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Context of 'June 23, 1947: Taft-Hartley Act Bans Election Contributions from Banks, Corporations, Labor Unions; Restricts Union Practices'

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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 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 United States v. Auto Workers, the Supreme Court reverses a lower court’s dismissal of an indictment against a labor union accused of violating federal laws prohibiting corporations and labor unions from making contributions or expenditures in federal elections (see June 23, 1947). Justice Felix Frankfurter writes the majority opinion; Chief Justice Earl Warren and Justices William O. Douglas and Hugo Black dissent. In a 5-3 decision, the Court finds the International Union United Automobile, Aircraft, and Agricultural Implement Workers of America liable for its practice of using union dues to sponsor television commercials relating to the 1954 Congressional elections. (UNITED STATES v. AUTO. WORKERS 2011; Moneyocracy 2/2012) Law professor Allison R. Hayward will later write that in her opinion the Court finding created “a fable of campaign finance reform… dictated by political opportunism. Politicians used reform to exploit public sentiment and reduce rivals’ access to financial resources.… [J]udges should closely examine campaign finance regulation and look for the improper use of legislation for political gain instead of simply deferring to Congress. Undue deference to the Auto Workers fable of reform could lead to punishment for the exercise of political rights. Correcting the history is thus essential to restoring proper checks on campaign finance legislation.” Hayward will argue that Frankfurter used a timeline of Congressional efforts to curb and reform campaign finance practices as an excuse to allow powerful political interests to exert restrictions on political opponents with less access to large election finance contributions. The case is used uncritically, and sometimes unfairly, to influence later campaign reform efforts, Hayward will argue. (Hayward 6/17/2008 pdf file)

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)

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)

Former Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) writes an article for the Stanford Law Review discussing the dominance of “big money” in the nation’s elections in the wake of the 2010 Citizens United decision (see January 21, 2010), documenting his belief that the rise in small-donor contributions that put Democrats in office in 2006 and 2008 led to the Citizens United backlash, and calling for sweeping campaign finance reform. Feingold writes, “Without a significant change in how our campaign finance system regulates the influence of corporations, the American election process, and even the Supreme Court itself, face a more durable, long-term crisis of legitimacy.” Feingold heads Progressives United, an advocacy group that pushes for the overturning of the Citizens United decision and campaign finance legislation.
Background - Feingold gives the background of campaign finance reform in America: the 1907 Tillman Act which banned corporations from spending their money in elections (see 1907), which he says was spurred by the realization that “corporate influence corrupts elections”; the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which extended the Tillman ban to labor unions (see June 23, 1947); and more recent legislation, including the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (BCRA—see March 27, 2002), which Feingold co-authored with Senator John McCain (R-AZ). “And for several election cycles, between 2004 and 2008, our system seemed headed towards more fair and transparent elections,” he writes. “But Citizens United changed everything.” The “road to corruption” in modern elections, he says, began when Democrats in the early 1990s began exploiting a loophole in finance regulation that allowed the creation of “soft money” groups (see January 8, 1980, November 28, 1984, December 15, 1986, and December 10, 2003) that allowed parties to solicit unlimited amounts of donations from corporations, labor unions, and individuals. “This system was corrupting,” Feingold writes. “Senators would solicit gigantic, unregulated contributions from the same corporations that had legislation pending on the Senate floor. Both parties were guilty.” The BCRA plugged the “soft money” loophole. Even as the BCRA began to reform campaign finance practices, Feingold writes, “the same corporate interests that fought McCain-Feingold set to work to dismantle it. In what was clearly an orchestrated effort by opponents of campaign reform (see January 25, 2010), a group called Citizens United produced a movie savaging the record of then-Senator Clinton (see January 10-16, 2008). Ostensibly intended to educate the public about conservative concerns regarding Clinton’s run for the presidency, the film was little more than a legal vehicle to challenge some of the common-sense restrictions enacted by the BCRA (see January 10-16, 2008, March 24, 2008, March 15, 2009, June 29, 2009, and September 9, 2009). Specifically, the creators of the film sought to challenge the BCRA’s requirement that electioneering communications—commonly known as ‘phony issue ads’ that attack a candidate in the days before the election, but don’t explicitly advocate voting for or against that candidate—be subject to the same disclosure requirements and contribution limits as other campaign ads.” The case was argued on narrow grounds about a specific provision of the BCRA, but the Court’s conservative justices, led by Chief Justice John Roberts, “manipulated the Court’s process to achieve that result” (see May 14, 2012). Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in his dissent to the majority opinion, “[F]ive 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.” The ruling, Feingold writes, “created a framework for corruption parallel to ‘soft money.’” Instead of “soft money” organizations, Citizens United led to the creation of the “super PAC” (see March 26, 2010, June 23, 2011, November 23, 2011, January 4, 2012, January 4, 2012, January 13, 2012, and February 20, 2012). It has also called into doubt the legitimacy of US elections themselves, due to the “increasing skepticism about the campaign finance system.” Many voters now believe “that the average participant’s small contribution is irrelevant, and that the average person’s vote is grossly outweighed by the gigantic contributions now allowed.”
Internet Politics and Small-Donor Contributions - In part due to the BCRA, Feingold writes, “[f]or three election cycles, in 2004, 2006, and 2008, our system of campaign financing began to take shape in a way that channeled citizen participation and provided incentive for candidates to turn to the democratic support of online activists and small-dollar contributors.” He cites the 2004 presidential campaign of Howard Dean (D-VT), who went on to chair the Democratic National Committee (DNC), as the first powerful instance of “online organizing,” using the Internet to garner millions of dollars in small donations from individual citizens. In 2008, the presidential campaign of Barack Obama (D-IL) pushed the Dean innovation even further. The Obama campaign “raised a historic amount in small-dollar contributions,” Feingold writes, and created an online platform to engage supporters. All told, the Obama campaign raised $500 million online.
An Ineffective FEC - By 2008, he writes, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) was completely impotent. The agency “has been fatally flawed since the time of its creation—any administrative law professor will point out that a law enforcement commission with an even number of commissioners [six] is probably designed specifically not to enforce the law at all,” he writes. By 2008, the FEC only had two seated commissioners, and in effect was not enforcing campaign laws whatsoever. Even after eventually receiving a full complement of commissioners, he writes, the agency “remains ineffective, as even Democratic violators go unpunished as conservative commissioners remain unwilling, philosophically, to enforce any campaign finance law.”
2012: Corporations Trump Citizens - In 2012, corporate contributions far outweigh small-dollar donations by individuals. “[T]he most prominent actors in the 2012 election cycle are unnamed corporations and a small group of influential—primarily conservative—billionaires.” Seventy percent of registered voters think super PACs should be illegal, according to polls, and the favorability rating of the Court has dropped a significant amount. Overall, Feingold writes, the public is firmly against the Citizens United paradigm of campaign finance. He advocates strong legislation from Congress, fixing the “broken system of presidential public financing,” and replacing the “dysfunctional” FEC “with a true enforcement agency.” The ultimate repair of campaign finance lies with the Court, he says, noting that the Court has a chance to do some early repair with the Montana case it is now considering (see June 25, 2012). Regardless of what the Court does or does not do in the Montana case, he concludes, “[t]oday’s framework for corruption cannot stand.” (Feingold 6/14/2012)

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