign reform, and is polling members to determine the specific legislation it will focus its efforts on.   For those who have been observing the Coffee Party with cautious optimism, this is great news, and a tremendous step forward for the nascent organization.

Financial reform and campaign finance reform are not sexy issues, but they are both critical issues America needs to confront now.  They are also not easy topics to grapple with.  I know this from having studied the issues closely on behalf of the Coffee Party research team.  The Coffee Party deserves credit for engaging two complicated issues that matter rather than  more superficial issues that lend themselves to easier messaging.

The Bull Moose Movement stands for the improving the civic education of Americans so that they can make the right choices at the ballot box and be engaged enough to pressure their elected officials between elections.  The Coffee Party has demonstrated the potential to play a similar role, but we have all been waiting to see how their online sign-ups and coffee house meetings will translate into meaningful engagement and action.

By choosing these issues, the Coffee Party is demonstrating a willingness to tackle important, substantive issues.  This is a relief, as I, and many others were unconvinced of their initial goal, which was to ‘foster a more civil dialogue.’  We wondered what the dialogue would actually be about, and the answer, reassuringly, is a discussion of two major policies.

The selection of campaign finance reform and financial reform also demonstrate the Coffee Party’s astute dedication to big-tent political issues.  Both of these issues should be bi-partisan/non-partisan, and Republican opposition in Washington to both is astonishingly out of touch with independents and moderates.   Never in recent memory has Republican hypocrisy been more flagrant than on the issue of financial reform.  Even as Republicans slam the bailout initiated by George Bush that many of them voted for, and label Obama the Wall Street President, they shake down Wall Street for campaign handouts in return for their continued opposition to reform.

It still remains to be seen what exactly the Coffee Party will do to follow up discussions about these reforms.  I suppose 100,000 people calling their Congressional representatives would send a strong message, but more effort than that went into stopping the Iraq War and fighting for the public option. Most elected officials are obstinate people who read their campaign treasurer’s reports before they ask how their constituents are doing.

My hope is that the Coffee Party will  embrace the promotion of civic education that we are pushing for at the Bull Moose Movement.  Really get into neighborhoods and talk to neighbors, small businesses and local media about why all of this matters.  The Bull Moose Movement’s goals are extremely long-term, as civic education on the larger issue of corporate influence can’t happen overnight, or in one election cycle.  That is why we do not really lobby for specific bills, which are often heavily watered down by the time the ‘debate’ starts (see: Senate financial reform bill).   That said, the Coffee Party is strong in numbers, and could perhaps provide the last bit of momentum needed to push this weak sauce financial reform bill through.  As for campaign finance reform, 100,000 phone calls won’t be enough to get the changes we need, but it’s not a bad start.

Why the Tea Party is Not the Party of Tea

A Guest Post By Monica Morrison

It all started with the tea bag campaign. They Jacksonian mob listened and did just what they were told, commencing with the disbursement of the bags to politicians, and the throwing of bags in public demonstrations. While much can be said about the content of these protests–notably, the incoherency and the unmatched bigotry– I will state what our hyper-caffeinated Starbucks culture for the most part missed. This was a perfectly good waste of tea. It is fitting that these men and women, the ones who have no regard for their sick brothers and sisters, to throw tea around and have no respect for even the product itself. After all, tea is medicine. Of course they want to take medicine away from the rest of us. Of course they want to limit access even more by ruining tea parties for the rest of us, by using tea as a prop, by ignoring the hands and fuel and global economy that brings America tea in the first place.

But all of us do it, all of us forget how many people it takes to drive this post-industrial American economy bus. When the international corporations were unleashed on the world, they scoured the globe to seek out goods and labor for the lowest price. They left Paul jobless and homeless in any rich country to hire Peter from pretty much anywhere else. They moved their monetary headquarters while they build large figure-head offices over here, reaping all of the benefits. It is time that we all stood up and acknowledged the human cost that goes into maintaining these multinational corporations. And it is time that workers everywhere sought fair compensation for the money they have been making for a small portion of the population. If companies can desert entire swaths of the United States, why cannot we as Americans desert the American corporations? Why can we not at least purchase our medicine internationally, much like the tea that gets shipped all over the world?

As for the Tea Party, they protest in droves to drive away the sick. How can the tired, the poor, the huddled masses, how can they come together to match the force when they are not yet enrolled in Social Security or Medicare like many of the protesters, and are truly sick? Personally, I have a chronic health condition. And I do not have insurance. But my health is a matter of privacy, something I would like to keep in confidence. I do not have the physical or emotional strength to stand up like the man with Parkinson’s and tell the shouting mobs that I need care. But that does not change the fact that I do. And the clinics in Maine have yet to make it to New York, and have yet to be able to treat severe chronic conditions. And all of the wishing in the world does not change the fact that I am employed and still without health care. And with a pre-existing condition, there is little that anyone can do to get me coverage at the moment. But there is always 2014, when I will finally be eligible for Medicaid (that is, unless I can once again reach the threshold of making more than poverty level wages, which I have not done since the Obama election). Until then, all I can really do is save up to take a healthcare holiday abroad. Or pray that I can join the high risk pool. Or piggyback on my parents’ policies. Oh wait. They don’t have insurance either.

Stop listening to the mobs who do not know better. Forgive them, for they truly know not what they do. The only way to fix many of the problems this country faces is to have civil discourse about the needs and the rights of American citizens, and to build a consensus around those ideals. Without all of the posturing, all of the senseless pride, all of the blaming, and all of the special interest selfishness. Let’s all admit to each other that every single one of us needs help, we need medicine, and above all– we sincerely need one another. That becomes clear during a real tea party. Each person’s contribution to the conversation is cherished and appreciated, people treat one another with respect and civility, and everyone gets as many servings of medicine as they like.