Feb 27

2/27/12

Guest post by Stephen Erickson originally published at www.rebuilddemocracy.org on 2/23/12

Surging Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum was declared one of the “most corrupt” members of Congress in 2006 by a group called CREW (Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington). The charge is often used against Santorum in the presidential campaign by his Republican opponents. Santorum denies any wrongdoing and claims that CREW is a politically-motivated left-wing organization. Let’s take a closer look.

CREW makes a number of connections between contributors to Santorum’s campaign organizations and legislation he sponsored or supported while serving in the Senate. Most damning is the $44,750 Santorum received from hospital-related interests in Puerto Rico, which appears to have been in exchange for Santorum sponsoring the Medicare Puerto Rico Hospital Payment Parity Act in the US Senate.

Santorum also sponsored legislation that would require the National Weather Service to provide data to private weather forecasting companies but prohibit the government service from disclosing the data itself in most cases. The founders of AccuWeather had “contributed $40,000 to Santorum and the Republican Party since 2003,” reported CREW.

There’s more. The day after a vote in support of tobacco interests, Santorum’s leadership PAC received $10,000 from the tobacco industry. Santorum also took in $6,000 from Miller Brewing Company and Anheuser-Busch while sponsoring legislation to cut in half the excise tax on large brewers.

Rick Santorum engaged in crony capitalism when he secured a $100 million loan in an earmark for Waste Management Processes, a Pennsylvania company that converts coal to diesel fuel. The company’s CEO and his family members donated a total of $16,500 to the Senator’s campaign committee and $8,500 to his PAC.

CREW also makes some lesser charges against Santorum, but the above examples seem to substantiate accusations that Rick Santorum is indeed what most ordinary citizens would consider a corrupt politician.

But is Santorum among the most corrupt? Here is where CREW gets into trouble. To look at CREW’s list for 2006, one would think that being a Republican is as much of a problem as the corrupt system. They list twenty-one Republicans and only four Democrats. Most of the Democrats are such egregious cases that leaving them off the list would have been impossible without CREW losing complete credibility. For example, CongressmanWilliam J. Jefferson of Louisianawas caught with his refrigerator full of cash from a bribe. CREW goes after only token Democrats.

CREW’s 2011 list of the most corrupt members of Congress is at least better balanced. But it’s not good enough. Partisan reformers discredit the cause of reform. Progressive reformers still refuse to go after the most corrupt and most powerful progressive politicians, like President Obama, Congressman Barney Frank, or former Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Consider the case of Pelosi, who was exposed by conservative muckraker Peter Schweizer in his book Throw Them All Out. Pelosi and her husband were able to secure shares ofVisa’s initial public offering (IPO) at a price unavailable to the public while important legislation affecting Visa was before Congress. The Pelosis’ investment in Visa was quite substantial, representing 10% of their total stock portfolio. The IPO soon paid them a handsome 203% return. Pelosi, a credit card reformer, chose to focus on regulations that affected the banks that issue the cards, and not the card companies like Visa, which were targets in some other unsuccessful pieces of legislation. The Visa IPO was just one of several that Pelosi and her husbandconverted into big personal financial gains.

Schweizer also shows how Nancy Pelosi secured transportation infrastructure projects near property she owns in California, dramatically increasing the value of that property. Schweizer spotlighted a similar deal that Speaker Pelosi’s Republican predecessor, Dennis Hastert, got for himself by funding a highway project near land he owned. By calling his book Throw Them All Out, and going after powerful Democrats as well as Republicans, Schweizer models a non-partisan muckraking approach that progressive reformers need to learn to emulate.

Was Rick Santorum one of the most corrupt members of Congress? Sadly, he is probably more typical than especially corrupt, but that important point gets lost when partisanship and reform get mixed together.


Feb 15

.
2/15/12

Now that the battle over Voter IDs is afoot, it becomes clearer & clearer that increased voter cynicism and a weakened democracy are the most likely outcomes; barring a change in the terms of the debate. The biggest problem at this point is that whatever the political motivations behind efforts to enact Voter ID laws, those opposing these new laws fail to acknowledge the fact that most Americans required to show photo ID in so many facets of their day-to-day lives aren’t likely to have much sympathy for people who can’t be bothered. They might be sympathetic to the plight of the millions of voters now potentially disenfranchised, but that won’t make them think it’s a bad idea to require ID to vote; they’ll just think people without ID should go get one. Of course that is sometimes easier said than done, especially when political operatives pushing Voter IDs are simultaneously creating new roadblocks to securing that ID. All of which adds up to more cynicism and little chance that voting conditions will actually improve.

It doesn’t have to be this way. There is a way to combat voter fraud without disenfranchising anyone. Even better, it can make our election process much more secure than Voter IDs alone could ever accomplish, while providing immeasurable benefit to communities across the nation. All that is required is to conditionally embrace Voter IDs as part of a more extensive reform making it “easier to vote and harder to cheat” as GOP Party Chairman Reince Priebus put it. Here’s how:

1. Create a new federal photo ID which could be used in situations requiring ID, including voting. Provide federal funding to libraries and law enforcement agencies who agree to take on the task of helping citizens procure a federal photo ID. The extra funding could be used for any purpose, as long as basic requirements were met in regards to assisting with photo IDs. This approach to the Voter ID problem kills two birds with one stone – reversing the counterproductive trend of decreasing funding for these public resources at the exact moment when public need is increasing – while simultaneously providing voters a convenient outlet to procure a free photo ID.

2. Ensure that lack of one form of documentation (such as a valid birth certificate) doesn’t prevent procuring ID if another means to verify identity can be produced; a major issue for older, minority and/or rural Americans. Library or law enforcement officials would review required documentation, enter the person’s relevant information, take and record a digital picture of the person, and then send this information off for processing. The ID would be produced centrally, most likely by a private company contracted to do so by the government, and mailed either directly to the person or available for pick up where the ID was generated.

3. Disabled, elderly or rural voters (living more than 10 miles from any library or law enforcement office assisting with IDs) would be able to schedule in-home appointments to procure photo ID. A contractor – much like a notary public – could be hired to drive to that person’s house, verify documentation, input data, take a digital photograph, and send it off for processing. Hospitals, Long-Term Care and Elder-Care Facilities could be serviced similarly.

4. Provide funding to states who voluntarily expand access to voting via early voting, voting by mail, or similar ways to give voters greater ease & opportunity in casting their ballots. Similarly, in states where photo ID is required to vote, allow voters with photo ID to register to vote on Election Day.

5. Require voters in any state using computers to either record or compile votes to initial a paper record of their vote. This paper verification could come in the form of a punch-hole or mark next to the candidate’s name, or a print-out from a computerized voting machine. The voter would simply verify his/her choice(s), initial the paper copy and place it in a receptacle. There would be an automatic audit of a small sample of paper records contrasted against the computer result. Discrepancies would trigger a wider audit or even a recount, ensuring that it is the will of the voters and not that of computer hackers (or those employing them) being carried out. Finally, states would receive funding to update their election equipment and train election officials in order to become compliant with these changes.

This approach would put people’s right to vote – and to have that vote accurately counted – above petty partisan politics. The first four reforms would protect against voter fraud by requiring ID, something the Democrats would need to accept as part of a larger compromise, while making ID easily available and thwarting Republican attempts denying ID to Democratic-leaning constituencies. The fifth & final reform deals not with the individual fraud that Voter ID targets, but the system-wide fraud perpetrated by computer hackers; which is the greater threat by far.

If the Department of Defenses, CIA and FBI can be hacked, it’s probably safe to assume that the unsophisticated array of voting systems we have across this country wouldn’t be too great a challenge to any hacker even mildly determined to tinker with voting results. Yet even as we require people to show ID when voting at the risk of disenfranchising millions, we remain completely trusting of the computers recording and/or compiling votes; so much so that we require absolutely no means to verify the accuracy of their count. Does that strike anyone else as odd?

If we are going to protect our vote, let’s really protect our vote from all threats of fraud; without forcing voters to choose between allowing voter fraud or disenfranchising voters. We can do far better than that. Adopting this solution has the potential to transform a looming dark chapter in our electoral history into a reaffirmation of our commitment to a government chosen by a popular vote of its citizens. Join us in demanding of our leaders a better approach to protecting our vote, our right to vote, and ultimately…our democracy.


Feb 7

Note from CommonSenseMan: This week’s guest post offers a defense for certain types of large political contributions as they relate to other types of contributions. Frankly, my belief is that all political contributions of the magnitude being discussed contribute to a system-wide corruption which puts the needs of funders over the need of constituents, and places a premium on fundraising over job performance; regardless of the intentions behind the donations themselves. Further, I believe that the Koch bothers and George Soros could potentially serve as useful symbols which motivate partisans on both sides to support reform; while simultaneously demonstrating to partisans and non-partisans alike that this isn’t a one-sided (one-party) problem.

However, to be able to work together and truly solve the problem of money in politics and the influence/control it buys, we must first understand how those whose political opinions differ from our own truly see the problem. This piece offers a view into the conservative perspective too often overlooked by reformers, and why I thought it important to share regardless of any misgivings I might have with the argument it lays out.

2/7/12

Guest post by Stephen Erickson. Originally published at www.rebuilddemocracy.org. Reprinted with permission.

Ted Olson, the prominent Republican attorney, lives a life woven into the great events of his time. Olson defended President Reagan in the Iran – Contra affair, represented Bush in Bush v Gore, served as the attorney for famous accused spies John Pollard and Wen Ho Lee, and helped lead the opposition to a proposed California constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages. Time listed Olsen as one of America’s “100 greatest thinkers.” His wife Barbara, a staunch Democrat, died in the plane that hit the Pentagon on 9/11.

In addition to all of this, Olson litigated the famous – some say infamous – Citizens United case before the Supreme Court (See HERE for Olson’s defense of that ruling). So it should come as no surprise that last week Olson engaged in a public defense of the allegedly infamous Charles and David Koch, a/k/a “the Koch brothers,” who are oil industry magnates and financiers of conservative politics.

In the Wall Street Journal Olson argued that the Obama administration and its allies, channeling Richard Nixon, have created an “enemies list” with David and Charles Koch right at the top. Olsen’s article begins his defense of the Kochs with a series of rhetorical questions:

How would you feel if aides to the president of the United States singled you out by name for attack, and if you were featured prominently in the president’s re-election campaign as an enemy of the people?

What would you do if the White House engaged in derogatory speculative innuendo about the integrity of your tax returns? Suppose also that the president’s surrogates and allies in the media regularly attacked you, sullied your reputation and questioned your integrity. On top of all of that, what if a leading member of the president’s party in Congress demanded your appearance before a congressional committee this week so that you could be interrogated about the Keystone XL oil pipeline project in which you have repeatedly—and accurately—stated that you have no involvement?

These are good questions. Ask yourself another question: Have the Koch brothers done anything nearly so bad as quasi-government entities Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, or their many Wall Street counterparts such asGoldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan? These are companies run by executives who have enriched themselves at public expense while destroying the economy and ruining the lives of countless ordinary Americans.

Have oil men Charles and David Koch done even one scintilla the damage to our country that British Petroleum did in the Gulf of Mexico?

The answer to these questions is clearly, “no.” So why are the Koch brother singled out?

The answer is obvious. The Koch brothers donate large sums of money to candidates and organizations that oppose Democrat politicians and progressive political philosophy.

Yes, maybe it’s problematic for democracy when extremely wealthy people like David and Charles Koch have so much more political power than the average citizen. But the same should hold true for George Soros, investor, currency speculator and funder of all things progressive. Are these guys really the baddest of the bad? Do they really deserve all of the hate?

Unlike Soros and the Koch brothers, Wall Street , Fannie Mae & Freddie Mac and British Petroleum all divide their political donations between Republicans and Democrats. They aren’t supporting a party or a cause; they’re investing in people with political power. They sleep with who will give them what they want, finding no shortage of obliging politicians on both sides of the aisle. To pass itself off as environmentally responsible, British Petroleum is even a long-time funder of climate research, which is probably less expensive than properly managing its oil platforms. These corporations donate money to various politicians and causes for one reason and one reason only: they wish to buy influence in order to enhance their profits.

Charles & David Koch on the Right and George Soros on the Left don’t play this game. They don’t compromise principles for profit. Each has deep and abiding beliefs in right versus wrong, and at the risk of their interests and reputations they fight for what they believe with their money. Agree with their political philosophies or not, these are acts of courage, not self-interest. They risk retribution and their profits by standing up to powerful political interests with every check they write.


Feb 3

2/3/12

As big-spending Super PACs continue to dominate our election process this year, the debate about the role of money in elections will continue to heat up. Yet while it is a near certainty that the media will portray the opposing views of those on the left & right as being incompatible with one another, there is more common ground on this issue than meets the eye; and a solution which benefits all sides equally is possible.

The conservative viewpoint on political spending generally holds that money will always find a way in, and any obstacles put in its path easily circumvented. Add in the fact that such obstacles are often seen as either violating free speech rights or putting too much power in the hands of congress, and it’s little surprise conservatives show little inclination to support (progressive) solutions which offer more of the same. Instead, conservatives often counter with the argument that money should flow freely without limits, but in a transparent way so voters can know who is funding whom. Progressives are of course horrified by this prospect, and argue that such a deluge of unlimited money would completely drown out ordinary voices already struggling to be heard.

The reality is that both views have merit. Money has consistently found a way into the process no matter what limits or restrictions have been enacted, reinforcing the conservative argument. On the other hand, simply letting the money flow without acknowledging the corrupting effect it has had on our system would take a serious problem and make it much, much worse. So the question then is, if there are flaws with both approaches and neither is likely to get the broad support necessary for success anyway, why do both sides continue to cling to dead-end solutions?

Frankly, progressives are worrying themselves with the wrong thing in this debate. Rather than focusing on limiting the money, and immediately making conservatives dig in their heels, why not focus instead on the influence and/or control which that money buys? If there were a way to use the conservative model, and thus gain necessary conservative support, why should it matter whether the money flows or not if the influence/control it buys has been dealt with?

What if in exchange for eliminating all contribution limits, and letting the money flow freely and with more-or-less instantaneous disclosure/transparency, the following reforms were implemented:

~ Clean funding for the campaigns of federal candidates, offering voters the choice of quality candidates free of the strings often attached to special interest money.

~ Congressional term-limits with provisions to ensure people leaving government service can’t immediately spin through the revolving door and profit from their ‘service’.

~ An independent oversight authority free of congress’ influence, which would be able to legitimately enforce election, lobbying and campaign finance laws. No more lax enforcement and slaps on the wrist for those not playing by the rules.

~ An end to gerrymandering and other types of voter fraud which allow politicians to pick their voters, rather than the other way around.

The only thing this approach would fail to accomplish is to ensure that ordinary voices were given the opportunity to be heard. But really, at what point in our entire history as a nation has that been a priority in our electoral process? Sure we celebrate the vote in our democracy, but the wealthy and powerful have been the driving force in elections since the very beginning. In fact, with the advent of the internet and other modern technology, one could argue that average voters have never been more likely to have their voices heard than they currently do; even as difficult as it can be to penetrate the cacophony created by special interest money.

Additionally, as Obama’s 2008 campaign & the Tea Party in 2010 have both recently demonstrated, enthusiastic volunteers/supporters can still have an enormous impact on elections regardless of special interest money. Perhaps candidates free of special interest influence (and more in touch with concerns of voters in their communities) would lead to even higher levels of involvement; especially if the current gap in relative worth between campaign volunteers and special interest money narrowed as a result of changes to election law.

At the end of the day, if we can somehow strengthen the voices of ordinary voters and limit the influence of special interests on our government…does it really matter whether or not we ‘get the money out’?

This question is especially pertinent when you consider how ineffective existing limits on contributions have been. Bundlers easily circumvent limits on direct contributions to candidates in order to gain influence; and who knows what sort of favors are being bought with the gobs & gobs of money pouring into Super PACs and other independent groups?

The money is already flowing freely and influence being bought left & right. If a compromise could be reached using the conservative framework which focused on limiting influence & control rather than money, we would emerge with a system infinitely better than the current one. Abandoning solutions which truly get the money out of politics(and thereby avoiding entirely any free speech concerns) would be a small price to pay for such a colossal improvement in our electoral system; and in turn our government.