Sunday, February 12, 2012

PAC-Man Fever

I’d like to start by presenting, out of context, a quote relevant to my topic:

“We now conclude that independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.”

Sounds pretty ridiculous, right? If, say, I received $20 million from Microsoft and then spent my next column raving about Bill Gates’s attempts to buy the education system, some of you, I would assume, would think my honest opinion had been co-opted by the opinion my new corporate overlord wanted me to have. When people like Mitch McConnell talk about hydraulic fracturing for natural gas and their campaign contributions include representatives for T. Boone Pickens, it’s only natural to believe there’s corruption involved, right?

How about this one?

“The appearance of influence or access, furthermore, will not cause the electorate to lose faith in our democracy.”

Just as ridiculous, right? If the people believe their voice has less influence than that of some outside influence, they inevitably lose faith in leadership. That goes for all kinds of hierarchies, from third-world banana republics to the New York Knicks (replace corporate campaign donors with Isiah Thomas and you’ll see where I’m going with this). There isn’t a single situation where preferential treatment of a specific voice doesn’t result in, at a minimum, disillusionment with the process, and at a maximum, outright revolt (entire Middle East, please pick up the white courtesy phone).

So what kind of kook would say these kinds of things? John “I used to be with it, but then they changed what IT was” McCain? Sorry, he adamantly opposes both of those thoughts. Glenn “Lord High Suzerain of the Post-Apocalyptic Nightmarescape” Beck? Sorry, too busy looking for a job to engage in this level of psychosis. The grand boogeyman of American politics, Richard Nixon? Sorry, didn’t really worry about campaign financing, plus, you know, he’s been dead (awaiting a jar and a robot body) for eight years. No, the speaker of these two patently absurd falsehoods is a far more dangerous, far more important person, and his statements represent a bullet in the spine of American democracy.

The speaker was Justice Anthony Kennedy, in the majority opinion of Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission. By a 5-4 vote strictly along party lines (there aren’t supposed to be party lines in the Supreme Court, but that hasn’t really been true since the ‘80s, in yet another example of how Ronald Reagan ruined America), the Court overruled 102 years of precedent, issued both of the preceding statements as findings of fact (there also aren’t supposed to be findings of fact by the Supreme Court, but when you’re overturning a century of precedent on nothing, you don’t worry about little things like convention), and declared the McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance law unconstitutional. What does that mean? According to the Court, or more accurately, according to the Roberts/Alito/Scalia/Thomas Judicial Branch of the Republican Party, corporations have the same free speech rights as any natural human being in terms of influencing elections. Previous decisions by the Court had declared that money counts exactly the same as speech (notice that they didn’t strike down that particular precedent), so therefore, corporations have the right to spend as much money as they want in order to influence elections. There were still, ostensibly, limits in place; corporations couldn’t give directly to a campaign, and there were caps on the amount that could be given to political action committees (PACs for short; that abbreviation will come up a lot more later on). In addition, advertising from PACs could not specifically advocate or attack any candidate; they had to be based on general issues. Naturally, that wasn’t good enough for our corporate overlords, so in vs. Federal Election Committee, the Court struck down the caps on donations to PACs and allowed that money to be used for promotion or denigration of candidates. Now any corporation could open the treasury and dump a chunk of its profits into any PAC related to any political issue, without limit, in the hopes of crushing opposition. I trust you’re beginning to see the reason I’ve been calling this the third-worst Supreme Court decision in history (it’s pretty hard to top Dred Scott vs. Sandford and Plessy vs. Ferguson for sheer awfulness).

To be fair to the Supreme Court, they did call for improved disclosure laws to ensure that, at the very least, the colossal flow of corporate cash could be tracked to the source. Some might say that if they were serious about ensuring disclosure they could have mandated it in their decision, but when you’re overturning a century of rulings where do you find the time? Naturally, Congress attempted to prove itself worthy of the cause, and the DISCLOSE Act was promoted as a way to limit the damage and keep the spotlight on corporations and special interest groups. Naturally, Congress failed to get anything done because the Republicans in the Senate filibustered the bill and the Democrats lacked by a single vote the ability to invoke cloture. This Republican filibuster included, by the way, Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, who said – word for word – the following: “I don't like it when a large source of money is out there funding ads and is unaccountable. To the extent we can, I tend to favor disclosure.” It’s pretty easy to hold views when you never have to vote on the bills related to them, isn’t it, Senator?

With the last potential hurdle overturned, corporate money began to pour into PACs faster than frat boys into a midnight release for the latest Call of Duty. This led to the formation of super PACs, since apparently more money warrants a positive adjective (there’s really no difference between a PAC and a super PAC besides the amount of money). There are still normal PACs as well, but these days they exist for a more nefarious purpose: muddling the paper trail for those trying to track money back to its source. Corporations that want to bankroll candidates can set up shell corporations and give money to them. The shell corporations then donate the money to a PAC, which then donates that money to another PAC, which then gives the money to the super PAC for which it was originally intended. While super PACs are still required to publish records of where they get their money, those records only show the last PAC in the chain. On top of that, those records are published sparingly (most are required to publish approximately every three months) if at all (several have received permission from the Federal Election Committee, which appears to have just given up trying to do anything productive, to postpone releasing records). Good luck trying to trace money back from Restore Our Future (Mitt Romney’s super PAC) back to Exxon.

The ultimate effect of this chicanery is that money now has a greater effect than ever before on the electoral process. Consider the following: After the New Hampshire primary, Newt Gingrich appeared to be on his way out of the campaign. He’d floundered badly in Iowa, finishing fourth behind Santorum, Romney, and Paul. He’d outright tanked in New Hampshire, placing fifth (getting passed by soon-to-quit-and-start-writing-a-book Jon Huntsman). His campaign was nearly broke, as few people want to be seen donating to a loser, and with most of the outside world recognizing Newt as a self-immolating charlatan with little chance of staying stable until the convention, the odds of picking up any major corporate support seemed slim at best. That’s where Sheldon Adelson comes in. Adelson is a casino billionaire from Las Vegas. He's a hard core hawk on Israel (outside of Joe Lieberman, he might be America's biggest supporter of Netanyahu). He hates unions. And he, like the majority of the Republican base, can’t stand the thought of Mitt “Guy Smiley” Romney as the nominee. With this in mind, and for some reason seeing Newt as the most likely to beat out Mitt for the nomination (from what I've read, he seems to really like Newt, for reasons unclear to me, or to anyone else, for that matter), he gave Newt’s super PAC five million dollars. That’s right. One man. One donation. Five million dollars. Suddenly flush with cash, Newt dumped as much cash into ads in South Carolina as his open marriage would allow, and it paid off in a semi-stunning double-digit win over Romney and renewed life. The next week, Mr. Adelson’s wife wrote Newt’s super PAC another five million dollar check. Out of nowhere, Newt Gingrich was back in the race despite having performed more than poorly enough to warrant elimination. Granted, Newt’s back to also-ran status following a lackluster performance in the last debate and a flat-out curbstomping in the Colorado/Nevada/Minnesota trifecta, but we’re talking about weeks, if not months, of additional advertising, debate appearances, and discussions on mainstream media that he never would have seen if not for one man and five million dollars. Think about how different this race is if Gingrich doesn’t get that check: without the money to compete, Newt’s forced to drop out after South Carolina (which he probably doesn’t win without the massive advertising blitz). Rick Perry was still in the race at the time; does he stay in with Newt out of the way (remember, Perry had a substantially larger bankroll than anyone but Romney)? Does the base/Tea Party (ugh) crystallize behind Santorum earlier, giving him a bigger share of the vote in South Carolina and Florida and making him the de facto Not Romney candidate? Does Romney, now lacking a major opponent in South Carolina, take the state and essentially sew up the nomination? It’s all impossible to say for sure. All I know is that Newt was dead in the water, and then after one man wrote one check, he wasn’t anymore, not because of any policy choice or superior political tactic, but because he had the money to advertise.

How bad is it getting? Mitt Romney’s super PAC spent over $15 million on advertising in Florida alone. Super PACs had already spent $30 million on the campaign as of the last week of JANUARY. Karl Rove is talking about raising – and spending - $240 MILLION on this year’s elections. Last week, President Obama (a major critic of the Citizens United decision when it happened) gave the OK to the Democratic super PAC, not because he’s changed his mind on the topic (spoiler alert: still very much against it), but because it’s a pragmatic necessity to compete (while the DNCC’s funding outstrips the RNC’s by a fair amount, there’s just no comparison in super PAC money). No one seems to like what’s happened, even those who are benefitting from the support of corporate moguls. Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney have both complained about the use of super PAC money to attack each of them. Rick Santorum’s been vocally against super PACs; no surprise, as Restore Our Future went after him like the Religious Right goes after anyone who badmouths Tim Tebow. Most of Congress hates them because they’ve become completely beholden to corporate interests (if they weren’t already); any vote threatens to unleash an avalanche of super PAC money, so every congressman runs scared from any issue that might bother those holding their leashes. House members in particular complain about having to spend the majority of their terms in office fundraising for their reelection campaign; anyone out there want to bet that phenomenon’s gotten BETTER since Citizens United? On top of all of that, there’s the possibility of it getting WORSE; the Republican Party recently filed an amicus brief stating that it believes the Tillman Act of 1907 (which bars direct campaign contributions to candidates by corporations) is unconstitutional. That’s right, the Republicans don’t just want to repeal the Affordable Care Act and Dodd-Frank, they want to repeal the whole freakin’ 20th century! Some of you might have noticed that the 20th century was the one where America became a global power once all the crap from the Gilded Age got wiped out, but your “facts” have no business getting in the way of business.

Fortunately, there are a few people in Congress who see the endgame and have stepped up to fight the power (admittedly, the thought of either of these gentlemen listening to Public Enemy amuses me). Senator Bernie Sanders (a mainstay in my columns, as you may have noticed) and Congressman Ted Deutch have introduced in their respective houses of Congress the Saving American Democracy Amendment. This would directly amend the Constitution to say that corporations are not people and thereby not entitled to the protections of natural persons enumerated in the Constitution, that said corporations will be prohibited from contributing towards the election of public officials, and that Congress and the states have the right to regulate campaign contributions. It’s not public financing of elections (as basically every other developed country does it), but it’s a start and at the very least it would stop the Roberts/Alito/Scalia/Thomas Judicial Branch of the Republican Party dead in their tracks. Will it pass anytime soon? Hell, no. Amendments require a two-thirds majority of BOTH houses to pass (good luck getting two-thirds to agree on anything in the House besides pay raises and naming post offices after Ronald Reagan), PLUS ratification by three-quarters of the states within seven years of passage by Congress (not a fait accompli; the Equal Rights Amendment died because they couldn’t get ratification within the allotted time period). I’m less concerned about ratification, as there’s enough of a populist movement between the Occupy folks, the Tea Party (ugh), and mainstream America that it should get through with ease, particularly if the elderly get behind it. I can’t see any situation, however, where it even gets out of Washington. There are too many special interests that are too entrenched and that own too many politicians for this to ever get a fair up-or-down vote, much less two-thirds support in both houses. That’s where you come in, loyal readers. As Wisconsin and the backlash against SOPA and PIPA have shown, if enough of us fight loudly enough, We the People can still get things accomplished (or not accomplished, as the case may be). Get the word out that this amendment is vitally important to the future of this country. Tell your friends, coworkers, random people in the grocery store, whoever, that we cannot and we must not let democracy get replaced completely by plutocracy.

Until next time, I’ve got two “findings of fact” of my own.

Corporations are not people.

Money is not speech.

P.S. There's an excellent piece at on this same topic. It's a chapter from Thom Hartmann's latest book, and it gets much more in-depth than I do (the luxuries of having time to write a book that requires that kind of research). Highly recommended to anyone who wants more information.