The Ethics Express, a compilation of odd political bedfellows, including Common Cause Georgia, the League of Women Voters, Georgia Conservatives in Action, and Georgia Tea Party Patriots, have taken to the road, on bus tour supporting a July 31 ballot question, urging ethics reform in Georgia’s State House. The group plans to stop in 14 cities across the state, from Dalton to Valdosta, Columbus to Savannah, and urge Georgia voters to vote “yes” on a plan that will limit gifts from the lobbyists roaming the halls of the State Capitol to $100.
Georgia, the tours participants say, is one of only three states that has no caps on lobbying its legislators. “We have to remove this perceived corruption,” said Elizabeth Poythress, of the league of Women Voters. “We need to start somewhere.”
That “somwhere,” besides the tour’s stops, includes a pledge signed by both incumbent and challenging state legislature candidates, saying they support the cap as part of overall ethics reform in the State House. One of those legislators, State Sen. Josh McKoon (R-Columbus), said that they are out to accomplish at the state level what isn’t being done at the federal level, including the recent defeat(s) of the Disclose Act in the United States Senate. “While we can’t do anything about Washington,” he insisted, “we can get our own house in order.”
In his article in the current issue of the New Yorker, describing the Supreme Court’s machinations in the 2010 Citizens United decision, Jeffrey Toobin informs readers that the attorney for the plaintiff, Ted Olsen, had a specific goal when he was presenting his case to the court in September, 2009. Since this was the case’s second go at the Court, it indicated a majority of justices was looking for a way to do more than rule on the funding for broadcast media campaign ads in the context of the 2002 finance reform law known as McCain-Feingold. It was looking for reasons to overturn the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act in its entirety.
“Olson could tell… that the Court was leaning his way—heading for a ruling that was far broader than the one he had originally sought,” Toobin writes. So, he says, “Olson argued cautiously, as if protecting a lead.”
That lead was a major factor in taking the GOP to a sweeping victory in the 2010 elections, and has already played a huge role in this year’s GOP presidential primaries. Indeed, one could argue that Chief Justice Roberts’ Court showed that, in fact, it was not the impartial umpire he claimed it would be during his confirmation hearing. “Umpires don’t make the rules; they apply them,” he famously said, “The role of an umpire and a judge is critical. They make sure everybody plays by the rules.” But if the Citizens United ruling was about making the right call, then Roger “the Rocket” Clemens has nothing to worry about. The Courts’ decision makes it seem as if the umpiring crew conferred, and decided that, for the good of the game, human growth hormone is gear, and better performance is every ballplayer’s right.
Toobin’s article makes it clear that the outcries of “judicial activism” by those who supported the restrictions of McCain-Feingold were more than just sour grapes, more than the tit-for-tat critique of a decision that didn’t go their way. He describes how, after the case was first argued in March, 2009, Roberts wrote a narrow opinion for the majority that Justice Anthony Kennedy broadened, and then Justice Antonin Scalia argued they could broaden it more in a way that would overturn even the most recent precedents, and thus the law itself. It was only then they decided not to issue a ruling in June and, instead, scheduled the case to be re-argued.
Now, more than two years after Citizens United v. F.E.C., lower courts and city councils, state legislatures and even Congress itself are making progress in efforts to restore at least some form of campaign finance reform, mostly through limiting contributions and requiring donors’ names to be revealed – particularly those who contribute tremendous sums to campaigns.
On Monday, the U.S. Court of Appeals, in Washington, declined to stay an order by a lower court that requires making public the names of those who finance election ads, including those who donate to political action committees (PACs). According to an article in the Los Angeles Times:
Pending a September appeal, “groups that run a type of ad known as ‘electioneering communications’ will now have to disclose all of the donations they received since the beginning of 2011, or set up a segregated account to pay for the commercials.
“Electioneering communications are television spots that refer to federal candidates but stop short of advocating for their election or defeat and air within 30 days before a primary and 60 days before the general election.”
This ruling directly affects groups with tax-exempt status, and “there is no question that it complicates the political plans of heavyweight players such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and an array of well-financed, conservative, nonprofit groups such as Crossroads GPS and Americans for Prosperity that have taken the lead in a costly air war against President Obama and congressional Democrats. Liberal tax-exempt groups, which spend far less on the type of ads in question, will also be affected,” the LA Times article says.
Although the California State Assembly, on Tuesday, killed a measure in committee that, according to the LA Times, “would have urged Congress to call a constitutional convention to pass an amendment to limit ‘corporate personhood’ and declare that money does not constitute free speech,” some local governments are moving forward with challenges to Citizens United.
The Daily Northwestern reports that the city council of Evanston, Illinois, voted unanimously, on Monday, for a resolution calling for a constitutional amendment that would reverse many of the unpopular results of the Supreme Courts’ decision. They were the first in the Land of Lincoln to do so, “join[ing] other municipalities and states that have passed similar resolutions addressing the 2010 decision on the constitutional rights of corporations.” The resolution supports the action of Sen. Dick Durban (D-IL), the state’s senior senator, who is a co-sponsor to legislation that would set such an amendment in motion.
Meanwhile, back in the U.S. Capitol, the man who’s name has become synonymous with campaign finance reform, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), has come full circle, and is now in negotiations with Senate Democrats to be the first Republican to lend his name to the latest version of the Disclose Act, introduced in March by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI). The bill, as reported in The Hill, this morning:
“would require any group that spends $10,000 or more on election ads or other political activity to file a disclosure report with the Federal Election Commission within 24 hours. Reports would detail the nature of expenditures over $1,000 and reveal the names of donors who give $10,000 or more.
“The legislation would also require that outside group advertisements include ‘stand-by-your-ad’ disclaimers listing the biggest donors.”
The Disclose Act, though, stands little chance of making it through both Houses of Congress – this session, anyway. In the meantime, Politico reports, “With little fanfare, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and his top lieutenants are crisscrossing the country from the Southwest to the Big Apple, meeting with billionaires, high-level business executives and union leaders in a mad scramble to raise money for Majority PAC — and perhaps save their slim Senate majority.”
Of course, they’re not the only Democrats doing it. But, as long as the umpires are saying it’s okay to juice up, may as well play both sides of the hedge and go for the long ball. The “major scandal” that McCain warned The Hill about can happen later. Maybe then, Karl Rove will replace the Rocket on the witness stand, and it will be a whole new ballgame.
Sometimes it pays to give attention to the long view. With the pending sunset of the Bush tax cuts taking up the 24-hour news cycle as the sexy story of Congress’ lame duck session, it is important for middle-class Americans to remember, that the tax-cut conundrum cannot be disconnected from the pool of other major financial issues that both Houses must deal with before the gavel falls at the end of the 111th Congress, on December 21.
Among the most important of these maelstrom of money issues, is the delayed passage of the Disclose Act of 2010 by the Senate.
If money is speech, as the Supreme Court says, then those who are fighting the loudest to make the tax-cuts permanent are those who have given the most money to campaigns to make sure they are permanent. Who are those folks? For the most part, it’s a secret. Seriously. Currently, 527s don’t have to disclose where their money comes from. That’s fine with the Republicans, who successfully filibustered the Disclose Act when it came to the floor of the Senate in September.
“The law is what the law is…”
“I would like to have a different system,” Karl Rove told CBS’ Bob Scheiffer – somewhat disingenuously – ten days before the election, “but we have the system we have.” Of course, it’s a system that worked quite well for Rove’s American Crossroads groups, which were accused by some of taking foreign money in their quarter-million dollar-a-day October campaign to unseat the Democrats.
Republican National Committee Chairman, Michael Steele agreed. Speaking that same Sunday, on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Steele said he believed “the transparency should be there, but the law is what the law is right now.”
Then the RNC chairman threw down the political “put up or shut up” gauntlet, adding, “if people are that bothered by it, then the Congress needs to change it.”
That may be a formidable task, especially since American Crossroads told the New York Times, just before the election, that they were so successful in raising money, they are going to keep spending “well over $50 million combined this year” and “continue advertising against Democrats as Congress returns, when decisions loom on the extension of the Bush-era tax cuts.”
An effort like that, if it’s successful, puts our entire democracy in the hands of Rove & Co.’s secret, big money special interests. We would do well to heed Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s warning to Keith Olberman two weeks before voters decided she would be losing her gavel.
“If they [Republicans backed by big money special interest] were to win,” she said, “it would mean that we are now a plutocracy, an oligarchy. Whatever these few, wealthy, secret, unlimited sources of money are, can control our entire agenda.”
For more information: There’s a great article that came out last week in the Washington Independent, that gives a good overview of what thwarted the Disclose Act earlier this year, and what challenges it faces in the lame duck session.