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Context of 'July 26-27, 2010: Republican Filibuster Blocks Campaign Finance Act Intended to Override ‘Citizens United’ Decision'

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Three of the Supreme Court justices in the majority decision: Antonin Scalia, John Roberts, and Anthony Kennedy.Three of the Supreme Court justices in the majority decision: Antonin Scalia, John Roberts, and Anthony Kennedy. [Source: Associated Press / Politico]The Supreme Court rules 5-4 that corporate spending in political elections may not be banned by the federal government. The case is Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, No. 08-205. The Court is divided among ideological lines, with the five conservatives voting against the four moderates and liberals on the bench. The decision overrules two precedents about the First Amendment rights of corporations, and rules that corporate financial support for a party or candidate qualifies as “freedom of speech” (see March 11, 1957, January 30, 1976, May 11, 1976, April 26, 1978, January 8, 1980, November 28, 1984, December 15, 1986, June 26, 1996, June 25, 2007, and June 26, 2008). The majority rules that the government may not regulate “political speech,” while the dissenters hold that allowing corporate money to, in the New York Times’s words, “flood the political marketplace,” would corrupt the democratic process. The ramifications of the decision will be vast, say election specialists. [Legal Information Institute, 2010; CITIZENS UNITED v. FEDERAL ELECTION COMMISSION, 1/21/2010 pdf file; New York Times, 1/21/2010] In essence, the ruling overturns much of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, commonly known as the McCain-Feingold law (BCRA—see March 27, 2002). The ruling leaves the 1907 ban on direct corporate contributions to federal candidates and national party committees intact (see 1907). The ban on corporate and union donors coordinating their efforts directly with political parties or candidates’ campaigns remains in place; they must maintain “independence.” Any corporation spending more than $10,000 a year on electioneering efforts must publicly disclose the names of individual contributors. And the ruling retains some disclosure and disclaimer requirements, particularly for ads airing within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of a general election. The Los Angeles Times writes: “The decision is probably the most sweeping and consequential handed down under Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. And the outcome may well have an immediate impact on this year’s mid-term elections to Congress.” [Los Angeles Times, 1/21/2010; OMB Watch, 1/27/2010; Christian Science Monitor, 2/2/2010; National Public Radio, 2012]
Unregulated Money Impacts Midterm Elections - The decision’s effects will be felt first on a national level in the 2010 midterm elections, when unregulated corporate spending will funnel millions of dollars from corporate donors into Congressional and other races. President Obama calls the decision “a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies, and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans.” Evan Tracey of the Campaign Media Analysis Group, which tracks political advertising, says the Court “took what had been a revolving door and took the door away altogether. There was something there that slowed the money down. Now it’s gone.” [Legal Information Institute, 2010; CITIZENS UNITED v. FEDERAL ELECTION COMMISSION, 1/21/2010 pdf file; New York Times, 1/21/2010; Los Angeles Times, 1/21/2010; Think Progress, 1/21/2010]
Broadening in Scope - According to reporter and author Jeffrey Toobin, CU lawyer Theodore Olson had originally wanted to present the case as narrowly as possible, to ensure a relatively painless victory that would not ask the Court to drastically revise campaign finance law. But according to Toobin, the conservative justices, and particularly Chief Justice Roberts, want to use the case as a means of overturning much if not all of McCain-Feingold (see May 14, 2012). In the original argument of the case in March 2009 (see March 15, 2009), Deputy Solicitor General Malcolm Stewart unwittingly changed the scope of the case in favor of a broader interpretation, and gave Roberts and the other conservative justices the opportunity they may have been seeking. [New Yorker, 5/21/2012]
Majority Opinion Grants Corporations Rights of Citizens - The majority opinion, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, reads in part: “If the First Amendment has any force, it prohibits Congress from fining or jailing citizens, or associations of citizens, for simply engaging in political speech.… The First Amendment does not permit Congress to make these categorical distinctions based on the corporate identity of the speaker and the content of the political speech.” In essence, Kennedy’s ruling finds, corporations are citizens. The ruling overturns two precedents: 1990’s Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, which upheld restrictions on corporate spending to support or oppose political candidates (see March 27, 1990) in its entirety, and large portions of 2003’s McConnell v. Federal Election Commission (see December 10, 2003), which upheld a portion of the BCRA that restricted campaign spending by corporations and unions. Before today’s ruling, the BCRA banned the broadcast, cable, or satellite transmission of “electioneering communications” paid for by corporations or labor unions from their general funds in the 30 days before a presidential primary and in the 60 days before the general elections. The law was restricted in 2007 by a Court decision to apply only to communications “susceptible to no reasonable interpretation other than as an appeal to vote for or against a specific candidate” (see June 25, 2007).
Encroachment on Protected Free Speech - Eight of the nine justices agree that Congress can require corporations to disclose their spending and to run disclaimers with their advertisements; Justice Clarence Thomas is the only dissenter on this point. Kennedy writes, “Disclosure permits citizens and shareholders to react to the speech of corporate entities in a proper way.” Kennedy’s opinion states that if the restrictions remain in place, Congress could construe them to suppress political speech in newspapers, on television news programs, in books, and on the Internet. Kennedy writes: “When government seeks to use its full power, including the criminal law, to command where a person may get his or her information or what distrusted source he or she may not hear, it uses censorship to control thought. This is unlawful. The First Amendment confirms the freedom to think for ourselves.”
Fiery Dissent - Justice John Paul Stevens, the oldest member of the court, submits a fiery 90-page dissent that is joined by Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Sonia Sotomayor. Kennedy is joined by Roberts and fellow Associate Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia, and Thomas, though Roberts and Alito submit a concurring opinion instead of signing on with Kennedy, Scalia, and Thomas. “The difference between selling a vote and selling access is a matter of degree, not kind,” Stevens writes in his dissent. “And selling access is not qualitatively different from giving special preference to those who spent money on one’s behalf.” Stevens writes that the Court has long recognized the First Amendment rights of corporations, but the restrictions struck down by the decision are moderate and fair. “At bottom, the Court’s opinion is thus a rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self government since the founding, and who have fought against the distinctive corrupting potential of corporate electioneering since the days of Theodore Roosevelt. It is a strange time to repudiate that common sense. While American democracy is imperfect, few outside the majority of this Court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics.” Speaking from the bench, Stevens calls the ruling “a radical change in the law… that dramatically enhances the role of corporations and unions—and the narrow interests they represent—in determining who will hold public office.… Corporations are not human beings. They can’t vote and can’t run for office,” and should be restricted under election law. “Essentially, five justices were unhappy with the limited nature of the case before us, so they changed the case to give themselves an opportunity to change the law.”
Case Originated with 2008 Political Documentary - The case originated in a 2008 documentary by the right-wing advocacy group Citizens United (CU), called Hillary: The Movie (see January 10-16, 2008). The film, a caustic attack on then-Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and Democrats in general, was released for public viewing during the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries. When the Federal Election Commission (FEC) won a lawsuit against CU, based on the FEC’s contention that broadcasting the film violated McCain-Feingold, the group abandoned plans to release the film on a cable video-on-demand service and to broadcast television advertisements for it. CU appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court, and most observers believed the Court would decide the case on narrow grounds, not use the case to rewrite election law and First Amendment coverage. [Legal Information Institute, 2010; CITIZENS UNITED v. FEDERAL ELECTION COMMISSION, 1/21/2010 pdf file; New York Times, 1/21/2010; Los Angeles Times, 1/21/2010; Think Progress, 1/21/2010; Associated Press, 1/21/2010; Christian Science Monitor, 2/2/2010]
Case Brought in Order to Attack Campaign Finance Law - Critics have said that CU created the movie in order for it to fall afoul of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, and give the conservatives on the Court the opportunity to reverse or narrow the law. Nick Nyhart of Public Campaign, an opponent of the decision, says: “The movie was created with the idea of establishing a vehicle to chip away at the decision. It was part of a very clear strategy to undo McCain-Feingold.” CU head David Bossie confirms this contention, saying after the decision: “We have been trying to defend our First Amendment rights for many, many years. We brought the case hoping that this would happen… to defeat McCain-Feingold.” [Washington Post, 1/22/2010]

Entity Tags: US Supreme Court, Theodore (“Ted”) Olson, Sonia Sotomayor, Clarence Thomas, Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia, Citizens United, Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, Barack Obama, Samuel Alito, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, New York Times, Nick Nyhart, Evan Tracey, David Bossie, Hillary Clinton, Jeffrey Toobin, Federal Election Commission, John Paul Stevens, Malcolm Stewart, John G. Roberts, Jr, Los Angeles Times

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The Washington, DC, Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously holds that provisions of the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA—see February 7, 1972, 1974, and May 11, 1976) violate the First Amendment in the case of a nonprofit, unincorporated organization called SpeechNow.org. SpeechNow collects contributions from individuals, but not corporations, and attempted to collect contributions in excess of what FECA allows. In late 2007, SpeechNow asked the Federal Election Commission (FEC) if its fundraising plans would require it to register as a political committee, and the FEC responded that the law would require such registration, thus placing SpeechNow under federal guidelines for operation and fundraising. In February 2008, SpeechNow challenged that ruling in court, claiming that the restrictions under FECA were unconstitutional. FECA should not restrict the amount of money individuals can donate to the organization, it argued, and thusly should not face spending requirements. It also argued that the reporting limits under FECA are unduly burdensome. The district court ruled against SpeechNow, using two Supreme Court decisions as its precedents (see January 30, 1976 and December 10, 2003), and ruled that “nominally independent” organizations such as SpeechNow are “uniquely positioned to serve as conduits for corruption both in terms of the sale of access and the circumvention of the soft money ban.” SpeechNow appealed that decision. The appeals court reverses the decision, stating that the contribution limits under FECA are unconstitutional as applied to individuals. The reporting and organizational requirements under FECA are constitutionally valid, the court rules. The appeals court uses the recent Citizens United ruling as justification for its findings on contribution limits (see January 21, 2010). [New York Times, 3/28/2010; Federal Elections Commission, 2012; Moneyocracy, 2/2012] The FEC argued that large contributions to groups that made independent expenditures could “lead to preferential access for donors and undue influence over officeholders,” but Chief Judge David Sentelle, writing for the court, retorts that such arguments “plainly have no merit after Citizens United.” Stephen M. Hoersting, who represents SpeechNow, says the ruling is a logical and welcome extension of the Citizens United ruling, stating, “The court affirmed that groups of passionate individuals, like billionaires—and corporations and unions after Citizens United—have the right to spend without limit to independently advocate for or against federal candidates.” [New York Times, 3/28/2010] Taken along with another court ruling, the SpeechNow case opens the way for the formation of so-called “super PACs,” “independent expenditure” entities that can be run by corporations or labor unions with monies directly from their treasuries, actions that have been banned for over 60 years (see 1925 and June 25, 1943). The New York Times will later define a super PAC as “a political committee whose primary purpose is to influence elections, and which can take unlimited amounts of money, outside of federal contribution limits, from rich people, unions, and corporations, pool it all together, and spend it to advocate for a candidate—as long as they are independent and not coordinated with the candidate.” Super PACs are not required by law to disclose who their donors are, how much money they have raised, and how much they spend. CNN will later write, “The high court’s decision allowed super PACs to raise unlimited sums of money from corporations, unions, associations, and individuals, then spend unlimited sums to overtly advocate for or against political candidates.” OpenSecrets, a nonpartisan organization that monitors campaign finance practices, later writes that the laws underwriting Super PACs “prevent… voters from understanding who is truly behind many political messages.” [New York Times, 3/28/2010; Federal Elections Commission, 2012; OpenSecrets (.org), 2012; CNN, 3/26/2012; New York Times, 5/22/2012]

Entity Tags: Stephen M. Hoersting, New York Times, Federal Election Commission, Federal Election Campaign Act of 1972, OpenSecrets (.org), David Sentelle, CNN, SpeechNow (.org)

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties, 2012 Elections

Senate Democrats are unable to break a filibuster by Senate Republicans that is blocking passage of the DISCLOSE Act.
Act Would Mandate Disclosure of Donors - The DISCLOSE Act—formally the Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light On Spending in Elections (DISCLOSE) Act—would overturn many elements of the Supreme Court’s controversial Citizens United decision that allows virtually unlimited and anonymous political spending by corporations and other entities (see January 21, 2010). If passed, it would have created new campaign finance disclosure requirements and made public the names of “super PAC” contributors (see March 26, 2010). Individuals, corporations, labor unions, and tax-exempt charitable organizations would, under the act, report to the Federal Election Commission (FEC) each time they spend $10,000 or more on campaign-related expenditures. Additionally, all outside groups, including “super PACs,” would have to report the names of donors. Moreover, the legislation would provide for so-called “Stand By Your Ad” requirements mandating that super PACs and other outside campaign groups producing political advertisements disclose the top funders in the ad. The CEO or highest-ranking official of an organization would, under the act, have to appear in the ad and officially “approve” the message. [Open Congress, 6/29/2010; OMB Watch, 7/24/2012]
Unbreakable Filibuster - Even public support from President Obama fails to sway enough Republican senators to vote against the filibuster, as did changes made to the bill by sponsor Charles Schumer (D-NY) designed to assuage some of Republicans’ concerns about the bill. The bill has already passed the House, shepherded through under Democratic leadership against Republican opposition. Democrats have a slim majority in the Senate also, but Senate rules allow the minority to mount filibusters that require 60 votes to overcome, and a number of Republicans would need to break from the Republican pack to vote down the filibuster. Additionally, some conservative senators such as Ben Nelson (D-NE) have not publicly stated their support for the bill. One Republican who had previously indicated she might vote for cloture (against the filibuster), Susan Collins (R-ME), dashed Democrats’ final hopes by saying she would not vote for cloture after all. “The bill would provide a clear and unfair advantage to unions while either shutting other organizations out of the election process or subjecting them to onerous reporting requirements that would not apply to unions,” says Collins spokesman Kevin Kelley. “Senator Collins believes that it is ironic that a bill aimed at curtailing special interests in the election process provides so many carve-outs and exemptions that favor some grass-roots organizations over others. This, too, is simply unfair.” Other so-called Republican moderates such as Olympia Snowe (R-ME) and Scott Brown (R-MA) have previously indicated they would not vote for cloture. Ironically, one of the “carve-outs” in the bill Schumer added was on behalf of the far-right National Rifle Association (NRA), an addition that Schumer says was made to placate Republicans. Schumer says that even if the bill does not pass now, attempts to reintroduce it will be made. The DISCLOSE Act “is one of the most important for the future of our democracy, not just for the next six months but for the next six decades,” he says. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs says: “I don’t know what the final vote will be tomorrow, but I know that you—if you had a sliver of Republicans that thought special-interest giving and corporate influence in elections was… part of the problem, then this bill would pass. Now we get to see who in the Senate thinks there’s too much corporate influence and too much special-interest money that dominate our elections and who doesn’t. I don’t know how it could be any clearer than that.” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) retorts: “The DISCLOSE Act seeks to protect unpopular Democrat politicians by silencing their critics and exempting their campaign supporters from an all-out attack on the First Amendment (see January 21, 2010). In the process, the authors of the bill have decided to trade our constitutional rights away in a backroom deal that makes the Cornhusker Kickback look like a model of legislative transparency.” [Politico, 7/26/2010] The “Cornhusker Kickback” McConnell is referencing is a deal struck in late 2009 by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) to win Nelson’s support for the Democrats’ health care reform package, in which Nebraska, Nelson’s state, would receive 100 percent government financing for an expansion of Medicare. [Las Vegas Sun, 12/20/2009]

Entity Tags: Harry Reid, Federal Election Commission, Charles Schumer, Ben Nelson, Barack Obama, US Supreme Court, US Senate, Susan Collins, Scott Brown, DISCLOSE Act of 2010, Olympia Snowe, Mitch McConnell, National Rifle Association, Robert Gibbs, Kevin Kelley

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

US Senate candidate Sharron Angle (R-NV) falsely claims that the Democratically backed DISCLOSE Act, a bill that would have imposed some disclosure regulations on corporate and union campaign financiers (see July 26-27, 2010), was passed into law. Angle is challenging Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV). The previous day, Angle posted on Twitter that the DISCLOSE Act’s defeat was “a great victory for the first amendment.” But today, Angle joins conservative talk radio host Heidi Harris to claim that the act is actually in effect and she opposes it. Asked about her position on campaign finance, Angle says: “Well I think that the Supreme Court has really made their decision on this, they found that we have a First Amendment right across the board that was violated by the McCain-Feingold act (see March 27, 2002 and January 21, 2010). And that’s what they threw out, was those violations. The McCain-Feingold Act is still in place. The DISCLOSE Act is still in place. It’s just that certain provisions within that they found to be definitely violating the First Amendment. If we didn’t have the DISCLOSE Act there would be a lot of different things that people wouldn’t be able to find out. And certainly you can go to FEC.gov and see where Harry Reid is getting most of his money from special interests.” [Las Vegas Sun, 7/28/2010; TPMDC, 7/28/2010]

Entity Tags: Harry Reid, Sharron Angle, US Supreme Court, DISCLOSE Act of 2010

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21, an organization devoted to stricter campaign finance reform, writes an impassioned op-ed about the deleterious effects of unchecked corporate money pouring into elections as a result of the Citizens United decision (see January 21, 2010). Wertheimer is also angry about the success of recent Republican efforts to block passage of the DISCLOSE Act, which would have required some accountability for corporate and union donors (see July 26-27, 2010). Wertheimer begins by tracing how drastically the landscape of campaign finance has changed: In 2000, when Congress passed legislation restricting the ability of so-called “527” groups to affect federal elections, the laws passed with heavy bipartisan support (see 2000 - 2005 and June 30, 2000). Only six Republican senators, including current Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), voted against the legislation. Last week, when the Senate voted down the latest iteration of the DISCLOSE Act, McConnell led the Republican efforts against the bill, and all 38 GOP senators voted against it. (The latest version of the DISCLOSE Act failed to reach the Senate floor, as Democrats were unable to break a Republican filibuster against the bill.) Wertheimer writes, “Senate Republicans went from 89 percent support for campaign finance disclosure in 2000 to 100 percent opposition to campaign finance disclosure in 2010.” Wertheimer goes on to write: “Ten years after Congress passed campaign finance disclosure for 527 groups by overwhelming bipartisan votes, the campaign finance disclosure issue hasn’t changed nor has the national consensus in the country in favor of disclosure; the votes of Senate Republicans, however, have changed. In 2000, Senator McConnell was a lonely Senate Republican voice against campaign finance disclosure. In 2010, Senator McConnell had 38 Republican Senators voting in lockstep with him to block campaign finance disclosure and to deny citizens information they have a basic right to know.” [Huffington Post, 9/28/2010]

Entity Tags: Fred Wertheimer, Mitch McConnell, DISCLOSE Act of 2010

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

In light of a flood of recent media advertisements attacking Democratic candidates paid for by corporate donations, and recent media stories revealing that the US Chamber of Commerce may be using foreign monies to pay for political attack ads against candidates it opposes (see October 2010), AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka says he now believes the country would have been better off if Congress had managed to pass the DISCLOSE Act, a bill that would have forced the disclosure of the identities of corporate and union donors for campaign purposes (see July 26-27, 2010). Trumka and his labor union organization did not support the DISCLOSE Act when it was up for consideration, and Democrats were unable to break a Republican filibuster of the bill in the Senate. “That’d be good for the system, I think,” Trumka tells reporters. “Because the system is awash—there’s more money in the system than there was oil in the Gulf, quite frankly. [Trumka is referring to the recent catastrophic spill of crude oil in the Gulf of Mexico by BP, a multinational oil corporation.] It’s from people that you don’t know. You eventually find out I guess, but it’s this mysterious money coming in and targeting at three, four, five times what either of the candidates are doing.” Trumka says that the union organization never opposed disclosure as an objective: “What we did was say if you’re going to do it, make sure it applies to everybody—that we were being totally disadvantaged while other people weren’t being disadvantaged.” However, three weeks ago, Trumka released a statement saying that the AFL-CIO “must reluctantly oppose [the DISCLOSE Act] because it would impose extraordinarily costly and impractical new record-keeping and reporting obligations on thousands of labor and other non-profit membership organizations with regard to routine inter-affiliate payments that bear little or no connection with public communications about federal elections.” AFL-CIO political director Karen Ackerman says: “What’s heartbreaking is there’s an imbalance here. So there’s not an equal playing field with the amount of money that corporate America has to protect their own interests, and protect their tax breaks, and protect their trade deals, and protect their profit-making… there are not comparable institutions or interests—moneyed-interests—on the side that represents working people.” [TPMDC, 10/12/2010]

Entity Tags: Karen Ackerman, AFL-CIO, DISCLOSE Act of 2010, US Chamber of Commerce, Richard Trumka

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

A group of Democratic donors, shaken from the defeat the party suffered in the November midterm elections, meets in a Washington hotel to discuss how to counter the huge influx of corporate spending that helped defeat dozens of Democrats and give control of the US House of Representatives back to Republicans. Outside conservative groups such as the US Chamber of Commerce, the American Action Network (see Mid-October 2010), and American Crossroads/Crossroads GPS outspent Democratic groups by more than a two to one ratio. The donors are split on whether to try to emulate their opponents by raising as much money as possible from wealthy corporations and donors, or continuing down their traditional path of funding their campaign efforts via labor unions and organizations such as the Sierra Club. If they decide to pursue corporate cash, some argue, they will be viewed as hypocrites in light of Democrats’ almost-uniform opposition to the 2010 Citizens United decision, which “opened the floodgates” for unlimited corporate and labor donations (see January 21, 2010). One of the fundamental problems, Democrats note, is that while unions are allowed to contribute unlimited funds just as corporations do, unions, which traditionally support Democrats, are far less wealthy than their corporate counterparts. And despite record-breaking fundraising by the Obama presidential campaign in 2008, most corporations donate to Republicans. The donors are not expected to come up with simple answers as they begin to strategize for 2012, where Republicans are expected to raise and spend an unprecedented half-billion dollars trying to defeat President Obama. Moreover, the White House has sent decidedly mixed messages on the subject. During the 2008 race, the Obama campaign instructed an independent progressive “527” PAC, the Fund for America, to shut down its operations after it began releasing attack ads against Obama’s opponent, Senator John McCain (R-AZ). The Obama campaign did not want independent organizations conducting their own operations, but wanted full control of the campaign message. And campaign leaders said they wanted to win with small individual contributions from ordinary citizens, not with massive corporate donations. The White House’s opposition to such outside funding continued through 2010, and as a result, corporate donations to Democratic-supporting groups were far outstripped by Republican donations. Since then, Obama’s top political advisor David Axelrod has indicated the White House would support liberal donors’ independent efforts to counter Republican political donations, but many Democratic donors still believe the Obama administration is not fully behind those efforts. A Democratic strategist who refuses to be identified says: “By and large, the political people in the Obama firmament really have disdain for outside groups. They think they whine and snivel and make all these demands and don’t produce very much.” Some liberal donors and organizations are ignoring the resistance from the White House and making their own plans, such as David Brock, the founder of Media Matters for America (MMFA), who is considering forming his own 527 (see 2000 - 2005) for 2012. Another Democratic activist, Joan Fitz-Gerald of the umbrella group America Votes, says Democrats cannot depend on the courts or Congress to rein in corporate spending, noting that Congressional Democrats failed to get the DISCLOSE Act, a campaign finance reform measure, to the floor of the Senate for a vote (see July 26-27, 2010). Fitz-Gerald says Democrats must adapt to the new political landscape or risk another trouncing in 2012. However, she recommends working through existing progressive organizations more than using hastily formed PACs and 527s funded by one or two wealthy sources. Unions and environmental groups have large, citizen-based funding sources, whereas Republican organizations are often funded by a small group of wealthy donors who bankroll numerous such organizations. Those organizations, she says, lack credibility with voters. The traditional grassroots-based organizations, she says, “are trusted messengers, whether they’re a union that someone belongs to or a group that people have been a member of for many years. At some point the American people, as they see these ads pushing this right-wing agenda, they’re going to ask: ‘Who are these people? What’s the goal of American Crossroads?’” But the funding garnered by the right made the difference in the 2010 elections, Democratic donors agree. Mike Palamuso of the League of Conservation Voters recalls, “For every $500,000 we spent, it felt like American Crossroads spent another $5 million.” Many agree with Democratic political strategist Harold Ickes, who says: “Is small money better? You bet. But we’re in a f_cking fight. And if you’re in a fistfight, then you’re in a fistfight, and you use all legal means available.” [Mother Jones, 11/15/2010]

Entity Tags: David Brock, American Action Network, America Votes, American Crossroads, David Axelrod, US House of Representatives, Sierra Club, Harold Ickes, Joan Fitz-Gerald, US Chamber of Commerce, American Crossroads GPS, Mike Palamuso, Obama administration

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The progressive magazine Mother Jones reports on Congressional Democrats’ plans to curb the effects of the Supreme Court’s Citizen United decision, which allows unlimited contributions to campaign organizations by corporate and union donors (see January 21, 2010). Last year, Senate Republicans refused to allow a campaign finance reform bill, the DISCLOSE Act, to come to the floor for a vote (see July 26-27, 2010). Now Democratic leaders say they are considering filing challenges to the nonprofit tax statuses of many of the groups that were so influential in the 2010 elections. Representative Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) tells a Mother Jones reporter about the plan. According to Van Hollen, two of the groups they plan to target are Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS and the American Action Network (AAN—see Mid-October 2010), headed by former Senator Norm Coleman (R-MN). Together, the two groups spent over $43 million supporting conservative candidates and targeting Democrats, accounting for some 23 percent of all outside conservative spending between them. According to Van Hollen, “People are looking at different legal strategies through the courts because there’s emerging evidence that these groups have abused the rules.” Representative David Price (D-NC) agrees. “I think there are ample goals for challenging the way those groups have acted,” he says. Crossroads GPS spokesperson Jonathan Collegio says in return, “Van Hollen is irresponsibly making claims on zero evidence whatsoever and this is extremely irresponsible for an elected official holding high office.” No one from AAN is willing to respond to the Mother Jones reporting. Both Crossroads GPS and AAN, like many other such groups, are organized under the IRS’s 501(c)4 tax status—tax-exempt, not-for-profit groups whose purpose under the IRS code is “primarily to further the common good and general welfare of the people of the community” (see 2000 - 2005). The law allows such groups to engage in political advocacy, such as running ads for or against candidates, but such “electioneering” activities must not be those groups’ “primary activity.” As far as is known, Crossroads GPS and AAN have no other purpose except electioneering. 501(c) groups do not have to register as political action committees (PACs) and are allowed to conduct their business with very little outside scrutiny. However, if the Federal Election Commission or the IRS determine a group has violated the rules, that group would be forced to register as a PAC and disclose the sources of its funding. If the Democrats challenge the status of these groups, they would be following in the footsteps of private organizations. A coalition of public advocacy groups has filed complaints against Crossroads GPS and another 501(c)4 group, American Future Fund (AFF—see October 12, 2010), claiming that their primary functions are, according to the Crossroads GPS complaint, to “influence the 2010 federal elections and to elect Republicans to office.” The complaints are still pending. In September 2010, Senator Max Baucus (D-MT) asked the IRS to examine several 501(c) groups to “ensure that political campaign activity” wasn’t their primary activity (see September 28, 2010). [Mother Jones, 1/28/2011]

Entity Tags: David E. Price, American Crossroads GPS, American Action Network, American Future Fund, DISCLOSE Act of 2010, Max Baucus, Norm Coleman, Jonathan Collegio, Karl C. Rove, Chris Van Hollen, Mother Jones, US Congress

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Chris Van Hollen, in an undated appearance on Fox News.Chris Van Hollen, in an undated appearance on Fox News. [Source: Associated Press / Politico]Representative Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and other prominent Democrats file a lawsuit against the Federal Election Commission (FEC) asking that entity to force the disclosure of political campaign donor information. In 2007, after a Supreme Court ruling (see June 25, 2007), the FEC drastically rewrote its disclosure requirements, creating what Van Hollen calls a “major loophole” that many 501(c)4 entities funded by corporate or labor union donations are using to operate “under a veil of anonymity.” Van Hollen and his colleagues say they want to force wealthy corporations and individuals to disclose who they are and how much they donate to political organizations. Currently, the Citizens United decision (see January 21, 2010) allows such donors to remain anonymous, and the organizations that receive their donations to conceal the amounts they are receiving. Van Hollen cites the 2002 Bipartisan Candidate Reform Act (BCRA—see March 27, 2002) as applying in this instance. In the brief he submits for the lawsuit, Van Hollen writes: “The US Chamber of Commerce, a Section 501(c) corporation, spent $32.9 million in electioneering communications in the 2010 Congressional elections, and disclosed none of its contributors; American Action Network (AAN—see Mid-October 2010), a Section 501(c) corporation, spent $20.4 million in electioneering communications in the 2010 Congressional elections, and disclosed none of its contributors; Americans for Job Security, a Section 501(c) corporation, spent $4.6 million in electioneering communication in the 2010 Congressional elections, and disclosed none of its contributors.” The lawsuit comes almost simultaneously with news that the White House is considering issuing an executive order that would require federal contractors to reveal their donations (see April 20, 2011). Democrats admit that even as they push the lawsuit forward, and President Obama publicly criticizes the practice of secret donations, they, too, are raising undisclosed donations for the various 2012 campaigns. Experts note that in most cases, Democrats’ efforts to raise undisclosed donations are far smaller than efforts by Republicans, and the amounts they are receiving are, so far, much smaller. Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21, who is leading Van Hollen’s legal team, acknowledges that the lawsuit will not alter campaign finance policy before the 2012 elections, though he says it is possible that the lawsuit could receive a favorable decision and force disclosure while appeals are pending.
Similarities to DISCLOSE Act - Both the lawsuit and the executive order are similar to sections of the DISCLOSE Act, a legislative package drafted by Van Hollen and other Congressional Democrats that was blocked by Senate Republicans from coming to a vote (see July 26-27, 2010). USCOC spokesperson Blair Latoff says the lawsuit and the order comprise a “desperate attempt by the White House and House Democrats to resurrect the corpse of the DISCLOSE Act.” (Law professor Steven D. Schwinn will refute Latoff’s accusation, writing that Van Hollen’s lawsuit in no way seeks to force the DISCLOSE Act into law via the courts.) Like the failed legislation, the lawsuit and the proposed executive order would work to curtail the effects of the Supreme Court’s controversial Citizens United decision, which allows virtually unlimited and anonymous political spending by corporations and other entities. The lawsuit argues that the concealment of donor identities contradicts both the law and the Court’s ruling, citing the following language in the majority ruling: “With the advent of the Internet, prompt disclosure of expenditures can provide shareholders and citizens with the information needed to hold corporations and elected officials accountable.”
Seeks Change in FEC Regulations - The lawsuit specifically challenges an FEC regulation adopted in 2007 that contravened language in the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (see March 27, 2002) that required disclosure of donations of $1,000 or more if the donations were made for the purpose of furthering “electioneering communications.” Another petition filed by Van Hollen’s group asks the FEC to revise a regulation that “improperly allowed nonprofit groups to keep secret the donors” whose funds were being used to pay for so-called independent expenditures in federal elections. [van Hollen, 4/21/2011 pdf file; Los Angeles Times, 4/21/2011; New York Times, 4/21/2011; Steven D. Schwinn, 4/25/2011; Think Progress, 4/27/2011]
'Sign of Weakness' - Bradley A. Smith, a former FEC commissioner and the head of the Center for Competitive Politics, a conservative advocacy group, says of the lawsuit: “This is a sign of weakness by a group that’s afraid they’re going to lose, and lose big. Again and again, you see evidence that their real purpose is to try to shut down their political opposition.” Smith and other conservatives say Democrats want to “chill” free speech. [New York Times, 4/21/2011]
FEC Will Refuse to Consider Accompanying Petition - In December 2011, the FEC will refuse to consider an accompanying petition on a 3-3 vote. [Commission, 12/16/2011; Commission, 12/16/2011] The vote is along partisan lines, with the three Democrats on the commission voting to consider the petition and the three Republicans voting against. The law prohibits the FEC from having a majority of commissioners from either party. [Think Progress, 1/21/2012]
Judge Will Rule in Favor of Plaintiff - In March 2012, a district judge will rule in favor of Van Hollen in the lawsuit (see March 30, 2012).

Entity Tags: Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, Americans for Job Security, Barack Obama, American Action Network, Blair Latoff, Bradley A. (“Brad”) Smith, Steven D. Schwinn, US Chamber of Commerce, DISCLOSE Act of 2010, Chris Van Hollen, Fred Wertheimer, Federal Election Commission

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Long-shot Republican presidential candidate Buddy Roemer (R-LA), a former governor of Louisiana, gives an interview to the liberal news Web site Think Progress in which he blasts the current system of campaign finance. Roemer is campaigning on a promise to reduce the influence of the wealthy on the government, and refuses to accept over $100 in contributions from any one source. He also forces the disclosure of the identities of his donors. After speaking at a tea party rally in New Hampshire, Roemer speaks to Think Progress reporter Lee Fang. Roemer is highly critical of large corporate donors and the trade organizations that represent them, and decries the failure of the DISCLOSE Act to pass Congress (see July 26-27, 2010). “It’s disastrous, it’s dysfunctional, to their shame,” he says. Large corporations such as General Electric using their influence to avoid paying taxes is “what’s wrong with America.” Roemer adds: “Right now, too often the political debate has become about the money and not about the issues. And those who have the money have a vested interest in the results and you never know who they are.… I have full disclosure and I challenge my opponents to do the same.” Fang notes that some of the largest corporate donors and “bundlers” (groups like the US Chamber of Commerce, which “bundle” donations from corporations and individuals and funnel them to political organizations) support Roemer’s fellow Republican candidates, and are the primary reason why the DISCLOSE Act failed to pass. “They lobbied both Democrats and Republicans to kill the bill in the Senate,” Fang says. Roemer says Congress and the campaign financial system are both “dysfunctional,” and adds Democratic-supporting labor unions to the list of organizations that are corrupting politics. “The guys with the bucks want unfettered regulation. They want to run America.… The reason the tax code is four thousand pages long and paid no taxes last year and made five billion dollars? It’s [campaign] checks. That’s whats wrong with the American system. It’s not free anymore. It’s bought.” Roemer says the only way he knows to challenge the system is by example. “You know I’ve got to run against the system,” he says. “It’s corrupt. And the only way I know how to do it… is by example. I’m going to show that a grassroots campaign can capture New Hampshire, South Carolina. I’m going to whip ‘em, on my own terms.” The Republican Party does not support Roemer’s campaign, and is blocking Roemer from participating in primary debates. [Think Progress, 5/4/2011]

Entity Tags: US Chamber of Commerce, Republican Party, Think Progress (.org), Buddy Roemer

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

In response to reported discussions by the Obama administration on the possible issuance of an executive order forcing government contractors to disclose their political contributions (see April 20, 2011), Republicans in the House and Senate introduce legislation that would block such an order. Representative Tom Cole (R-OK) already successfully added a rider to a defense authorization bill that would block the order. Cole says he hopes that the White House will rethink the proposed executive order in light of the opposition from Congressional Republicans. “I am hoping they’re having second thoughts,” he tells a reporter. “This is the executive branch trying to legislate and use a very powerful weapon to do it. And not just legislate, but it is the executive branch trying to intimidate, in my opinion.” In the House, Representatives Cole, Darrell Issa (R-CA), and Sam Graves (R-MO) are sponsoring legislation against the order, while in the Senate, Senators Susan Collins (R-ME), Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Rob Portman (R-OH), and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) are introducing similar legislation. The bills prohibit federal agencies from collecting political information from government contractors as a condition for receiving a government contract. Cole says though his amendment is in the defense bill, he wants to ensure that government contractors are able to keep their political expenditures out of the public eye. “This is one of those things you attack from as many angles and avenues as you possibly can, because it is so important,” he says. “This will get less scrutiny in that process, and it’s a lot easier for Democrats in the Senate to avoid or to kill. A bill is a big statement.” Senate Democrats are likely to vote down the bills. Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21, an advocacy group that stands for stricter campaign finance laws, says the Republican bills are “continuation[s] of abandonment of campaign finance disclosure by House Republicans, which began last year.” Wertheimer is referring to the DISCLOSE Act, legislation that would have forced outside political groups to disclose their donors, but was blocked by Republicans from coming to a vote (see July 26-27, 2010). Conservative donor organizations such as the US Chamber of Commerce (see January 21-22, 2010, July 26, 2010, August 2, 2010, October 2010, November 1, 2010, and February 10, 2011) support the Republican legislation. The Republican-led House Administration Committee has scheduled a hearing on the draft order. [The Hill, 5/26/2011]

Entity Tags: Obama administration, Darrell E. Issa, DISCLOSE Act of 2010, Fred Wertheimer, Mitch McConnell, US Senate, US Chamber of Commerce, Robert Jones (“Rob”) Portman, Sam Graves, US House of Representatives, Lamar Alexander, Susan Collins, Thomas Jeffery Cole

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Law professor John Yoo, who during his tenure at the Justice Department wrote memos defending torture and the right of the executive branch to conduct its business in secret (see March 1996, September 25, 2001, September 25, 2001, October 4, 2001, October 23, 2001, October 23, 2001, November 2, 2001, November 5, 2001, and November 6-10, 2001), co-authors an article for the far-right American Enterprise Institute that attacks the Obama administration for considering the idea of an executive order to require government contractors to disclose their political contributions (see April 20, 2011 and May 26, 2011). The article, by Yoo and lawyer David W. Marston, is entitled “Overruling Citizens United with Chicago-Style Politics,” a reference to some of the unsavory and often-illegal political machinations undertaken by Chicago Democrats. The article repeatedly compares the Obama administration to the Nixon administration’s attempts to “use the available federal machinery to screw [their] political enemies,” as Yoo and Marston quote from a 1971 Nixon White House memo. Yoo and Marston say that the Obama administration, in an effort to recoup its losses from the Citizens United decision (see January 21, 2010]), “is making an unprecedented assault on free speech” by considering the executive order and by pushing the DISCLOSE Act (see July 26-27, 2010). (Yoo and Marston claim that the DISCLOSE Act, if passed into law, “would have forced all those doing business with the government to give up their ability to participate in the political process, as is their right under the First Amendment, aside from just voting on Election Day.”) They write: “Under the guise of ‘transparency’ and ‘accountability,’ the order curtails constitutionally protected speech rights and opens the door for retaliation against those not supporting the administration politically,” and go on to observe that in their opinion, this “assault on free speech” (see January 21, 2010 and January 22, 2010) is being joined by “the media [and] defenders of free speech.” Yoo and Marston claim that the Founding Fathers intended for corporations and other entities to be able to involve themselves in politics entirely anonymously, citing the example of Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison publishing the Federalist Papers under the nom de plume “Publius.” Indeed, Yoo and Marston write, “disclosure of political contributions may be a prelude to the thuggish suppression of political speech by harassment and intimidation,” and they cite the instances of boycotts, vandalism, and death threats against people in California who donated money in support of Proposition 8, which declared gay marriage illegal. “Mandated disclosure of financial support for a political viewpoint can become the springboard for lawless retaliation against citizens for holding unpopular views,” the authors write. “Disclosure” and “transparency,” the “wonder drugs du jour,” are already “being used to silence core First Amendment speech rights and to threaten America’s long protection of anonymous political speech,” they contend, and claim that “thugs” are attempting to use violence and intimidation to nullify the Citizens United decision, force the issuance of the Obama executive order, and push the Federal Election Commission (FEC) to expand disclosure requirements. Only allowing financial donors to remain secret, the authors say, protects their rights to free speech and political involvement. “[D]isclosure invites retaliation,” they argue; only secrecy can protect free speech. The authors even cite a case brought on behalf of the NAACP, in which the organization was allowed to keep its membership lists secret for fear of attacks on its members or their families by white supremacists. [American Enterprise Institute, 7/20/2011] Ian Millhiser, a legal expert for the liberal news Web site Think Progress, angrily rebuts Yoo and Marston’s claims. Millhiser, referencing Yoo’s opinions issued during his stint in the Bush administration, writes, “If there is anyone in the universe who should think twice before criticizing a government lawyer for enabling a president to break the law, it is John Yoo.” He goes on to criticize Yoo’s legal thinking in the article, noting that the Citizens United ruling held that “disclosure could be justified based on a governmental interest in ‘provid[ing] the electorate with information’ about the sources of election-related spending.” Millhiser writes: “President Obama’s proposed executive order provides the electorate with information about the sources of election-related spending. So Yoo’s entire argument can be rebutted in exactly two sentences.” After rebutting other portions of Yoo and Marston’s arguments, Millhiser concludes, “Yoo’s defense of corporate America’s power to secretly buy elections is weak even by his own tragically incompetent standards.” [Think Progress, 7/22/2011]

Entity Tags: Ian Millhiser, American Enterprise Institute, DISCLOSE Act of 2010, Federal Election Commission, Nixon administration, US Department of Justice, John C. Yoo, David W. Marston, Obama administration

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Bradley A. Smith, the chairman of the Center for Competitive Politics (CCP) and a former commissioner and chairman of the Federal Election Commission (FEC) during the second Bush administration, writes that the Citizens United decision (see January 21, 2010) and the subsequent flood of corporate money into the political campaign continuum (see January 21, 2010, January 21, 2010, January 21-22, 2010, January 21, 2010, January 21, 2010, January 21, 2010, March 26, 2010, April 5, 2010, September 13-16, 2010, September 21 - November 1, 2010, October 2010, Mid-October 2010, October 18, 2010, Around October 27, 2010, June 23, 2011, July 12, 2011, August 4, 2011, October 27, 2011, November 23, 2011, December 1, 2011, January 3, 2012, January 6, 2012, and January 10, 2012) are good for American politics. [US News and World Report, 1/13/2012] According to a 2008 press report, Smith co-founded the CCP in 2006 in order to roll back campaign finance regulations, claiming that virtually any regulation is bad for politics. Smith has refused to reveal the financial sponsors that gave him the “seed money” to start the organization. Smith helped win the landmark SpeechNow case (see March 26, 2010) that allowed for the creation of “super PACs,” the organizations that are primarily responsible for flooding the campaign with corporate money. According to law professor Richard Hasen, Smith and the CCP have worked diligently to bring cases like the SpeechNow case to the Supreme Court so that the conservative-dominated Court can “knock them out of the park.” [Politico, 8/12/2008] Smith now writes: “Super PACs are not an evil tolerated under the First Amendment—they are what the First Amendment is all about. A super PAC, after all, is simply a group of citizens pooling resources to speak out about politics.” He claims that super PACs merely “leveled the playing field” after Democrats and Democratic-supporting organizations consistently outfunded Republican campaigns during elections. Super PACs have kept the presidential campaigns of candidates such as Rick Santorum (R-GA—see February 16-17, 2012) and Newt Gingrich (see December 19, 2011 and January 6, 2012) alive. Smith predicts that Democrats will easily outspend Republicans again once the presidential primary campaign concludes (see Around October 27, 2010), November 1, 2010 and May 5, 2011), but says, “Super PACs, however, will help level the field.” Smith claims that super PACs “disclose all of their expenditures and all of their donors,” and claims that any information to the contrary is wrong, as it is “confusing super PACs with traditional nonprofits such as the NAACP or the Sierra Club.” He concludes: “Super PACs are helping to shatter the old, established order, create more competition, and break the hold of special interests lobbyists—big business actually joined the ‘reform’ community in opposing super PACs in court. Are super PACs harming politics? Of course not. How odd that anyone would think that more political speech was bad for democracy.” [US News and World Report, 1/13/2012] The Citizens United decision specifically allows for donors to super PACs to remain anonymous, despite Smith’s claims to the contrary (see January 27-29, 2010, July 26, 2010, July 26-27, 2010, September 13-16, 2010, September 21 - November 1, 2010, Mid-October 2010, Around October 27, 2010, April 20, 2011, April 21, 2011 and After, July 12, 2011, and November 18, 2011). Republicans have fought to preserve that anonymity (see July 26-27, 2010, May 26, 2011, July 15, 2011, and July 20, 2011). Smith is correct in saying that traditional nonprofit groups must disclose their donors, though many are apparently failing to do so (see October 12, 2010).

Entity Tags: Rick Santorum, Center for Competitive Politics, Bradley A. (“Brad”) Smith, Newt Gingrich, Richard L. Hasen

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties, 2012 Elections

Republican candidates and campaign financiers are beginning to advocate for unlimited donations by wealthy contributors directly to presidential campaigns, using language that is remarkably similar to one another, says Think Progress reporter Scott Keyes. While most Americans disagree with letting so much unregulated and unaccountable money into politics (see January 23, 2012), advocates of direct donations apparently believe that current campaign finance laws, even after the Citizens United ruling (see January 21, 2010), are still too restrictive. Keyes writes, “The language used by different high-ranking Republicans is so similar that it suggests a certain level of message-coordination on the subject.” He notes a recent statement by Republican presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney (R-MA—see December 21, 2011), a similar statement by former Republican presidential candidate and current Romney supporter Tim Pawlenty (R-MN—see January 21, 2012), and a January 27 statement by Republican financier Fred Malek (see Mid-October 2010), who told him, “I would favor unlimited contributions to candidates with full disclosure.” Keyes writes that although Romney, Pawlenty, and Malek couple their calls for direct donations with calls for disclosure and transparency, Republicans have consistently voted against measures that would actually bring transparency to campaign finance (see July 26-27, 2010). [Think Progress, 1/31/2012] The Republican National Committee (RNC) has a lawsuit pending that would legalize unlimited donations directly to candidates (see January 10, 2012).

Entity Tags: Scott Keyes, Fred Malek, Tim Pawlenty, Republican National Committee, Willard Mitt Romney

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The Obama campaign reverses its previous policy and begins asking major contributors to donate to a super PAC, Priorities USA, that supports President Obama’s re-election. Previously, the Obama campaign, and Obama himself, had been reluctant to ask for donations for the PAC. Since 2010, Democrats have been worried about the effect of the Republican super PACs on the presidential campaign as well as Congressional and even state and local races, but have been divided on how to respond to the flood of money in support of their Republican opponents (see August 2, 2010, September 13-16, 2010, September 24, 2010, October 18, 2010, Around October 27, 2010, Mid-November 2010, August 4, 2011, October 27, 2011, December 1, 2011, January 3, 2012, and January 6, 2012). Obama campaign spokesman Jim Messina says that Republican-supporting super PACs are collectively expected to spend “half a billion dollars, above and beyond what the Republican nominee and party are expected to commit to try to defeat the president. With so much at stake, we can’t allow for two sets of rules in this election whereby the Republican nominee is the beneficiary of unlimited spending and Democrats unilaterally disarm.… We’re not going to fight this fight with one hand tied behind our back.” Messina also says that Obama is strongly against such campaign finance practices, and supports strong action “by constitutional amendment, if necessary” to once again restrict campaign donations from the wealthy. (In January 2012, Politico reported that Obama was completely opposed to the idea of super PACs, including his own—see January 18, 2012.) Joe Pounder of the Republican National Committee issues a statement harshly critical of the decision, which reads in part, “Yet again, Barack Obama has proven he will literally do anything to win an election, including changing positions on the type of campaign spending he called nothing short of ‘a threat to our democracy.’” So far, super PACs supporting Republican candidates have raised over $50 million, putting the Obama campaign at a distinct disadvantage. New York Democratic fundraiser Robert Zimmerman observes: “It’s hard to pass the plate for super PAC money while Democratic leaders have been preaching about the sins of it. But the reality is, it is essential in 2012.” Campaign and White House officials will appear at fundraisers for Priorities USA, though neither the president nor the first lady will make such appearances. Super PACs, created by the Citizens United decision (see January 21, 2010) and a lower court decision in the wake of that ruling (see March 26, 2010), have come to dominate US election activities, particularly in the area of television, radio, and print advertising. Shortly after the Citizens United decision, Obama criticized it during his State of the Union address, saying: “I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests or, worse, by foreign entities. They should be decided by the American people, and I’d urge Democrats and Republicans to pass a bill that helps correct some of these problems” (see January 27-29, 2010). However, Congress has been unable to rein in the super PACs, with the most visible effort, Congressional Democrats’ DISCLOSE Act, being successfully filibustered by Senate Republicans (see July 26-27, 2010). CBS News political expert John Dickerson says the Obama campaign has no choice but to emulate the Republicans: “What the Obama camp saw is these fundraising numbers from last year. The Republicans were able to raise so much money. They also saw what Romney was able to do to Newt Gingrich in Florida, just absolutely bury him under ads, and they started to worry about what this was going to mean for the president in the general election.” Dickerson says that with the public perception of Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney (R-MA) being so negative, the ads in support of Romney will undoubtedly be quite negative against Obama. Dickerson expects the Obama campaign to retaliate in kind, saying: “Some of the things that Romney had to do to combat those [primary] attacks, he had to get a little bit more negative, seem a little bit more unpleasant as a candidate.… That’s another reason why [Obama] had to make this decision on super PACs: that this is going to be ugly, it’s going to be on the airwaves, and they need to be able to compete.” [New York Times, 2/6/2012; CBS News, 2/7/2012] The Obama campaign’s announcement comes on the same day as news that the Romney campaign has benefited from $1.22 million in funding from oil, gas, and coal corporations (see February 6, 2012).

Entity Tags: Priorities USA Action, Barack Obama, 2012 Obama presidential election campaign, Jim Messina, John Dickerson, Willard Mitt Romney, Joe Pounder, Robert Zimmerman

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties, 2012 Elections

Bradley A. Smith, the chairman of the Center for Competitive Politics (CCP) and a former commissioner and chairman of the Federal Election Commission (FEC) during the George W. Bush administration, writes a second editorial for US News and World Report defending “super PACs,” the “independent” political entities responsible for infusing millions of dollars into the political campaign system. Smith wrote an editorial in January 2012 defending super PACs, claiming they are the direct outgrowth of First Amendment free-speech rights and are actually good for the campaign system (see January 13, 2012). However, as in his first editorial, Smith makes a number of false claims to bolster his arguments. Such organizations were created in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision (see January 21, 2010) and the following SpeechNow.org decision (see March 26, 2010). He notes, correctly, that until 1974 there were no federal restrictions on super PACs, apparently referring to that year’s amendments to the Federal Election Campaign Act (see 1974), though he fails to note that such organizations did not exist until after the SpeechNow decision. He claims that “[t]here is no evidence that super PACs have led to a greater percentage of negative ads” than in earlier presidential campaigns, though he cites no evidence to that effect. He also claims, as he did in the first editorial, that it is false to claim super PACs “spend ‘secret’ money. This is just not true. By law, super PACs are required to disclose their donors. There are groups that have never had to disclose their donors, non-profits such as the Sierra Club, Planned Parenthood, the NAACP, and the NRA. If you want more disclosure, super PACs are a step forward.” Unfortunately, the Citizens United decision specifically allows donors to super PACs to remain anonymous, despite Smith’s claims to the contrary (see January 27-29, 2010, July 26, 2010, July 26-27, 2010, September 13-16, 2010, September 21 - November 1, 2010, Mid-October 2010, Around October 27, 2010, April 20, 2011, April 21, 2011 and After, July 12, 2011, and November 18, 2011). Republicans have fought to preserve that anonymity (see July 26-27, 2010, May 26, 2011, July 15, 2011, and July 20, 2011). As in the first editorial, Smith is correct in saying that traditional nonprofit groups must disclose their donors, though many are apparently failing to do so (see October 12, 2010). He also claims that super PACs increase competition—“level the playing field,” as he wrote in the first editorial—by allowing Republican candidates to equal the spending of their Democratic opponents. In reality, Republicans have outstripped Democrats in outside, super PAC spending since the Citizens United decision (see Around October 27, 2010, November 1, 2010, and May 5, 2011). Smith bolsters his claim by citing direct campaign spending as offsetting “independent” super PAC spending, such as in the 2010 US House race involving incumbent Peter DeFazio (D-OR), who won re-election even after a $500,000 super PAC-driven effort on behalf of his challenger. DeFazio, Smith claims, “outspent his opponent by a sizable margin and won. Still, for the first time in years he had to campaign hard for his constituents’ support. That’s a good thing.” He cites the presidential campaigns of Republican contenders Newt Gingrich (R-GA—see December 19, 2011 and January 6, 2012) and Rick Santorum (R-PA—see February 16-17, 2012), which have relied on the contributions of a very few extraordinarily wealthy contributors to keep their candidacies alive against the frontrunner Mitt Romney (R-MA), whose own super PAC funding is extraordinary (see June 23, 2011). And, he writes, super PAC spending “improves voter knowledge of candidates and issues. Indeed, political ads are frequently a better source of information for voters than news coverage.” The most important benefit of the two Court decisions and the subsequent influx of corporate money into the US election continuum (see January 21, 2010, January 21, 2010, January 21-22, 2010, January 21, 2010, January 21, 2010, January 21, 2010, March 26, 2010, April 5, 2010, September 13-16, 2010, September 21 - November 1, 2010, October 2010, Mid-October 2010, October 18, 2010, Around October 27, 2010, June 23, 2011, July 12, 2011, August 4, 2011, October 27, 2011, November 23, 2011, December 1, 2011, January 3, 2012, January 6, 2012, January 10, 2012, and January 23, 2012), he writes, “is that they get government out of the business of regulating political speech. Who would say that you can’t spend your own time and money to state your own political beliefs? Vindicating that fundamental First Amendment right is good for democracy.” [US News and World Report, 2/17/2012]

Entity Tags: Newt Gingrich, Bradley A. (“Brad”) Smith, Center for Competitive Politics, Peter DeFazio, Federal Election Campaign Act of 1972, Willard Mitt Romney, Federal Election Commission, US Supreme Court

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Senator John McCain (R-AZ), the co-author of the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA—see March 27, 2002), criticizes the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling that gutted the BCRA and allows corporations and labor unions to make unlimited contributions to election and campaign activities (see January 21, 2010). In a panel discussion, McCain calls the ruling “a combination of arrogance, naivete, and stupidity, the likes of which I have never seen.” He goes on to predict scandals as a result of the ruling enabling unlimited corporate contributions and a lack of disclosure surrounding those contributions (see October 2010, June 23, 2011, October 30, 2011, and December 19, 2011), saying: “I promise you this. I promise you there will be huge scandals… because there’s too much money washing around, too much of it… we don’t know who, who contributed it, and there is too much corruption associated with that kind of money. There will be major scandals.” Asked if he intends to give up on passing campaign reform legislation, he answers: “No. But I’ve got to wait until we think that can pass legislation. And I’m not sure right now, frankly, that we could get it passed.” The next day, Josh Israel of the liberal news Web site Think Progress notes that McCain is somewhat responsible for the inability of Congress to pass meaningful campaign finance legislation. He refused to vote for the Democratically-sponsored DISCLOSE Act (see July 26-27, 2010), decrying it as “a bailout for the unions.” Had McCain voted with Senate Democrats to end the Senate Republican filibuster against the DISCLOSE Act, the bill could have been brought to the floor for an up or down vote. Israel calls McCain’s “grumbling” about campaign finance regulation “little more than grandstanding.” [Think Progress, 3/28/2012]

Entity Tags: DISCLOSE Act of 2010, Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, US Supreme Court, John McCain, Josh Israel

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) accuses President Obama and Congressional Democrats of subverting the constitutional guarantees of free speech by trying to restrict political campaign contributions, and says Democrats are using “mob” tactics against their critics. McConnell, speaking at the American Enterprise Institute, says that the White House has shown “an alarming willingness itself to use the powers of government to silence” political speech of groups with which it disagrees. “It is critically important for all conservatives—and indeed all Americans—to stand up and unite in defense of the freedom to organize around the causes we believe in, and against any effort that would constrain our ability to do so,” he says. McConnell is referring to Democrats’ push for the DISCLOSE Act, a campaign finance bill that would force disclosure of the identities of campaign donors that was defeated by a Republican filibuster in 2010 (see July 26-27, 2010) and is being brought up again. The DISCLOSE Act would affect both corporations and unions. Corporate spending in elections tends to favor Republicans, while union spending tends to favor Democrats. McConnell says the act would require “government-compelled disclosure of contributions to all grass-roots groups, which is far more dangerous than its proponents are willing to admit. This is nothing less than an effort by the government itself to expose its critics to harassment and intimidation, either by government authorities or through third-party allies.… The courts have said that Congress doesn’t have the authority to muzzle political speech. So the president himself will seek to go around it by attempting to change the First Amendment.” McConnell cites the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) as one government agency “persecuting” Republican-allied groups, saying, “Earlier this year, dozens of tea party-affiliated groups across the country learned what it was like to draw the attention of the speech police when they received a lengthy questionnaire from the IRS demanding attendance lists, meeting transcripts, and donor information.” The IRS has denied targeting groups based on their political views. IRS Commissioner Douglas H. Shulman says the information requirements stemmed from the tea party groups’ applications for nonprofit status, which triggered automatic IRS review procedures. “There’s many safeguards built in so this has nothing to do with election cycles and politics,” Shulman said before a House Appropriations subcommittee. “This notion that we’re targeting anyone is off.” McConnell says of Obama, “Not only did his campaign publish a list of eight private citizens it regards as enemies—an actual old-school enemies list—it recently doubled down on the effort when some began to call these thuggish tactics into question.” McConnell is referring to an Obama campaign “truth team” document that publicized information about eight wealthy Republican donors. “The tactics I’m describing extend well beyond the campaign headquarters in Chicago. To an extent not seen since the Nixon administration, they extend deep into the administration itself.” McConnell cites the example of Idaho businessman Frank VanderSloot, the national finance co-chair of the Mitt Romney presidential campaign, who was “smeared” as being “a bitter opponent” of gay rights by the Obama campaign. [Bloomberg, 6/15/2012; New York Times, 6/15/2012] VanderSloot is an outspoken opponent of gay rights, though he has hotly denied advocating such positions and often threatens lawsuits against those reporting his positions (see February 17-21, 2012). [Salon, 2/17/2012; KIFI Local News 8, 3/1/2012] The New York Times calls McConnell’s remarks “incendiary.” Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21, a campaign-finance reform advocacy group, says McConnell “doesn’t have a constitutional or policy leg to stand on.” Democrats note that McConnell has failed to criticize organized efforts by the Romney campaign to heckle and disrupt campaign press conferences, nor has he criticized tea party efforts to disrupt and shout down Democrats during town hall meetings around the country. Wertheimer says McConnell is using his fiery rhetoric to, in the Times’s phrasing, “run interference for the secret donors pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into the US Chamber of Commerce and American Crossroads.” Obama campaign spokesperson Ben LaBolt says, “Senator McConnell has been running a cover-up operation for the special interest donors attempting to buy the election for the GOP in order to promote their agendas over the national interest.” [Bloomberg, 6/15/2012; New York Times, 6/15/2012]

Entity Tags: Barack Obama, Ben LaBolt, Douglas H. Shulman, Internal Revenue Service, Frank VanderSloot, US Congress, Fred Wertheimer, Mitch McConnell, New York Times

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties, 2012 Elections

Senate Democrats try twice within a two-day period to bring the DISCLOSE Act, a campaign finance bill that would require the disclosure of the identities of political donors (see July 26-27, 2010), to the floor for a vote. If enacted, the Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light On Spending in Elections (DISCLOSE) Act would overturn many elements of the Supreme Court’s controversial Citizens United decision that allows virtually unlimited and anonymous political spending by corporations and other entities (see January 21, 2010). If passed, it would create new campaign finance disclosure requirements and make public the names of “super PAC” contributors (see March 26, 2010). Individuals, corporations, labor unions, and tax-exempt charitable organizations would, under the act, report to the Federal Election Commission (FEC) each time they spend $10,000 or more on campaign-related expenditures. The bill would also “prohibit foreign influence in federal elections [and] prohibit government contractors from making expenditures with respect to such elections.” Both Senate Democratic efforts are thwarted by a Republican filibuster. Democrats are unable to muster the 60 votes needed to grant “cloture,” which would break the filibuster and bring the bill to the floor to be voted up or down. The last vote supports cloture 53-45, not enough to invoke cloture; the first vote was 51-44 in favor. Senators Mark Kirk (R-IL), who is recovering from a seizure, and Richard Shelby (R-AL) do not vote. Democrats force an official recording of each senator’s vote, placing the names of senators voting for and against the bill in the public record. Democrats have tried since 2010 to pass the bill (see July 26-27, 2010). The bill, sponsored in its latest iteration by Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), would force unions, nonprofits, and corporate interest groups that spend $10,000 or more during an election cycle to disclose donors who give $10,000 or more. Whitehouse modified the original version of the bill to no longer require sponsors of “electioneering” ads to put a disclaimer at the end, and pushed the effective date of the bill to 2013, meaning it would not impact the 2012 presidential campaign. Whitehouse and 15 other senators take to the floor to press for its passage. “When somebody is spending the kind of money that is being spent, a single donor making, for instance, a $4 million anonymous contribution, they’re not doing that out of the goodness of their heart,” he tells the Senate. Democrats urge Republicans who have previously spoken out in favor of transparency and campaign finance reform to vote for the bill, targeting Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Scott Brown (R-MA), John McCain (R-AZ), and Susan Collins (R-ME). However, none of them break ranks with their fellow Republicans. McCain, who co-authored the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill of 2002 (see March 27, 2002) and has spoken out against the Citizens United Supreme Court decision that allows corporations and unions to anonymously spend unlimited amounts on “electioneering” activities (see January 21, 2010), refuses to join Democrats in supporting the bill. He tells the Senate before the final vote, “The American people will see it for what it is—political opportunism at its best, political demagoguery at its worst.” McCain asks Senate Democrats “to go back to the drawing board and bring back a bill that is truly fair, truly bipartisan, and requires true full disclosure for everyone.” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell says the bill would “send a signal to unions that Democrats are just as eager to do their legislative bidding as ever,” and that it “amounts to nothing more than member and donor harassment and intimidation.” In his weekly press conference shortly before the floor votes, McConnell says of the bill: “This could best be described as a selective disclosure act. It has managed to generate opposition from everybody from the ACLU to [the] NRA. That’s quite an accomplishment.” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) says of the bill: “[I]n a post-Citizens United world, the least we should do is require groups spending millions on political attack ads to disclose their largest donors. We owe it to voters to let them judge for themselves the attacks—and the motivations behind them.” And Ellen Miller of the Sunlight Foundation says that the Senate is “thumbing their noses at the very notion of democratic elections.” [Politico, 7/14/2012; OMB Watch, 7/24/2012] After the bill fails to pass, Reid says, “It is obvious Republicans’ priority is to protect a handful of anonymous billionaires—billionaires willing to contribute hundreds of millions of dollars to change the outcome of a close presidential contest.” [The Hill, 7/24/2012]

Entity Tags: Mitch McConnell, Harry Reid, Ellen Miller, DISCLOSE Act of 2010, John McCain, Mark Steven Kirk, Susan Collins, Lamar Alexander, US Senate, Scott Brown, Richard Shelby, Sheldon Whitehouse

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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