Thursday, January 21, 2016

Tell President Obama - Daylight Dark Money Now!

An entertaining take on the issue: "Baby Got PACs"
Now for something completely different - policy action that progressives and Tea Party enthusiasts alike** should (theoretically) be able to get behind. Yesterday's Washington Post: "President Obama is weighing whether to invoke his executive authority to force federal contractors to disclose political contributions they make to independent groups, according to individuals briefed on the matter."
Spending by independent groups that aren't currently required to disclose their donors is often referred to as "dark money." The Center for Responsive Politics describes the problem thus:
Politically active nonprofits - principally 501(c)(4)s and 501(c)(6)s ... can receive unlimited corporate, individual, or union contributions that they do not have to make public, and though their political activity is supposed to be limited, the IRS – which has jurisdiction over these groups – by and large has done little to enforce those limits. Partly as a result, spending by organizations that do not disclose their donors has increased from less than $5.2 million in 2006 to well over $300 million in the 2012 presidential cycle and more than $174 million in the 2014 midterms.
There seems to be broad consensus that President Obama has the authority to do this (see links below.) As Trevor Potter, FEC Chair under George W. Bush, put it: I have no idea why this was not done by the president years ago given [White House] statements about the importance of disclosure.”
Let's tell President Obama: WE WANT IT NOW.

There's a White House Petition with wording more hostile than I'd like, but the substantive actions demanded are still on point, and it already has 117,396 signatures. So I signed it, and urge you to do the same. [Remember: you'll need to click a confirmation link that will be emailed to you by the petition system in order for your signature to be added.]
The petition demands that he sign an executive order directing federal contractor disclosure of corporate political expenditures within 24 hours effective on or before July 4, fill the five vacant seats (of six) on the Federal Elections Commission so that they can [theoretically - sorry, some cynicism is justified] enforce the law, and direct his appointees to the SEC, IRS, and FCC to use any lawful means at their disposal to shed daylight on secret political donors. Side Note: The FEC is in complete shambles. The FEC commissioners whose terms expired are continuing to serve until replacements can be appointed. The source of the problem seems to be an inability or refusal on the part of Senate GOP and Democratic leaders to select their parties' respective nominees, and President Obama's reluctance to just go ahead and nominate members without going through that traditional process.

This measure wouldn't fix everything that's wrong with our campaign finance system, but it's a start, and it's eminently within his executive authority. Given a Congress that refuses to do a dang thing on this front, it's the best we can hope for. The US Chamber is complaining that such a move would somehow impair the free speech rights of the large corporations that make money through contracts with the federal government, and that the measure seeks to "harass, intimidate, and silence" these corporations. Um, right. I don't know about anyone else, but I doubt that the 70% of the Fortune 100 that would be affected will suddenly stop pouring money into swaying election outcomes because voters will now be able to know that they're the ones doing it. Major US corporations don't strike me as easily intimidated entities, nor are they easily shut up. The hundreds of billions of dollars large corporations have spent on campaign and lobbying activity since the 1970s has produced a hefty return on investment. As long as that ROI stays favorable, they'll keep on doing what they're doing. Considering that the top ten federal contractors earned $1.5 trillion from federal contracts between 2000 and 2013, and that large corporations keep succeeding in stymieing real reform across a wide range of issues, the likelihood that these folks will stop spending money to keep their friends in office is approximately zero.
This executive order would merely require that they disclose their activity to the public, so that *we* can then scrutinize any "desirable" policy outcomes that elected officials are helping their friends obtain in return for billions of dollars spent to sway election outcomes. In an Orwellian spin, the Chamber is also arguing that the change would in fact pressure companies to spend *more* on campaign activity. They've apparently even managed to sell this point to moderate GOP Senator Susan Collins of Maine, who's usually an ally of campaign finance reform. That argument ignores the reality that in political circles - especially among co-partisans - everybody ALREADY KNOWS who's spending what.
Frankly, despite prohibitions against coordination between independent expenditure organizations and candidates' campaigns, people have ways of at least arguably *technically* complying with the law while violating the hell out of its spirit. Like folks in myriad other US industries, political operatives are a pretty creative and enterprising bunch when it comes to identifying and exploiting arguable loopholes in the law. And if enforcement is non-existent (which it pretty much is right now thanks to Mitch McConnell-appointed GOP commissioners' refusal to enforce the law), folks care less and less about even technical compliance - especially when "everyone else is doing it."
So if the politicos all know who's spending what money to elect which politicians, who's being left out of the loop? Us regular voters, that's who.
Why does this matter? Shouldn't we voters just be able to sift through corporate propaganda and make our own voting decisions? After all, there are cases one could point to where the side which spent the most on a campaign lost. Money doesn't always dictate electoral outcomes. That's true - but
being the bigger spender does at least correlate with victory around 80% of the time. And when your friends spend a lot of money helping you get and keep your job, it's only natural to feel like you owe them some extra attention. For the elected official's staff, the need to prioritize listening to the concerns of powerful, important friends is a no-brainer. Everybody knows that you don't want to tick off powerful friends in this business. One study published by the American Journal of Political Science found that disclosing that one was a donor dramatically increased the likelihood of obtaining a meeting with high-level staff or a Member when calling to schedule a lobbying appointment:
Source: Joshua Kalla & David Broockman, as cited by Vox

But staff and members often know who are among their especially important friends without being told. We voters need to be able to figure it out, too, so that we're able to make our own decisions about whether our elected officials are representing all of us, and our communities' and nations' best interests, or whether they're just helping their friends. On a related note, corporations spent more on lobbyists last year than we spent on operating and staffing out the entire US House and Senate, including district offices ($2.6 billion vs. $2 billion.) One study estimated that corporations that lobbied for the corporate asset repatriation tax holiday of 2004 saw a 22,000% return on their lobbying investment - on average, the companies that spent more than $1 million on lobbying realized at least $220 in tax cuts from the AJCA for every dollar they'd spent lobbying on the issue. It shouldn't be any surprise that corporate lobbyists end up crafting so much legislative language - and that what they draft benefits the corporations' narrow interests. This executive order doesn't touch that problem specifically - legislation is necessary to address it. But with corporations secretly ensuring that folks friendly to their agendas are getting elected to Congress, that problem will never get tackled. So let's ask President Obama to take the action he can - today - as a start. Please help circulate this call to action! People power can only overcome the power of money in our politics if we act together in large numbers. So take a moment to encourage your friends, family, and social circle to sign the White House petition on Facebook, Twitter, via email, and on any other social media you use!

** "Official" Tea Party groups 
have been quite hostile to efforts to require disclosure of big money donors.  It isn't any coincidence that the groups - and their various spokespeople - are often largely funded by the same mega-donors who directly, personally benefit from government largess thanks to their lobbying and campaign investments. Other groups are run by folks who appear to be primarily interested in paying themselves for "consulting." 

Given Tea Party members' concern about crony capitalism
and big money interests capturing government institutions in order to personally enrich themselves at the expense of us regular taxpayers, these "official" views do not represent the interests or concerns of the average Tea Party voter.
If you've been sympathetic to Tea Party positions, please: take a close look at the issue for yourself before you trust the talking points coming from high profile "real conservative" sources.

UPDATE 3:38 PM 1/21/16

As I was preparing to post this, the following news hit my dashboard:

A unanimous three-judge US Appeals Court panel just ruled, reinstating a Federal Election Commission rule requiring all corporations and labor unions to disclose all individual donors giving $1,000 or more.  Now, if only the GOP members of the chronically deadlocked FEC could actually be persuaded to enforce the law, we'd be getting somewhere.

I expect Rep. Van Hollen will appeal to the court as a whole for what's called "en banc review" - where all of the court's judges hear arguments and then make a determination.  I haven't been paying close enough attention to the composition of the DC Circuit over the past 10 years to hazard a guess as to whether they're likely to agree to an en banc hearing, or what outcome seems likely if they did. 

So, given the uncertainty that remains ahead, let's ask the President to sign the executive order to create another, non-FEC-dependent avenue to force disclosure by federal contractors.

Fun Fact:  Judge Janice Rogers Brown wrote this opinion.  Folks who watched the judicial appointment wars of 2003-06 will recall that that she was the California Supreme Court Justice whose appointment was stymied for years by progressive groups and Democratic senators who argued that her conservative political philosophy made her an ideologue unsuitable for appointment to the federal bench.  I felt that an unfair assessment at the time.  Glad to see I wasn't completely off-base.

1/19/16 New York Times:

7/15/15 American Prospect story on executive authority in this area:

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