May 25

Guest Post by Stephen Erickson. Originally published at www.RebuildDemocracy.org

J. P. Morgan Chase’s recent announcement that the mega-bank had lost $2.3 billion making bad bets on unfathomable “credit derivatives” is like a lightning bolt on the horizon. Our political leaders have obviously not steered the ship-of-state far enough away from the financial storm that knocked down the entire economy in 2008. Wall Street is still gambling on the taxpayers’ line of credit and putting the entire nation at risk. It doesn’t take a genius to see why the problem was never fixed: Wall Street is bribing America’s political leadership with campaign donations.

Yes, that’s a crude explanation, but it also happens to be largely true. One of the parallels between banking reform and political reform is that while both systems are complex, basic and commonsense understanding comes easy. The most ordinary citizen can comprehend that while the public must underwrite traditional banking, taxpayers should never backstop anything that resembles gambling. An ordinary citizen can also understand the folly of permitting lawmakers to take campaign money from the same interests they regulate. Put it together, and it’s hardly rocket science. A monkey could connect these dots, which form a clear picture of corruption.

The banking crisis of 2008, coupled with our government’s inability to address the underlying causes of that crisis, is yielding one – and only one – clear benefit to the American people. It helps us see just how corrupt and dysfunctional our political system has become. What essentially needs to be done to fix the banking system is obvious. (Here is a clear explanation.) And it’s striking how much progressive outsiders and conservative outsiders actually agree on the nature of the banking problem and the necessary remedies.

Big banks must be broken up, with risky business separated from relatively safe FDIC-insured practices. Simpler solutions to banking reform are better than 2,300-page laws that regulators are supposed to implement because regulators can make mistakes and are subject to manipulation by financial and political interests. The Glass-Steagall Act was just such an approach that worked well for seventy years. Taxpayers should only back traditional lending. If a bank is mixing in riskier practices, then that aspect of the business must be broken off to stand on its own and suffer the consequences of any recklessness. No exceptions. End of story.

Incredibly, approaches that are clean and obvious usually don’t happen because Wall Street has politicians from both parties in its back pocket. Of course there’s a chance that public outrage and awareness could reach such an intense level that real banking reform might conceivably take place. But who wants a government that acts sensibly only in the wake of repeated calamities?

The President is now saying that the revelations out of JP Morgan demonstrate the need for the Democrat-passed Dodd-Frank Act. Barack Obama is doubling down on a law that shows every sign of failing (and he’s worried about the implications JP Morgan’s continued gambling habit) . For his part, Mitt Romney proposes no meaningful banking reform at all. Both politicians are taking in money hand over fist from Wall Street.

The madness only stops with comprehensive and non-partisan political reform. Just as a consensus outside of the Washington establishment is mostly established on banking reform, the shape of an outsiders’ consensus for political reform is also appearing. Lawmakers should not be permitted to take campaign money from the same interests they regulate. Congress should be comprised of citizen legislators from all walks of life and not professional politicians. Elections should always be fair. We, the people,all agree: we can’t afford the corruption any more. We need to compartmentalize our many differences and not be distracted from pursuing the reforms that we all know are just common sense.


May 4

5/4/12

Guest post by Stephen Erickson. Originally published at www.RebuildDemocracy.org

In January of this year, Gallop continued its practice of polling Americans on their political ideologies. As you can see here, the pattern is fairly consistent over time, but in 2012, 40% of all Americans described themselves as “conservative,” 35% as “moderate” and 21% as “liberal.”

Given that a highly motivated supermajority of voters is needed to enact the kind of sweeping reforms readers of this page know is necessary, then isn’t the support of conservatives also necessary?

You wouldn’t know it to read and listen to the rhetoric of so-called “reform” organizations, who in this election year seem more interested in defeating Republicans and electing Democrats than they are in real reform.

Indeed, all of the big reform organizations couldn’t alienate conservatives more if they tried. Some of these groups help our organization in various ways, so out of a sense of diplomacy they will go unnamed.

First, any conservative who is even a little interested in reform has read or heard about Peter Schweizer’s book, Throw Them All Out. Many reform groups have in fact used Schweizer’s information on congressional insider stock trading in their advocacy for the recently passed Stock Act. That legislation was produced as a result of Schweizer’s reserach, though he says it does not go far enough.

But these same reform groups who embraced Schweizer’s work on congressional insider trading won’t go near the other findings in his book. They won’t touch the charge that the Obama Energy Department has probably engaged in the worst case of crony capitalism in American history. Schweizer, taking into consideration only one green energy loan program, reports that “$16.4 to $20.5 billion (that’s “billion” with a “b”!) in loans granted went to companies either run by or primarily owned by Obama financial backers-individuals who were bundlers, members of Obama’s national Finance Committee, or large donors to the Democratic Party.” Solyndra is only the most well-known green energy boondoggle reeking of corruption.

Reformers won’t criticize Nancy Pelosi, who appears to have engaged in insider trading and corrupt land deals, according to Schweizer.

Instead one reform group has targeted conservative Senator Tom Coburn for his opposition to the Stock Act. Coburn said he was against the bill because insider trading was already illegal and he did not want to participate in what he saw as a charade designed only to make Congress appear responsible. He also curiously said that he did not believe members of Congress were trading on inside information. One can certainly disagree with Coburn’s position, yet it seems principled, even if potentially flawed.

Coburn has never been accused of the least bit of personal corruption, unlike Pelosi or those involved with the green energy loan program, which stinks to high heaven. Yet one powerful reform group is trying to make an example out of Coburn, one of Congress’ cleanest Republicans. It only makes sense if they are partisans first and reformers second. (You can watch this recent interview with Coburn on “Morning Joe” and decided for yourself if he sounds corrupt).

Second, reform groups are targeting – and successfully intimidating – the corporate funders of ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council. ALEC typically funds conservatives and conservative causes. One reform group has even shamefully exploited the Trayvon Martin–George Zimmerman tragedy by creating an alleged conspiracy between ALEC and Martin’s death. The campaign against ALEC seems coordinated with the White House, which is also engaging in intimidation.

Obviously no conservative would be interested in supporting any “reform” organization which only targets conservative funders and is obviously allied with the Democrat establishment.

Third, as has been repeatedly discussed, the focus on Citizen United is inspired by partisanship as much as by reform. Important Democrat politicians on Capitol Hill – who take money hand over fist from Wall Street – support overturning Citizens United because undisclosed contributions to ALEC or American Crossroads threaten their political careers. The undisclosed nature of contributions to some of these groups means that the funders cannot be intimidated by those in power, and that makes those in power unhappy.

Again, reversing Citizens United does not fix the system. Professor Larry Lessig, a true progressive and authority on the subject, has himself said it won’t fix the system. Yet partisan reform groups have effectively convinced their liberal base (and many moderates too ) that a constitutional amendment reversing Citizens United is the most critical reform. Without conservative support, they have virtually no chance of passing such an amendment, but imagine if they did. Can the nation really afford a constitutional amendment with limited reforming power about on the scale of McCain Feingold? Imagine the cynicism when people discover how feeble such an amendment would actually be? At least some Democrat incumbent politicians would be happy.

Professor Lessig has also warned that ending “corporate personhood” won’t necessarily even change anything about Citizens United, but language like “ending corporate personhood” is red meat (or is “fresh bean salad” a better analogy?) to the progressive base and sure helps with the fundraising for progressive reform groups. The funders of the reform groups, by the way, are undisclosed and therefore protected from the sort of intimidating pressures that the funders of ALEC are now experiencing.

The conduct of progressive reform groups infuriates and disgusts conservatives who understand reform issues and care about them. For conservatives who know less about reform, they just assume that reform is about progressive politics, and they’re against it. And who could blame them?

If we assume that a united front of citizen outsiders – including conservatives – is necessary to break the Washington establishment and enact real reform, then the many partisan progressive reform groups are doing more harm than good. They are their own worst enemies, unless of course their real missions are to elect progressive Democrats.


Apr 26

4/26/12

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

New York Times columnist Tom Friedman recently wrote an interesting piece based on his interview with Francis Fukuyama. Fukuyama, you may recall, is the author of The End of History in which he reassured us that – with the end of the cold war – democracy would triumph everywhere. Tyranny was doomed. Not only is reality forcing a revision in Fukuyama’s thesis, but he now tells Friedman that that American government has “a crisis of authority.” Authority?

So what we need then is not more democracy but more authority? What happened to “the End of History?”

Yes, we all know American government has become highly dysfunctional. And Friedman and Fukuyama get it right when they point out that our national government has been reduced to little more than a hoard of special interests vying for money and power. The Founders expected government to serve broad and long term interests. Preventing members of Congress from taking campaign cash from special interests would steer government toward serving the national interest, something Friedman only alludes to in this article.

Rather, for the United States today, Fukuyama and Friedman prescribes changes in the institutional rules of the US government to prevent what has become a “vetocracy.” He and Friedman say we have too many checks and balances, like the Senate filibuster. Is that really the problem?

The filibuster, while probably often used too casually, can be a pretty good unifying device. Consider the passage of the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. “Obamacare.” Everyone knows that the bill was completely partisan. Not a single Republican voted for it. It only escaped a Senate Republican filibuster because of a technicality that allowed it to pass through a process called “reconciliation.” The partisan passage of the Affordable Care Act set off a firestorm of ideological warfare that still rages. But what if the Republicans had been able to block the Democrat healthcare bill, then what? The President and his party might then have turned to the bipartisan Wyden- Bennett bill, arguably a superior bill, that would have resulted in a better healthcare law, more ideological peace, and would probably have the President in a better position for reelection today. The filibuster can be a useful tool, but like many tools, can also cause damage when used recklessly.

Friedman cheers Fukuyama when he calls for “heavy technocratic input.” That kind of tool sounds similar to a sledgehammer. Friedman and Fukuyama favor elitist solutions. They just can’t help themselves. All of those interests need to be “managed” in some top-down structure, they seem to suggest.

But the problem is not too much democracy. Rather, it’s not enough democracy. If our government was led by people more like average Americans – with the same priorities as average Americans, like balanced budgets, good education, clean water and air, a fertile business climate – then we’d have a healthy political system. Instead we are plagued by career politicians, enabled by special interests, whose primary focus is the maintenance of their own positions and political power. The filibuster will be used more responsibly when we have term limits and clean elections.


Apr 10

4/10/12

Guest Post by Stephen Erickson. Originally published at www.RebuildDemocracy.org

The President signed the “Stock Act” into law this week.

Passing the Stock Act was probably a good thing, though some say the kind of insider stock trading (exposed by Peter Schweizer in his book, Throw Them All Out) it’s meant to address has been illegal for years.

Perhaps now they are signalling that they are really, really serious about policing themselves.

Even with the Stock Act as law, the problems associated with stock ownership by Members of Congress are still there.

Consider the case of House Minority Nancy Pelosi and her stock ownership in Clean Energy Fuels Corporatation (CLNE).

It’s well known that Democrats have been putting the brakes on the development of America’s natural gas resources because many environmentalists are concerned that the means of retrieving the gas – a process known as “fracking”- is polluting groundwater.

But the Pelosi’s stake in Clean Energy Fuels suggests that environmentalists are about to be betrayed by the Democrats and that Pelosi and her husband are poised to cash in.

Clean Energy Fuels is positioning itself to own a monopoly of natural gas automotive refueling stations all across the country. If the government were to ever get behind a serious exploitation of domestic natural gas – a move essential to energy independence – it would be a bonanza for Clean Energy Fuels, and those who own stock in the company, like Nancy Pelosi and her husband.

No matter where you stand on the issue of fracking (I am for it, with regulation), wouldn’t you feel better knowing that the economic self-interests of our law makers were not tied to legislative outcomes?

As documented by Peter Schweizer, the Pelosi’s have a history of insider trading and using the power of Nancy’s position for personal gain. Progressive reformers almost never talk or write about the corruption of the Pelosis. It’s too painful for them and it might help elect Republicans. But in the end, partisan muckraking discredits the cause of reform .

The most important reform offered up in the Stock Act debate was a proposal by Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), which would have forced all members of Congress to place their stock holdings in a blind trust while they serve in office. It was voted down 26-73.

(Full Disclosure: I own shares in CLNE. You should too, because Nancy Pelosi does)


Apr 3

4/3/12

Guest post by Shelly Bernal. Originally published at www.streetjusticesociety.com

Sometimes things are not as they seem. We all understand that the Americans for Disability Act has improved accessibility for persons with disabilities over the last two decades. However, what we don’t know is that the manipulation of a detail of a good thing can be a really bad thing.

Eric Holder and our Department of Injustice has determined that every community, school and hotel pool must have a permanently fixed pool lift for each body of water, so 1 for pool and 1 for hot tub. Since September 2010 when guidelines for “recreational facilities” were issued, most people in the swimming pool industry thought that one portable lift would be enough for both bodies of water. As of January 31, 2012, the DOJ clarified that is not enough and that compliance is necessary by May 15, 2012. There are an estimated 300,000 public pools and spas in the country that need to comply and less than 5,000 pool lifts were sold in the U.S. in 2011. With only a FOUR month window given from DOJ to comply, there is no ready source to provide an adequate number of pool lifts to meet this demand, despite desperate efforts by manufacturers to design and produce them. Even those who tried to comply by purchasing portable lifts in 2011 will not be in compliance now. Manufacturers have been working round the clock to develop retrofit solutions to “fix” their lifts to pool and spa decks.

There is danger of government legislation without industry consultation. These same recreational facilities were just required to comply with a mandated public safety upgrade, VGB legislation, which made pool drains safer – at a cost of $5,000 to $10,000 . Each of these lifts cost between $3,000 and $10,000 and installation can add $5,000 to $10,000 to the total. In addition to the lack of foresight regarding production or availability, expense certainly was not taken into consideration-even during this downturn in the economy.

As the perfect storm swirls, voila! – an instant payday for unscrupulous trial lawyers whose only objective is to file lawsuits for immediate settlements, otherwise known as legal extortion. The point is not whether the case could be won or not by the property with the pool. The point is that it would cost the property tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees to win the lawsuit so it is cheaper to simply pay the parasitic leech to go away. I refer to this perfect storm as a campaign contribution payback because the trial lawyers generously donated more than $45 million to President Obama’s campaign in 2008. In defense of the trial lawyers though, at least they are getting a return on their investment with those campaign contributions. But then again, isn’t that why they donate in the first place?


Mar 26

3/26/12

Guest post by Stephen Erickson. Originally published at www.RebuildDemocracy.org.

An educative moment for clean election advocates occurred in one of the Republican 2012 presidential primary debates when New Gingrich was asked to defend one of his attack ads against Mitt Romney. Gingrich, with his Cheshire cat-like grin, refused to attack his opponent in person the same way he had in the ad, even when pressed by the moderator. Instead Gingrich called for civility in the GOP debates, but it was clear that his ad was not civil. And maybe not fair.

Most politicians will smear their opponents and twist the truth in political attack ads, but they are far more reluctant to do it in their own voice and in person, especially when their opponent is standing right next to them ready to refute any spurious accusations. There is a lesson here for clean election advocates.

Debates contribute to voter education far better than political advertising. Like it or not, the current ongoing GOP debates are highlighting the weakness of the Republican field. This could end up being good for President Obama if a crippled GOP nominee ends up staggering out of the convention. But a brokered Republican convention is looking more and more possible because, under scrutiny, nobody in the field – not Romney, Santorum, Gingrich or Paul – is inspiring a majority of Republican voters.

If a superior Republican candidate were to emerge from a brokered convention – say a Mitch Daniels, Paul Ryan or Chris Christie – then the many debates should be credited for improving the process by vetting weak candidates and producing a stronger one. This would be good for the Republicansand highly illustrative for those of us who want to fix our broken political system.

Mandatory debates and first-person political statements could be an essential part of a clean elections solution for the United States. All media pay taxes, and some pay broadcasting fees. In lieu of such taxes and fees, media could provide debate time and free first-person political statements from the candidates. Such a system could contribute to a robust vetting of candidates and guarantee a certain amount of civility in the election process.

Many details would need to be worked out. Which candidates would qualify for these free media appearances? Certainly the nominees of the major parties would. Representatives from smaller parties, Independents, and primary election candidatesmight qualify for participation if their party’s voter registration reaches a certain threshold in their districts or by collecting some set amount of signatures on petitions.

Exactly how (and how much) the media would be compelled to contribute would need to be determined. Media pay taxes unevenly. Some pay little or no taxes at all due to write-offs. Some companies, like Google or Yahoo, only make a portion of their profits through the delivery of content. Establishing a system equitable to the media would be challenging, but not impossible Some debates, even if mandatory, could make money for broadcasters. The 2012 Republican primary debates have had good ratings. Commercial sponsorship of the debates could be permitted, which would give media some incentive to help make the debates attractive to viewers and offset costs.

Timing in all things is important. Debates would have to be in prime time. Voter education would be maximized by concentrating debates and written first-person political statements into segmented time frames running the course of a few days or a couple of weeks. In advertising, this is called a “media pulse.” The citizen’s thought process will tend to be more activated if he or she is presented with related content multiple times during a set period.

Taking this process a step further, one or two week segments could be devoted to debating specific subjects: economy, foreign policy, environment/energy, social issues, etc. The debates need not be confined to the media. The political discussion could be brought into the schools where our children are not sufficiently versed in civics or critical thinking about important public policy questions.

To some libertarian purists, such a system – which aims to drive a national conversation – may seem too top-down. But, as the founding fathers understood, civic engagement is absolutely necessary for a healthy republic. A distant government and corrupt political system have alienated and disengaged too many Americans. Decisive measures are required to reverse this trend.

The political system of the United States demands more public policy discussion, more dialogue and more critical thinking, to be followed by responsiveness in government. It’s essential that politicians be banned from taking campaign money from the same interests that they regulate. That old system must be replaced by a vigorous new one. Free media for political candidates in the form of debates and first-person essays in the candidates’ own words should be part of our new clean elections solution.


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 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.


Jan 31

1/31/12

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

There’s too much money in politics, right? Super PACs are poisoning the election process, yes? Not so fast. Before we hyperventilate, let’s step back and look at the role of money in the ongoing Republican primaries. What we find is that money and television time for candidates are good things. It’s the unwanted influence of the candidates’ sponsors we need to worry about.

In a recent critique of political reformers, conservative columnist and pundit George Will pointed out that more money will be spent on “Easter candy” – $ 2 billion – than will be spent on political campaigns. Given the stakes and importance of controlling the United States government, Will is “astonished” that so little is spent on politics.

In fact George Will is exaggerating a little. According to the LA Times, advertising analysts estimate that $2.4 billion will be spent on political campaigns this year while the total candy market – not just the Easter candy – is estimated at $2 billion. Will is talking about the candy, rather than the advertising behind the candy, so he is guilty of comparing apples to oranges. We get a better relative sense of how much is spent on political advertising by looking at the ad budgets of some major corporations. Proctor and Gamble, for example, spends $5.2 billion to advertise soap, cleaning products, batteries, toothpaste and tampons. Verizon and AT&T each spend over $3 billion annually advertising telecommunications. These figures suggest that spending on political advertising is indeed relatively small.

Much of the rhetoric from the reform community focuses on the amount of money Super PACs are pouring into campaigns, implying that the money itself is the problem. But slogans like “Get the Money Out” can suggest the wrong problem and the wrong solutions. Yes, we desperately need to get the influence of campaign money out of the legislative process. However, a healthy American political system requires more money, not less.

All of the major Republican candidates for President in 2012 have Super PACS supporting them – independent political action committees to which donors can give unlimited amounts of money. The only requirement is that there cannot be any collusion between these Super PACs and the candidates’ campaigns. While we can surely find plenty of problems with the current system, the fact remains that the money itself has contributed to an especially robust debate in the ongoing Republican primaries.

The negative ads, sometimes annoying but often entertaining, have illuminated each of the candidates’ significantweaknesses. Mitt Romney’s flip-flops (here and here)have been showcased like an Olympic gymnastics event. Because of the money, Newt Gingrich’s character flaws including his corrupt relationship with mortgage giant Freddie Mac, cannot not be covered up by his smooth debating style. Even Ron Paul’s unusual views on foreign policy came under further scrutiny as a result of a Super PAC ad.

The numerous debates have, in turn, given the candidates a chance to respond to charges in these ads. While this particular set of candidates may not be especially inspiring, the money in the 2012 Republican primaries has educated voters, tested candidates and made for a competitive election process. Without the Super PACs, Mitt Romney, with his huge personal wealth and deeply laid campaign infrastructure, would have glided unchallenged and unscrutinized straight to the nomination. Money injected into the race through Super PACs has in some ways improved democracy.

So the extra money is good, but reformers are right to worry about what donors might expect in return for their investments, or, um, “donations.” Newt Gingrich’s mega-donors, Sheldon Adelson and his wife Miriam, have supported Gingrich with two installments of $5 million each. The Adelsons are said to be motivated by Gingrich’s staunch support of Israel, but as the majority owners in Las Vegas Sands casinos, they have been battling the federal government over tax issues. The enormous size of the Adelsons’ support makes Gingrich utterly dependent on them. If he’s elected president, it’s hard to conceive that Gingrich could ever look at casino tax policy, or even the US relationship with Israel, with the objectivity the office of president requires. Gingrich is already known for his history, as a member of Congress, of fighting for the interests of his big campaign donors.

Reformers and their opponents should resist the false and unhelpful choice of either accepting the corrupt system, as exemplified by the Gingrich-Adelson connection, or simply “getting the money out.” Rather, we need to replace the dirty money with clean and abundant sources of campaign finance with no strings attached.


Jan 25

1/25/12

Guest post by Stephen Erickson of Americans United to Rebuild Democracy

Does the so-called progressive reform community really want reform – you know, fair elections and clean legislation – or do they just want partisan advantage? The jury is definitely out on this one.

Most political reform groups – which are almost all run by progressives – are making it their focus to overturn the Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case. But if progressive truly want to fix our corrupted political system, the campaign to overturn Citizens United is really, really misguided. What’s needed instead is a paradigm shift when it comes to the politics of reform.

For progressive reformers to succeed in overturning Citizens United, they will theoretically have two paths forward. They can either support and win enough successive presidential elections until the current Supreme Court’s majority dies off and is replaced with a more sympathetic one. That’s the relatively easy route. Otherwise, progressive reformers will have to amend the Constitution against a hurricane headwind of conservative opposition. The politics of reversing Citizens United is in reality so daunting that the entire campaign seems designed more to rally the progressive base and raise money than it is to make our political system better.

To the detriment of real reform, establishment progressive reformers again and again side with their career politician allies in the Democratic party. It’s no accident, nor a matter of principled conviction, that Democratic senators, led by the likes of Wall Street-backed Chuck Schumer ($2,718,464 from the financial industry for his 2010 race), oppose Citizens United and are sponsoring a constitutional amendment to overturn it.

Undisclosed political expenditures, though potentially nefarious, do have the redeeming feature of threatening entrenched incumbent politicians. Schumer and his allies in Congress want all streams of campaign money to pass through their own hands, with full disclosure all around, so they know who to reward and who to punish based on campaign contributions. They want special interests to continue to invest in them personally, in exchange for influence, in order to perpetuate their own professional political careers and enhance their own political power. It’s a form of ongoing extortion befitting gangsters more than the representatives of a free people. The Citizens United decision slightly weakens their system.

Too many progressives can’t decide if they are reformers or partisan warriors and end up trying to be both at the same time. Along the way they create serious credibility problems for themselves. Their silence is deafening in relation to the clear signs of corruption – on an unprecedented scale – coming out of the Obama Energy Department. The rigged “Disclose” bill was obviously crafted with partisan advantage in mind. The attempt to revive the so-called “Fairness” Doctrine was clearly a bare-knuckled attempt to undermine conservative talk radio. The fight to reverse Citizens United is perceived by conservatives as just more of the same. But in this case the stakes for conservatives will be higher than ever before, for they will suspect that their First Amendment rights are under attack. At the very least, overturning Citizens United seems aimed at giving Congress the power to censor certain forms of political speech, a power that incumbent politicians will use to their advantage. Who knows where this power to censor might end? The United States has many media “corporations,” as Justice Kennedy in his majority decision in the Citizens United case pointed out. Could these, too, one day be gagged? Potentially compromising the First Amendment should be a frightening proposition to all Americans. Conservatives, at least, will fight furiously to stop it.

It doesn’t have to be this way. It’s time for sincere progressive reformers to consider who their natural allies are. ( Hint: it’s not those Democrat politicians in Congress and in the White House who are taking money hand over fist from special interests. )

Progressive reformers seem to require a little primer on the conservative perspective when it comes to corruption. Grassroots conservatives know that our government is bought and sold. A system of institutionalized bribery and extortion operates in Washington every day, and conservatives hate this system every bit as much as progressives do. Maybe more so. True reform-minded people, whether on the Left or Right, share a fundamental understanding; our republic has become corrupted. If progressives wanted to, they could reach out and build on this large and substantial piece of common ground. But it would require a deliberate change of course and attitude.

An agreement between progressives and conservative reformers would begin with a prohibition against our lawmakers knowingly taking campaign cash from the same interests they regulate. In other words, we would expand our definitions of bribery and extortion so that when it comes to elected officials and special interests, an explicitly articulated quid pro quo would not be necessary to punish influence buying and selling. Political campaign funders and law makers would and should be completely disconnected. Collusion between the two could be punishable with jail time. Grassroots conservatives would heartily cheer this approach. They would fight for it and would willingly toss out Republican politicians who stood in their way (The Tea Party has already started doing something that resembles this by challenging establishment politicians in primaries and Tea Party members of Congress have had some success fighting the corrupt practice of earmarks).

Mutually agreeable steps might also be taken to help limit the influence of special interests unleashed by Citizen United, without amending the Constitution or compromising the First Amendment. It all begins by putting down our partisan weapons and listening to each other.

Undoubtedly, building a new clean election system together would be challenging. Progressive and conservative activists might not agree on what that new system should look like. It would require negotiation. But as citizens outside of the Establishment – whether we call ourselves progressives, conservatives or something in between – we agree on the essentials of reform. Fixing our broken democracy is just too important for partisan games. Please, let’s try working together.

Reversing Citizens United (Part 1 of 2): If An Amendment Must Be The Solution, Can We Please Ensure It Would Be Effective?