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Context of 'June 25, 1943: Law Prohibits Labor Unions from Contributing to Federal Candidates'

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The federal government revises and expands the Federal Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA—see June 25, 1910), a campaign finance law that lacks any enforcement or verification mechanisms, in the wake of the Teapot Dome corruption scandal. The amended version codifies and revises the expenditure limits and disclosure procedures for US Congressional candidates. It will replace the original FCPA as well as its predecessor, the Tillman Act (see 1907), and will remain the backbone of American campaign finance law until 1971. All campaign spending is strictly regulated, with contributions of $50 and over during a calendar year mandated to be reported. Senatorial candidates can spend no more than three cents for each voter in the last election, to a maximum of $25,000. House candidates may also spend up to three cents per voter in the last election, up to a $5,000 maximum. Offers of patronage and contracts are banned, as is any form of bribery. Corporate contributions of all kinds are banned. However, the power of enforcement is entirely vested within Congress, and thusly is routinely ignored. (Campaign Finance Timeline 1999; Center for Responsive Politics 2002 pdf file; Pearson Education 2004; National Public Radio 2012) In 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson will refer to the FCPA as “more loophole than law.” (Geraci 2006 pdf file; National Public Radio 2012)

The Smith-Connally Act restricts contributions to federal candidates from labor unions as well as from corporate and interstate banks (see 1925). The law is passed in response to the powerful influence of labor unions in elections beginning in 1936, where some unions used labor dues to support federal candidates (Center for Responsive Politics 2002 pdf file) , and by public outrage at a steelworkers’ union going on strike for higher wages during the war, an action characterized by many as unpatriotic. The law was written both to punish labor unions and to make lawmakers less dependent on them and their contributions. (Campaign Finance Timeline 1999) One example held up to scrutiny is the 1936 donation of $500,000 in union funds to the Democratic Party by John L. Lewis of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). (Geraci 2006 pdf file) Motivated by anti-union and anti-liberal sentiment after the war’s end, the Taft-Hartley Act (see June 23, 1947) will make the ban permanent. (Campaign Finance Timeline 1999)

The first “political action committee,” or PAC, is formed by the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), a powerful labor union, on behalf of the efforts to re-elect President Franklin D. Roosevelt. PAC donations come from voluntary contributions and not labor dues, and therefore the donations are not prohibited (see June 25, 1943). (Center for Responsive Politics 2002 pdf file; National Public Radio 2012)

The Taft-Hartley Act makes permanent the ban on contributions to federal candidates from unions (see June 25, 1943), corporations, and interstate banks (see 1925), and extends the regulations to cover primaries as well as general elections. It also requires union leaders to affirm that they are not supporters of the Communist Party. President Harry S. Truman unsuccessfully vetoed the bill when it was sent to his desk, and when Congress passes it over his veto, he echoes AFL-CIO leader John L. Lewis by denouncing the law as a “slave-labor bill.” Taft-Hartley declares the unions’ practice of “closed shops” illegal (employers agreeing with unions to hire only union members, and require employees to join the union), and permits unions to have chapters at a business only if approved by a majority of employees. The law also permits employers to refuse to bargain with unions if they choose. And, it grants the US attorney general the power to obtain an 80-day injunction if in his judgment a threatened or actual strike “imperil[s] the national health or safety.” (Federal Elections Commission 1998; U-S History (.com) 2001; Center for Responsive Politics 2002 pdf file; John Simkin 2008)

In the case of Pipefitters Local Union No. 562 et al v. US, the Supreme Court overturns a criminal conviction of the Pipefitters Union for violating the Smith-Connally Act (see June 25, 1943) and the Federal Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA—see 1925). That law bans labor unions from contributing to political campaigns, and Pipefitters Union officials had administered a political action committee (see 1944). The Court, citing the newly passed Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA—see February 7, 1972), overturns the conviction, ruling that FECA “plainly permits union officials to establish, administer, and solicit contributions for a political fund.” The decision is later codified by the amendments to the law (see 1974). (Campaign Finance Timeline 1999; US Supreme Court Center 2012)

The New York Times calls today’s ruling in the Citizens United case (see January 21, 2010) “disastrous,” saying that “the Supreme Court has thrust politics back to the robber-baron era of the 19th century.” The Court has used the excuse of the First Amendment (see January 21, 2010) to “pave… the way for corporations to use their vast treasuries to overwhelm elections and intimidate elected officials into doing their bidding.” The Times recommends that Congress should “act immediately to limit the damage of this radical decision, which strikes at the heart of democracy.” In essence, the Times writes, lobbyists for corporate, labor, and special interests now have the power to sway elections in the directions they prefer. And the ruling gives those same interests the power to intimidate and even coerce candidates. “If a member of Congress tries to stand up to a wealthy special interest,” the Times writes, “its lobbyists can credibly threaten: We’ll spend whatever it takes to defeat you.” The Times notes that since the inception of the nation, its founders have “warned about the dangers of corporate influence. The Constitution they wrote mentions many things and assigns them rights and protections—the people, militias, the press, religions. But it does not mention corporations.” Corporate money has been banned from elections since 1907 (see 1907), and that ban has been in place, in one form or another (see June 25, 1910, 1925, 1935, 1940, June 25, 1943, June 23, 1947, March 11, 1957, February 7, 1972, 1974, May 11, 1976, January 30, 1976, January 8, 1980, March 27, 1990, March 27, 2002, and December 10, 2003), until today. The Times accuses the Court of “overreach[ing],” using “a case involving a narrower, technical question involving the broadcast of a movie that attacked Hillary Clinton during the 2008 campaign (see January 10-16, 2008). The Court elevated that case to a forum for striking down the entire ban on corporate spending and then rushed the process of hearing the case at breakneck speed. It gave lawyers a month to prepare briefs on an issue of enormous complexity (see June 29, 2009), and it scheduled arguments during its vacation” (see September 9, 2009). The Times says the ruling is “deeply wrong on the law,” particularly in declaring corporations as equivalent to people, with the same First Amendment rights. “It is an odd claim since companies are creations of the state that exist to make money. They are given special privileges, including different tax rates, to do just that. It was a fundamental misreading of the Constitution to say that these artificial legal constructs have the same right to spend money on politics as ordinary Americans have to speak out in support of a candidate.” And the Times derides the statement in the Court’s majority opinion that says independent corporate expenditures “do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption,” citing Senator John McCain (R-AZ)‘s characterization of the Court’s reasoning as being plagued by “extreme naivete.” The Citizens United case is, the Times writes, “likely to be viewed as a shameful bookend to Bush v. Gore (see 9:54 p.m. December 12, 2000). With one 5-to-4 decision, the Court’s conservative majority stopped valid votes from being counted to ensure the election of a conservative president. Now a similar conservative majority has distorted the political system to ensure that Republican candidates will be at an enormous advantage in future elections.” The only two ways to rectify the situation, the Times concludes, are to overturn the ruling via Congressional legislation and have a future Court—with a different makeup—overturn the decision itself. (New York Times 1/21/2010)

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 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). (Liptak 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.” (Liptak 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.” (Liptak 3/28/2010; Federal Elections Commission 2012; OpenSecrets (.org) 2012; CNN 3/26/2012; Kavanagh, Slotnik, and Schulten 5/22/2012)

Former Republican presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty (R-MN), now a supporter of Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney (R-MA), tells a reporter from the liberal news Web site Think Progress that the 2010 Citizens United decision allowing donors to contribute unlimited amounts of money to independent groups supporting individual candidates (see January 21, 2010) is “leveling the playing field” in politics. Reporters Scott Keyes and Travis Waldron call Pawlenty’s comment “a turn of phrase that would give George Orwell satisfaction.” Since the decision, a relatively small number of wealthy corporations and individuals have transformed US politics with their multi-million dollar donations (see January 21-22, 2010, March 26, 2010, August 2, 2010, September 13-16, 2010, September 21 - November 1, 2010, September 28, 2010, October 2010, Around October 27, 2010, November 1, 2010, (May 4, 2011), May 5, 2011, July 12, 2011, August 4, 2011, October 27, 2011, October 30, 2011, December 1, 2011, December 19, 2011, January 3, 2012, and January 6, 2012). But Pawlenty seemingly believes that campaign finance laws are still too restrictive, and says he believes that donors should be able to make unlimited donations directly to candidates (see December 21, 2011 and January 10, 2012) instead of making those donations to third-party groups. Pawlenty refuses to say the Citizens United decision will help Romney defeat President Obama in the November general election, and instead says that the decision helps “free speech” (see January 21, 2010 and January 22, 2010). Pawlenty continues: “Every time they try to contain speech, it pops up somewhere else. This is just me talking personally, I’m not speaking for Mitt’s position on this. The better position is to allow full and free speech in whatever form, but have instant disclosure.” Keyes asks, “You’re talking completely unlimited donations?” and Pawlenty responds: “We have that now, it’s just a question of where the money gets pushed to the third party groups. This leveling the playing field to some extent because in the past, unions in particular (see June 25, 1943 and June 23, 1947) and other interest groups had an advantage in the old system. Now the playing field’s being leveled a little bit.” He clarifies: “Right now, with super PACs and third party groups, there’s essentially unlimited giving to various aligned super PACs and groups. The point is, the United States Supreme Court has spoken. They have said we’re going to have free speech as it relates to political contributions. The First Amendment should be respected and protected, but I think we should also have full disclosure.” Keyes and Waldron write that billionaire corporate owners such as the Koch brothers (see 1977-Present, 1979-1980, 1997, 1981-2010, 1984 and After, Late 2004, May 6, 2006, April 15, 2009, May 29, 2009, November 2009, December 6, 2009, April 2010 and After, July 3-4, 2010, June 26-28, 2010, August 28, 2010, August 30, 2010, September 24, 2010, January 5, 2011, October 4, 2011, and February 14, 2011) have pledged staggering amounts of money to defeat Obama in the November elections, and conclude, “This massive influx of unregulated campaign spending will almost certainly be the new normal as wealthy individuals and corporations find new ways to influence elections, helped in large part by the now-two year old Citizens United decision.” (Keyes and Waldron 1/21/2012)

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