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Profile: Bob Edgar

Bob Edgar was a participant or observer in the following events:

President Bush again demands that Congress reinstate the Protect America Act (PAA) (see August 5, 2007), with new provisions providing the nation’s telecommunications industry retroactive legal immunity from criminal and civil prosecution for possible crimes committed in the administration’s domestic wiretapping program (see May 12, 2006). Bush says that without such immunity, US telecom firms will be reluctant to help the administration spy on potential terrorists. The PAA is a central part of the legislative update of the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) (see 1978) which mandates that any wiretaps must receive the approval of the FISA Court. Bush insists that he will veto an update to FISA without the immunity provisions, even as he asserts the country is at risk of further terrorist attacks without the FISA updates, and after letting the PAA lapse without signing an extension of the legislation into law. However, Bush blames Congress for not passing the FISA update with an immunity clause: “Congress’ failure to pass this legislation was irresponsible,” he says. “In other words, the House’s refusal to act is undermining our ability to get cooperation from private companies. And that undermines our efforts to protect us from terrorist attack.” He explains why the Democrats don’t want his bill: “House leaders are blocking this legislation, and the reason can be summed up in three words: class action lawsuits.” A spokesman for Congressional Democrats retorts: “They cannot have it both ways. If it is true that the expiration of the [surveillance law] has caused gaps in intelligence, then it was irresponsible for the president and Congressional Republicans to openly oppose an extension of the law.”
Democrats Put Trial Lawyers Before National Security? - Bush says: “The Senate bill would prevent plaintiffs’ attorneys from suing companies believed to have helped defend America after the 9/11 attacks. More than 40 of these lawsuits have been filed, seeking hundreds of billions of dollars in damages from these companies.… It is unfair and unjust to threaten these companies with financial ruin only because they are believed to have done the right thing and helped their country.” The lawsuits (see June 26, 2006) seek damages based upon violations of FISA, the Wiretap Act, the Communications Act, and the Stored Communications Act, among other laws. Bob Edgar of Common Cause says neither money nor punishment is the issue: “Innocent Americans who have had their rights violated by the telecoms deserve their day in court. If these companies did nothing wrong, then they have nothing to fear.” Bush is apparently attempting to refocus the issue as an attack on trial lawyers—traditionally a group supportive of Democrats—in saying: “Members of the House have a choice to make: They can empower the trial bar—or they can empower the intelligence community. They can help class action trial lawyers sue for billions of dollars—or they can help our intelligence officials protect millions of lives. They can put our national security in the hands of plaintiffs’ lawyers—or they can entrust it to the men and women of our government who work day and night to keep us safe.” House member John Conyers (D-MI) calls such characterizations “irresponsible” and “inaccurate.” [CBS News, 2/23/2008]

Entity Tags: Protect America Act, John Conyers, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, Mike McConnell, George W. Bush, Michael Mukasey, Common Cause, Bob Edgar, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, Dana Rohrbacher

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The US Supreme Court strikes down part of an Arizona law providing public funding for political campaigns. In the case of Arizona Free Enterprise Club’s Freedom PAC v. Bennett, the Court rules 5-4 that a provision in Arizona law providing additional funds to publicly funded candidates whose opponents use private donations to outspend them is illegal. Some opponents of unfettered outside spending feared that the Court would use the case to put an end to most, if not all, programs that provide public money to candidates; Think Progress’s Ian Millhiser explains: “Candidates will only agree to accept public financing if it won’t prevent them from running a competitive race. If a state offers only a few thousand dollars in public funds to a candidate whose opponent is backed by tens of millions of corporate dollars, then the non-corporate candidate will have no choice but to raise money on their own. To defend against this problem, Arizona developed a two-tiered public financing system. Candidates receive additional funds if their opponent or corporate interest groups overwhelm them with attack ads, and thus candidates who are determined not to be tainted by the corrupting influence of major donors are not left defenseless.” The ruling will not have an impact on the presidential race, since the federal public financing system lacks such a provision, and since it seems unlikely that either President Obama or his Republican challenger Mitt Romney (R-MA) will use public financing in 2012. The case was brought by two organizations, the Institute for Justice and the Goldwater Institute, on behalf of Arizona state candidates who rejected public funds. The groups argued that the provision infringed on those candidates’ freedom of speech by compelling them to spend less money to avoid triggering the additional funds.
Majority, Minority Opinions - Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts agreed: “We hold that Arizona’s matching funds scheme substantially burdens protected political speech without serving a compelling state interest and, therefore, violates the First Amendment.” The matching funds provision “imposes an unprecedented penalty on any candidate who robustly exercises [his] First Amendment right[s],” Roberts adds. If the provision is allowed to stand, “the vigorous exercise of the right to use personal funds to finance campaign speech” leads to “advantages for opponents in the competitive context of electoral politics.” The privately funded candidate, Roberts writes, must “shoulder a special and potentially significant burden” when choosing to exercise his First Amendment right to spend funds on behalf of his candidacy. Justice Elena Kagan dissents, writing that the plaintiffs “are making a novel argument: that Arizona violated their First Amendment rights by disbursing funds to other speakers even though they could have received—but chose to spurn—the same financial assistance. Some people might call that chutzpah.”
Reactions - Attorney Bill Maurer, who represented the Institute for Justice, says the ruling “makes clear that the First Amendment is not an exception to campaign finance laws; it is the rule” (see January 30, 1976 and January 21, 2010). He adds that he hopes the ruling will serve as “a clear reminder to government officials that they may not coerce speakers to limit their own speech.” Millhiser writes: “So public financing laws can technically remain, but Arizona’s attempt to protect publicly financed candidates from a wave of corporate attack ads is absolutely forbidden. Moreover, because few candidates can know in advance whether the will face an onslaught of hostile corporate ads, most candidates will hedge their bets and avoid the risk of public financing.… Without unlimited corporate money in elections, most candidates could afford to take public funds unless their opponent had unusual access to wealth or wealthy donors.” Referring to the 5-4 Citizens United decision (see January 21, 2010), Millhiser continues, “In the post-Citizens United America, however, no one is safe from corporate America’s nearly bottomless pool of potential campaign expenditures.” Nick Nyhart of Public Campaign, an organization opposed to the unrestricted influence of outside donors, says, “The five-vote Big Money majority on the court has spoken again in favor of wealthy special interests.” Fred Wertheimer of the campaign finance group Democracy 21 calls the ruling “another seriously misguided campaign finance decision,” but adds “it does not cast any doubt on the continued viability or constitutionality of a number of other existing public financing systems that do not include ‘trigger funds’ or similar provisions.” Common Cause President Bob Edgar says, “This is not the death knell of public financing.” [Politico, 6/27/2011; Think Progress, 6/27/2011]
Plaintiffs Financed by Wealthy Conservative Interests - The next day, Think Progress’s Lee Fang will reveal that the two groups who filed the lawsuit, the Institute for Justice and the Goldwater Institute, are financed by wealthy conservative interests. The Institute for Justice, a group dedicated to bringing cases to court in order to deregulate private corporations and to increase the participation of wealthy corporate interests in elections, was created with “seed money” from oil billionaire Charles Koch (see 1977-Present, 1979-1980, 1981-2010, 1984 and After, May 6, 2006, April 15, 2009, December 6, 2009, November 2009, July 3-4, 2010, August 28, 2010, August 30, 2010, and September 24, 2010). The Walton Family Foundation, a foundation run by the billionaire family of Arkansas retailer Sam Walton (the founder of Wal-Mart), has donated $1.64 million to the group. The Foundation has written that the Citizens United decision and the Arizona case are two top priorities for the Institute. The Goldwater Institute, one of Arizona’s most prominent conservative think tanks, is focused on rolling back health care reform. The Institute is funded by several foundations, including the Walton and the Charles Koch Foundations. Fang notes that much of the funding for both groups remains undisclosed. [Think Progress, 6/28/2011]

Entity Tags: Fred Wertheimer, Elena Kagan, Bob Edgar, Bill Maurer, Barack Obama, Willard Mitt Romney, Walton Family Foundation, US Supreme Court, Nick Nyhart, Institute for Justice, John G. Roberts, Jr, Ian Millhiser, Goldwater Institute, Lee Fang, Charles Koch

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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