Billionaires Unchained: The New Pay-As-You-Go Landscape of American “Democracy”

by Andy Kroll, May 16, 2013 by TomDispatch

Billionaires with an axe to grind, now is your time. Not since the days before a bumbling crew of would-be break-in artists set into motion the fabled Watergate scandal, leading to the first far-reaching restrictions on money in American politics, have you been so free to meddle. There is no limit to the amount of money you can give to elect your friends and allies to political office, to defeat those with whom you disagree, to shape or stunt or kill policy, and above all to influence the tone and content of political discussion in this country.

Today, politics is a rich man’s game. Look no further than the 2012 elections and that season’s biggest donor, 79-year-old casino mogul Sheldon Adelson. He and his wife, Miriam, shocked the political class by first giving $16.5 million in an effort to make Newt Gingrich the Republican presidential nominee. Once Gingrich exited the race, the Adelsons invested more than $30 million in electing Mitt Romney. They donated millions more to support GOP candidates running for the House and Senate, to block a pro-union measure in Michigan, and to bankroll the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other conservative stalwarts (which waged their own campaigns mostly to help Republican candidates for Congress). All told, the Adelsons donated $94 million during the 2012 cycle — nearly four times the previous record set by liberal financier George Soros. And that’s only the money we know about. When you add in so-called dark money, one estimate puts their total giving at closer to $150 million.

It was not one of Adelson’s better bets. Romney went down in flames; the Republicans failed to retake the Senate and conceded seats in the House; and the majority of candidates backed by Adelson-funded groups lost, too. But Adelson, who oozes chutzpah as only a gambling tycoon worth $26.5 billion could, is undeterred. Politics, he told the Wall Street Journal in his first post-election interview, is like poker: “I don’t cry when I lose. There’s always a new hand coming up.” He said he could double his 2012 giving in future elections. “I’ll spend that much and more,” he said. “Let’s cut any ambiguity.”

But simply tallying Adelson’s wins and losses — or the Koch brothers’, or George Soros’s, or any other mega-donors’ — misses the bigger point. What matters is that these wealthy funders were able to give so much money in the first place.

With the advent of super PACs and a growing reliance on secretly funded nonprofits, the very wealthy can pour their money into the political system with an ease that didn’t exist as recently as this moment in Barack Obama’s first term in office. For now at least, Sheldon Adelson is an extreme example, but he portends a future in which 1-percenters can flood the system with money in ways beyond the dreams of ordinary Americans. In the meantime, the traditional political parties, barred from taking all that limitless cash, seem to be sliding toward irrelevance. They are losing their grip on the political process, political observers say, leaving motivated millionaires and billionaires to handpick the candidates and the issues. “It’ll be wealthy people getting together and picking horses and riding those horses through a primary process and maybe upending the consensus of the party,” a Democratic strategist recently told me. “We’re in a whole new world.”

The Rise of the Super PAC

But simply tallying Adelson’s wins and losses — or the Koch brothers’, or George Soros’s, or any other mega-donors’ — misses the bigger point. What matters is that these wealthy funders were able to give so much money in the first place.

She needed something sexy, memorable. In all fairness, anything was an improvement on “independent expenditure-only political action committee.” Eliza Newlin Carney, one of D.C.’s trustiest scribes on the campaign money beat, didn’t want to type out that clunker day after day. She knew this was big news — the name mattered. Then it came to her:

Super PAC.

The Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision is often blamed — or hailed — for creating super PACs. In fact, it was a lesser-known case, vs. Federal Election Commission, decided by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals two months later, that did the trick. At the heart of SpeechNow was the central tension in all campaign money fights: the balance between stopping corruption or the appearance of corruption, and protecting the right to free speech. In this instance, the D.C. appeals court, influenced by the Citizens United decision, landed on the side of free speech, ruling that limits to giving and spending when it came to any group — and here’s the kicker — acting independently of candidates and campaigns violated the First Amendment.

Wonky as that may sound, SpeechNow reconfigured the political landscape and unchained big donors after decades of restrictions. The lawyers who argued the case, the academics and legal eagles whose expertise is campaign finance, and the beat reporters like Carney Newlin soon grasped what SpeechNow had wrought: a new, turbocharged political outfit that had no precedent in American politics.

Super PACs can raise unlimited amounts of money from pretty much anyone — individuals, corporations, labor unions — and there is no limit on how much they can spend. Every so often, they must reveal their donors and show how they spent their money. And they can’t directly coordinate with candidates or their campaigns. For instance, Restore Our Future, the super PAC that spent $142 million to elect Mitt Romney, couldn’t tell his campaign when or where it was running TV ads, couldn’t share scripts, couldn’t trade messaging ideas. Nor could Restore Our Future — yes, even its founders wince at the name — sit down with Romney and tape an interview for a TV ad.

It’s far easier, in other words, for a super PAC to attack the other guy, which helps explain all the hostility on the airwaves in 2012. Sixty-four percent of all ads aired during the presidential race were negative, up from 51% in 2008, 44% in 2004, and 29% in 2000. Much of that negativity can be blamed on super PACs and their arsenal of attack ads, according to a recent analysis by Wesleyan University’s Erika Franklin Fowler and Washington State University’s Travis Ridout. They found that a staggering 85% of all ads aired by “outside groups” were negative, while only 5% were positive.

And it will only get worse. “It’s going to be the case that the more super PACs invest in elections, the more negative those elections will be,” Michael Franz, a co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project, told me. “They’re the ones doing the dirty work.” Think of them as the attack dogs of a candidate’s campaign — and the growling packs of super PACs are growing fast.

The savviest political operatives quickly realized how potentially powerful such outfits could be when it came to setting agendas and influencing the political system. In March 2010, Karl Rove, George W. Bush’s erstwhile political guru, launched American Crossroads, a super PAC aimed at influencing the 2010 midterms. As consultants like Rove and the wealthy donors they courted saw the advantages of having their own super PACs — no legal headaches, no giving or spending limits — the groups grew in popularity.

By November 2010, 83 of them had spent $63 million on the midterm elections. Nearly $6 of every $10 they put out supported conservative candidates, and it showed: buoyed by the Tea Party, Republicans ran roughshod over the Democrats, retaking control of the House and winnowing their majority in the Senate. It was a “shellacking,” as President Obama put it, powered by rich donors and the new organizations that went with them.

In 2012, no one, it seemed, could afford to sit on the sidelines. Having decried super PACs as “a threat to democracy,” Obama and his advisers flip-flopped and blessed the creation of one devoted specifically to reelecting the president. Soon, they were everywhere, at the local, state, and federal levels. A mom started one to back her daughter’s congressional campaign in Washington State. Aunts and uncles bankrolled their nephew’s super PAC in North Carolina. Super PACs spent big on abortion, same-sex marriage, and other major issues.

In all, the number of super PACs shot up to 1,310 during the 2012 campaign, a 15-fold increase from two years earlier. Fundraising and spending similarly exploded: these outfits raised $828 million and spent $609 million.

But what’s most striking about these groups is who funds them. An analysis by the liberal think tank Demos found that out of every $10 raised by super PACs in 2012, $9 came from just 3,318 people giving $10,000 or more. That small club of donors is equivalent to 0.0011% of the U.S. population.

Into the Shadows

In late April, roughly 100 donors gathered at a resort in Laguna Beach, California. They were all members of the Democracy Alliance, a private group of wealthy liberals that includes George Soros and Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes. Over five days, they swapped ideas on how best to promote a progressive agenda and took in pitches from leaders of the most powerful liberal and left-leaning groups in America, including Organizing for Action, the rebooted version of Obama’s 2012 presidential campaign. Since the Democracy Alliance’s founding in 2005, its members have given $500 million to various causes and organizations. At the Laguna Beach event alone, its members pledged a reported $50 million.

At the same time, about 100 miles to the east, a similar scene was playing out. A few hundred conservative and libertarian donors descended on the Renaissance Esmeralda Resort and Spa in Palm Springs for the latest donor conference convened by billionaire Charles Koch, one-half of the mighty “Koch brothers.” Over two days, donors mingled with politicians, heard presentations by leading activists, and pledged serious money to bankroll groups promoting the free-market agenda in Washington and around the country.

The philosophies of these two groups couldn’t be more different. But they have this in common: the money raised by the Democracy Alliance and the Kochs’ political network is secret. The public will never know its true source. Call it “dark money.”

So what is dark money? How does it wind up in our elections? Say you’re a billionaire and you want to give $1 million to anonymously influence an election. You’re in luck: you can give that money, as many donors have, to a nonprofit organized under the 501(c)(4) section of the tax code. That nonprofit, in turn, can spend your money on election-related TV ads or mailers or online videos. But there’s a catch: unlike super PACs, the majority of a 501(c)(4) nonprofit’s work can’t be political. Note, though, that where the IRS draws the line on how much politicking is too much, and even what the taxman defines as political, is very murky. And until Congress and the IRS straighten all of that out, donors wanting to influence elections have a mostly scrutiny-free way to unload their money.

This type of nonprofit has a long history in U.S. politics. The Sierra Club, for instance, has a 501(c)(4) affiliate, as does the National Rifle Association. But in recent years, political operatives and wealthy donors have seized on this breed of nonprofit as a new way to shovel secret money into campaigns. Between 2010 and 2012, the number of applications for 501(c)(4) status spiked from 1,500 to 3,400, according to IRS official Lois Lerner.

During the 2010 campaign, politically active nonprofits — “super secret spooky PACs,” as Stephen Colbert calls them — outspent super PACs by a three to two margin, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis. Take the American Action Network (AAN), run by former Senator Norm Coleman of Minnesota. The group purports to be an “issue-based” nonprofit that only dabbles in politics, but its tax records suggest otherwise. From July 2009 through June 2011, as Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington noted, 60% of AAN’s money went toward politics. (An AAN spokesman called the complaint “baseless.”)

Because they’re so lacking in transparency, some nonprofits have been emboldened to bend — if not break — the tax law. One of the more egregious examples was benignly named the Commission on Hope, Growth, and Opportunity (CHGO). Created in the summer of 2010, it informed the IRS that it wouldn’t spend a penny on politics. During the 2010 elections, however, it put $2.3 million into ads attacking 11 Democratic congressional candidates. Then, sometime in 2011, CHGO simply closed up shop and disappeared — a classic case of political hit-and-run. And it wouldn’t have happened without a secretive wealthy bankroller: of the $4.8 million raised by CHGO, tax records show that $4 million came from a single donor (though we don’t know his or her name).

Transparency advocates and reformers supporting more limits on spending have pushed back against the new wave of dark money. They have filed numerous complaints with the IRS and the Federal Election Commission alleging that politically active nonprofits are flouting the law and demanding a crackdown. Marcus Owens, the former head of the IRS’s exempt organizations division, which oversees politically active nonprofits, agrees that the agency needs to take action. “The government’s going to have to investigate them and prosecute them,” Owens, who is now in private practice, told me in January. “In order to maintain the integrity of the process, they’re going to be forced to take action.”

Don’t hold your breath for that. This week, a report by a Treasury Department inspector general revealed that IRS staffers singled out tea partiers and other conservative groups which had applied for tax-exempt status for special scrutiny. Now, Republicans and Democrats are howling with outrage and demanding that heads roll. One result of this debacle, ex-IRS director Marcus Owens told me, is that the IRS will certainly shy away from cracking down on those nonprofits that do abuse the tax code.

At least one politician is upset enough by the steady flow of dark money into our politics to do something about it. Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, who is retiring in 2014, has made the issue of dark money one of the priorities of his time left in office. He plans to “look into the failure of the IRS to enforce our tax laws and stem the flood of hundreds of millions of secret dollars flowing into our elections, eroding public confidence in our democracy.”

Do millionaires and billionaires dominate the donor rolls of nonprofits, too? Without disclosure, it’s near impossible to know who funds what. But not surprisingly, the limited data we have suggest that, as with super PACs, rich people keep politically active nonprofits flush with cash. The American Action Network, for instance, raised $27.5 million from July 2010 to June 2011; of that haul, 90% of the money came from eight donors, with one giving $7 million. The story is the same with Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS. It raised $77 million from June 2010 to December 2011, and nearly 90% of that came from donors giving at least $1 million. And while Priorities USA, the pro-Obama nonprofit, raised a comparatively tiny $2.3 million in 2011, 80% of it came from a single, anonymous donor.

Big Money Civil War

A few days after the 2012 elections, a handful of Republican politicians including Governor John Kasich of Ohio and Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana met privately with Sheldon Adelson. They were officially in Las Vegas for a gathering of the Republican Governors Association, but it was never too early to court the man who, with a stroke of his pen, could underwrite a presidential hopeful’s bid for his or her party’s nomination.

Democratic candidates are no different. House and Senate hopefuls are flocking to Hollywood studio boss Jeffrey Katzenberg, one of their party’s biggest donors and fundraisers. And why wouldn’t they? Barack Obama might not be where he is today without Katzenberg. Days after Obama launched his presidential campaign in 2007, the DreamWorks Animation mogul gave the junior senator his imprimatur and prodded Hollywood into raising $1.3 million for him. Years later, Katzenberg provided $2 million in seed money for the pro-Obama super PAC that played a pivotal role in his reelection.

As 2016 nears, don’t be surprised to see the next set of Democrats clambering over each other to win Katzenberg’s endorsement and money. Paul Begala, the Democratic consultant and TV pundit, is already predicting what he calls the “Katzenberg primary.”

More than ever, a serious Senate or White House bid is dependent not on climbing the party ranks, but on winning the support of a few wealthy bankrollers. In fact, it’s no longer an exaggeration to say that while the political parties still officially pick the candidates for office, the power increasingly lies with the elites of the political donor class.

Super PACs, just three years old, are now a fixture, not a novelty. They’ve become de rigueur for candidates running at the federal, state, and even local level. Want to scare off potential primary challengers? A super PAC with millions in the bank will help. Need to blast away at your opponent with negative ads without tarnishing your own reputation? Let a super PAC do the dirty work. Any candidate running for office begins with a to-do list, and with each month, getting a super PAC and making friends in the dark money universe rises higher on those lists.

Super PACs and their wealthy donors are also stoking civil wars within the parties. At the moment, they have been springing up to offer cover to politicians who vote a certain way, or stake out traditionally unpopular positions. For instance, Republicans for Immigration Reform, a relatively new super PAC, says it will spend millions to defend GOP politicos who take a moderate stance on immigration reform. And another super PAC, bankrolled by hedge fund investor Paul Singer, intends to spend big money to push more Republicans toward the middle on same-sex marriage. But there are also vigorous tea-party-style super PACs pushing their politicians toward the fringes. Each faction of the GOP is getting its own set of super PACs, and that means an already contentious fight for the future of the party could get far bloodier.

Democrats could find themselves in a money-fueled internal struggle, too. Tom Steyer, a former hedge fund investor worth $1.3 billion, says he’s sick of seeing climate change neglected in campaigns. He now plans to use his vast wealth to elevate it into a banner issue. In a recent primary in Massachusetts, he spent hundreds of thousands of dollars attacking Democratic Congressman Stephen Lynch for supporting the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. Lynch’s opponent, Congressman Ed Markey, a leading House environmentalist, went on to win the primary, but Steyer’s intervention raised plenty of eyebrows about possible Democrat-on-Democrat combat in 2014.

Meanwhile, as the recent Democracy Alliance and Koch retreats show, millionaires and billionaires are revving up to take ever-greater control of the political process via secretive nonprofits. In April, Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg unveiled, a quasi-dark-money outfit created to give Silicon Valley a greater political presence in Washington. It has already raised $25 million.

Right now, the best avenues for fired-up billionaires exist outside the traditional political parties. The Supreme Court could change that. In a case called McCutcheon vs. Federal Election Commission, the court is considering whether to demolish the overall aggregate limit on how much a donor can give to candidates and parties. If the court rules in favor of Republican donor Shaun McCutcheon, and perhaps goes on to eliminate contribution limits to candidates and parties altogether, super PACs could go out of style faster than Crocs. Donors won’t need them. They’ll give their millions straight to the Democrats or the Republicans and that will be that.

There is an important backdrop to all of these changes, and that’s the increase in income inequality in this country. Just as the incredibly wealthy are given the freedom to flood the political system with money, they’ve got more and more money to spend. Our lopsided economic recovery affords a glimpse of that growing inequality gap: from 2009 to 2011, the average wealth of the richest 7% of American households climbed by almost 30%, while the wealth of the remaining 93% of households actually declined by 4%. (So much for that “recovery.”)

Can there be any question that this democracy of ours is nearing dangerous territory, if we’re not already there? Picture the 2016 or 2020 election campaigns and, barring a new wave of campaign reforms, it’s not hard to see a tiny minority of people exerting a massive influence on our politics simply by virtue of bank accounts. There is nothing small-d democratic about that. It flies in the face of one of the central premises of this country of ours, equality, including political equality — the concept that all citizens stand on an equal footing with one another when it comes to having their say on who represents them and how government should work.

Increasingly, it looks like before the rest of us even have our say, before you enter the voting booth, issues, politics, and the politicians will have been winnowed, vetted, and predetermined by the wealthiest Americans. Think of it as a new definition of politics: the democracy of the wealthy, who can fight it out with each other inside and outside the political parties with little reference to you.

In the meantime, the more those of modest means feel drowned out by the money of a tiny minority, the less connected they will feel to the work of government, and the less they will trust elected officials and government as an institution. It’s a formula for tuning out, staying home, and starving whatever’s left of our democracy.

I caught a glimpse of this last November, when I spoke to a class of students at Radford University in Virginia, a state blanketed with super PAC attack ads and dark money in 2012. Over and over, students told me how disgusted they were by all the vitriol they heard when they turned on the TV or the radio. Most said that they ended up ignoring the campaigns; a few were so put off they didn’t bother to vote. “They’re all bought and sold anyway,” one student told me in front of the entire class. “Why would my vote make any difference?”

Copyright 2013 Andy Kroll

Andy Kroll is a reporter in the D.C. bureau of Mother Jones magazine and an associate editor at

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Can National Grassroots Push Depose the ‘Billion Dollar Democracy’?

Published on Friday, January 18, 2013 by Common Dreams – Jon Queally, staff writer


Elec­tions are now awash in unreg­u­lated money and ruled by the nation’s wealth­i­est, but can a grass­roots effort stem the assault on democracy? …hop­ing that fun­da­men­tal changes can be made to cor­rect the cor­ro­sive impact of shadow money and undue influence….Thanks in large part to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 deci­sion in Cit­i­zens United v FEC, the 2012 elec­tion was the most expen­sive in the his­tory of the world. And though the 2012 elec­tion is behind us, many activists—now equipped with the expe­ri­ence of what a mod­ern democ­racy con­trolled by mil­lion­aires and bil­lion­aires looks like—are hop­ing that fun­da­men­tal changes can be made to cor­rect the cor­ro­sive impact of shadow money and undue influence…Lioz and Bowie [authors Billion-Dollar Democ­racy] write: “The out­sized role of money in our elec­tions is a dark cloud over our democracy—but there is a sil­ver lin­ing. Not since Water­gate has there been so much energy behind finally build­ing a democ­racy in which the strength of a citizen’s voice does not depend upon the size of her wallet.”

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Can National Grassroots Push Depose the ‘Billion Dollar Democracy’?

Elections are now awash in unregulated money and ruled by the nation’s wealthiest, but can a grassroots effort stem the assault on democracy?

A new report released Thursday puts an exclamation point on the outlandish and outweighed influence that wealthy individuals and corporations have in a post-Citizens United world by showing that a mere 32 wealthy donors—with an average gift of almost $10 million each—gave as much money to largely unregulated Super PACs in 2012 than all the country’s individual small donors gave to the Obama and Romney campaigns combined.

And though the 2012 election is behind us, many activists—now equipped with the experience of what a modern democracy controlled by millionaires and billionaires looks like—are hoping that fundamental changes can be made to correct the corrosive impact of shadow money and undue influence.

As the new report by U.S. PIRG and Demos, “Billion-Dollar Democracy,” shows, those 32 multi-million dollar gifts, in essence, outweighed the collective voice of 3.7 million individuals who gave individual and transparent campaign contributions to the candidate of their choice. Moreover, most did so under a veil of secrecy using shadow non-profit groups and shell corporations created specifically to launder political giving by masking the identities of financial sources.

“Americans who are wondering why it seems tougher to get ahead or even get a fair shake in today’s economy should look to big money politics for answers,” said Adam Lioz, report co-author and Counsel for Demos. “When a tiny group of wealthy donors fuels political campaigns, they get to set the agenda in Washington, and the rest of us are left to argue over that agenda.”

And U.S. PIRG’s Blair Bowie, the report’s other co-author adds: “The first post-Citizens United presidential election confirmed our fears that the new unlimited-money regime allows well-heeled special interests and secret spenders to drown out the voices of ordinary citizens.”

Thanks in large part to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v FEC, the 2012 election was the most expensive in the history of the world.

But now, the reality of this new world of campaign giving, coupled with nationwide attempts in 2012 making it hard for many poor and vulnerable people to vote, has prompted many to demand an end to such preferential treatment of the wealthiest in a democracy engulfed in cash and renewed calls for broader and more equitable poll access.

“At the same time we’ve seen record amounts of unaccountable corporate money spent on elections, we’ve also seen a deliberate attack on the rights of voters to participate in our democracy,” said Aquene Freechild, senior organizer for Public Citizen, which is hosting nationwide events this weekend for its ongoing Democracy Is For People campaign.

According to the group, concerned citizens and voters will gather across the country in the coming week to demand an end to the combined threat of unlimited corporate spending and resurgent voter suppression tactics found in many states.

To voice their outrage and demand fundamental change, progressive groups—including Public Citizen, NAACP, U.S. PIRG, Common Cause, MoveOn, Organic Consumers Association, League of United Latin American Citizens, Hip Hop Caucus and others—have planned nationwide days of action called Money Out/Voters In taking place this coming weekend.

As Public Citizen’s president Robert Weissman, along with advocate Mark Green, wrote regarding the events that will bring “public interest, labor, voting rights and faith groups” together under one banner and cause:

Generations of traditional campaign finance groups have worked against a democracy-for-sale. And heroic voting rights groups have long sought to fulfill Dr. King’s plea at the Washington Monument in 1957: “Give us the ballot! Give us the ballot!” But rarely have these two communities worked together to stop the rigging of the political system. Until we ensure that popular majorities become public law, it will be hard to accomplish so much of what is urgent—a more progressive tax code, immigration reform, climate change legislation, a living wage, labor reform and gun violence reduction.

So on January 19, scores of groups and thousands of people around the country will organize around a three-part Democracy-for-All program: a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United; public funding of public elections, in Washington and state capitols; and guaranteed voting rights so potentially 50 million more Americans can vote [in the next election].

Such events seem prove what the authors of the ‘Billion Dollar Democracy’ concluded as well.

In an op-ed published alongside their new report, Lioz and Bowie write: “The outsized role of money in our elections is a dark cloud over our democracy—but there is a silver lining. Not since Watergate has there been so much energy behind finally building a democracy in which the strength of a citizen’s voice does not depend upon the size of her wallet.”

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6 Biggest Religious Right Threats to America

Church & State Magazine / By Simon Brown [1] January 3, 2013


1. Religious School Voucher Subsidies

2. Creationism In Science Classes

3. Prayer And Proselytizing In Public Schools

4. ‘Conscience’ Exemptions

5. State ‘Prayer’ Caucuses

6. Anti-Shariah Laws


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Multiple courts have said “no” to states that want public schools to teach “intelligent design” creationism in science classes, but that doesn’t faze Montana State Rep. Clayton Fiscus (R-Billings).

Fiscus, a Tea Party favorite whose professional background is in real estate, asked the legislative services staff of the Montana House of Representatives in November to come up with a bill for the 2013 legislative session that would “require public schools to teach intelligent design along with evolution.”

Lawmakers like Fiscus often push their agenda in defiance of established constitutional law, and sometimes hope they can create a case to convince the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn previous decisions that contradict their personal beliefs. Americans Uni­ted combated a wide array of state-level leg­islative schemes in 2012 that sought to tear down the critical safeguards that keep church and state separate.

With most state legislatures starting their annual sessions this month, here is a look at some of the top threats to church-state separation expected in 2013, including school voucher bills, creationism ploys, “conscience” exemptions, anti-shar­iah legislation and so-called “religious freedom” and “prayer” caucuses.

1. Religious School Voucher Subsidies

Americans United anticipates proposals that benefit religious and other private schools to surface in many states this year, with major pushes expected in New Jersey, Wisconsin, Texas and Tennessee.

In New Jersey, a voucher scheme is likely in the works thanks to the persistence of Gov. Chris Christie (R). Christie tried to implement a program in 2012, with a proposal that would have cost the state $825 million. It would have provided 40,000 eligible students with vouchers –$8,000 for elementary school and $11,000 for high school – the NewarkStar-Ledger reported.

Christie said in June of 2012 that the bill was dead for that year, but vowed “to continue to push for it,” the Teaneck Patch reported.

In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker (R) is expected to seek the expansion of an existing voucher subsidy program. He said in November that his agenda for the coming year includes doing more to push vouchers, though he didn’t go into specifics, the MilwaukeeJournal Sentinel reported.

Wisconsin Senate Minority Leader Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) was quick to criticize Walker’s mission to “hyper scrutinize” public schools while giving more taxpayer money to private schools that are “unaccountable”  and have been shown in studies to produce students who perform no better than their public school peers, the Wisconsin State Journal said.

In Texas, meanwhile, a serious showdown is expected over private school vouchers, with sharp divisions even among members of the state GOP. State Sen. Dan Patrick (R-Houston), founder of his state’s Tea Party Caucus and chair of the Senate Education Committee, held a one-sided hearing in August featuring a parade of “school choice” advocates.

The Austin American-Statesman noted that Texas cut $5.4 billion from public schools in the last legislative session. Patrick seems to subscribe to a philosophy of siphoning even more money away from those schools and then blaming them for their supposed failures so he can turn around and fund private schools.

“No student should be locked into a poor performing school because that happens to be where they live,” he told the American-Statesman. “I’m a big supporter of public education, and we have a lot of schools that are doing a great job, but we must also recognize the truth that we have a lot of schools that are not performing at the level that they need to be.”

Patrick and Lt. Gov. David Dew­hurst (R) were expected at press time to announce their voucher legislation within a few weeks, but it seems they may not get the warmest reception for the plan – even from some fellow Republicans.

The American-Statesman reported in August that Rep. Diane Patrick (R-Arlington) said she is gearing up for a fight over vouchers. Texas, she insisted, should be focused on improving aspects of the public school system, such as bolstering magnet and charter schools, rather than dumping money into private schools.

“We’re on code red,” Diane Patrick said.

A November op-ed in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram penned by education experts also slammed vouchers.

“Many private schools are par­ochial, and the religious orientation may not be appropriate for some families, also raising the question of separation of church and state,” wrote Jamie Wilson, school superintendent of the Denton school district; Steven Waddell, superintendent in Lewis­ville, and Jerry R. Thomas, dean of the University of North Texas’ College of Education.

In Tennessee, a major drive for vouchers is expected. In 2012, Gov. Bill Haslam (R) ducked a political battle by setting up a task force charged with examining vouchers and making recommendations for the 2013 legislative session.

That task force offered its suggestions in November, calling for discussion about accountability, subsidy amounts and which private schools and students should be eligible.

Haslam asked the nine-member group only to study how Tennessee might use tax dollars to allow some public school students to attend private schools. Critics noted that study group members turned to voucher advocates for advice, which undermined the report’s usefulness.

“The task force seemed to rely on reports that made representations about the success of voucher programs in other areas, but seems to wholly ignore the steadily increasing avalanche of empirical evidence that goes the other way,” Americans Uni­ted State Legislative Counsel Aman­da Rolat said in a press statement.

Rolat told Church & State that she anticipates an uphill battle on this issue in Tennessee, which is why Americans United has reached out to friendly state legislators to get a better understanding of how AU can work with them.

Advocacy groups have worked hard to build support for vouchers.  StudentsFirst, the Memphis Commercial Appeal says, has given thousands of dollars to candidates in legislative campaigns in the last two years. The newspaper said that group donated $427,000 through its Tennessee PAC between January and November 2012 alone.

When it comes to pro-voucher spending nationwide, however, few can match the wealthy and powerful Betsy DeVos. DeVos, former chair of the Michigan Republican Party and wife of Amway fortune heir Dick DeVos, has poured millions into voucher advocacy.

Her American Federation for Children claims that hundreds of “educational choice” lawmakers were elected to state legislatures in 2012, many of whom were endorsed and funded by the group. This ensures that DeVos’ influence will not wane anytime soon, and she can be expected to continue funding voucher campaigns in many states.

2. Creationism In Science Classes

Every year, legislators attempt to introduce religion into public school science classes. In addition to Fiscus’ Montana creationism crusade mentioned above, an Indiana lawmaker is leading a similar effort.

Sen. Dennis Kruse (R-Auburn) proposed a bill last year that would have mandated the teaching of “creation science” alongside evolution in public schools. That measure passed the Senate but died in the House after some lawmakers realized that it was blatantly unconstitutional and would have led to lawsuits.

Kruse is back with a new proposal, and this time he claims his goal is to promote critical inquiry in the classroom.

“If a student thinks something isn’t true, then they can question the teacher and the teacher would have to come up with some kind of research to support that what they are teaching is true or not true,” Kruse told the Indianapolis Star.

But Micah Clark, executive director of American Family Association of Indiana, was a little more forthcoming about the bill’s true intent. He told the Star that he sees the proposal as a form of protection for teachers who want to discuss creationism and intelligent design.

Kruse is reportedly working on the measure with the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based organization that advocates for creationist concepts in public schools. Josh Youngkin, a program officer for Discovery Institute, told the Associated Press that the law would stand up to legal scrutiny.

“The teacher would not be barred from saying: ‘Let’s look at both sides of the evidence and you guys can basically make a judgment,’ rather than just accepting passively or memorizing by rote these facts and stating back these arguments on a test which would eventually determine where you go to college,” Youngkin said.

Advocates for sound science and church-state separation, however, rejected the need for a supposedly “balanced” presentation of the origins of life on Earth. Religion, they said, should not be introduced into the biology classroom under the guise of science.

And public school advocates said students and teachers already have vibrant discussions.

“If Senator Kruse had education experience he would know that students across the country are already [questioning information] every day in the public school classroom,” Sen. Tim Skinner (D-Terre Haute), a longtime public school teacher, told Indiana Public Media. “[Students] question everything, and I think a teacher who’s actually doing their job will answer those questions.”


3. Prayer And Proselytizing In Public Schools

Legislators regularly come up with new schemes to allow coercive prayer and proselytizing in public schools, and Americans United staffers expect this year to be no exception.

In Virginia, a proposal was filed just ahead of the 2013 legislative session that would create a state constitutional amendment to “secure further the people’s freedom of speech and right to acknowledge God” on public property and presumably in public schools.

This could lead to numerous lawsuits if it passes. Advocates of church-state separation said it is somewhat similar to Missouri’s deceptive “right to pray” amendment, a problematic constitutional provision approved by the voters last year. It opens the door for coercive prayer and proselytizing in public schools, allows students to skip homework if it offends their religious beliefs and infringes on the religious liberty rights of prisoners.

4. ‘Conscience’ Exemptions

The news media has reported widely on the campaign by the Cath­olic bishops and the Religious Right to win “conscience” exemptions from provisions of the Obama health care reform, but this issue has also filtered down to the state level. Sectarian lobbies want to exempt religious institutions and individuals from a broad range of laws that ensure civil rights and civil liberties.

A leading proponent of this type of legislation is the Ethics and Public Policy Center (EPPC), a Washington, D.C., group that advocates public policy based on the “Judeo-Christian moral tradition.”

The EPPC is trying to create “religious freedom” caucuses in all 50 state legislatures by the end of 2013. As of press time, it had already established them in nine states – Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Kansas, Missouri, New Hampshire, Oklahoma and Tennessee. Although the effort claims to be bipartisan, that’s hardly the case in Kansas, where the caucus consists of 26 Republicans and one Democrat.

Critics say the campaign seeks to give conservative religious groups and individuals preferential treatment under the guise of “religious freedom.” They note that Brian W. Walsh, head of the EPPC’s American Religious Freedom Program, is a graduate of TV preacher Pat Robertson’s Regent University School of Law.

The National Catholic Register reported that the “religious freedom” caucuses comprised a total of 120 state lawmakers as of mid-October. Arizona Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-Glendale) was described as the group’s legislative “brain trust.” She authored a law that permits the state’s religiously affiliated employers to opt out of the new federal contraception requirement.

Americans United’s Legislative Department is very concerned that these conscience exemption measures will be overly broad and undercut the rights of other Americans.

AU has strategized in the past with the ACLU, Catholics for Choice, Planned Parenthood, Human Rights Campaign, National Council of Jewish Women and the Anti-Def­amation League on how best to defend church-state separation against this type of threat and will continue to work with such organizations in 2013.


5. State ‘Prayer’ Caucuses

A similar movement to the one orchestrated by the EPPC is under way thanks to the efforts of U.S. Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.).

Forbes, a Religious Right favorite, is head of the Congressional Prayer Caucus. Through the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation (CPCF), attempts are being made to establish “prayer caucuses” in every state legislature.

The CPCF website indicates that at least eight states currently have a prayer caucus – Maine, Oklahoma, North Carolina, Kentucky, Michigan, Virginia, Colorado and Mississippi. It says the goal of the organization is the “successful collaboration of prayer and action at the state level, [which] will accelerate the rate at which religious freedom is secured at the national level.”

That may not sound so sinister, but critics say it’s every bit as misleading as the EPPC “religious freedom” caucuses. The CPCF claims to encourage state lawmakers to “partner with churches and para-church organizations, and ultimately preserve faith in God as lifeblood of America.”

In fact, church-state separation supporters say the campaign intends to pervade government with religion.

The CPCF has shown its influence of late, having scored a major victory last year when the deceptive “religious freedom” amendment, officially known as Amendment 2, was added to the Missouri Constitution. It was authored by Rep. Mike McGhee (R-Odessa), who chairs the Missouri Prayer Caucus.

The CPCF backed McGhee’s proposal, calling it a necessity in a press statement and claiming that there are “anti-God groups bent on erasing God, prayer and Judeo-Christian influence from the public square.”


6. Anti-Shariah Laws

The U.S. Constitution already prohibits government enforcement of religious law, but right-wing groups are insisting that legislatures take the extra step of banning shariah – Islamic law.

As of press time, anti-shariah legislation had been pre-filed for the 2013 legislative sessions in Alabama and Florida. Texas has pre-filed a bill proposing a ballot measure to amend the state’s constitution to prohibit enforcement, consideration or application of any “religious or cultural law.”

An anti-shariah bill has also been sitting dormant in Michigan’s House Jud­iciary Committee for over a year, and some state lawmakers were pushing for a vote on that legislation at press time.

Critics say measures of this kind are proposed without a credible threat from Islam and seek to stigmatize a single religion and its adherents.

These bills have been on the rise of late. They have evolved slightly, thanks in part to a ruling by the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in January 2012, which declared unconstitutional an Oklahoma ballot measure that sought specifically to ban shari­ah law.

As a result, more recent anti-shariah bills have been slightly subtler, forgoing specific language targeting shariah in favor of banning courts from applying “foreign law” generally. For example, the Michigan legislation would “limit the application and enforcement by a court, arbitrator, or administrative body of foreign laws that would impair con­st­itu­tional rights.”

“These laws are a solution in search of a problem and motivated by sheer animus toward a perceived Muslim threat,” said AU’s Rolat.

Will The Religious Right Succeed?

Americans United expects the Religious Right and the Catholic hierarchy to lobby state lawmakers heavily in 2013, and these sectarian pressure groups may find particular success this year thanks to a changing party lineup.

The New York Times reported recently that the office of governor and the majorities in both legislative houses will be controlled by one party in 37 states this year, the most in 60 years. Twenty-four states will have GOP control of the legislature and the governor’s office.

The Times noted that this is a marked change from just two years ago, when 30 states were split. The report speculated that more bills will be passed and fewer of those proposals will be moderate as a result of single-party control.

Americans United’s Lynn said that sort of environment plays right into the hands of the Religious Right.

“Those who oppose church-state separation thrive in extreme political environments,” he told Church & State. “The more extreme the makeup of legislatures becomes, the more likely it is that a bad bill will become law. We expect to have our hands full.”

Who Really Won the Election? Campaign Consultants

Money & Politics

by Michael Winship, Bill Moyers and Co., December 12, 2012

Ryan Gosling played a fictional political consultant who becomes disillusioned with the process in 2011′s political thriller The Ides of March.

Candidates come and candidates go but campaign consultants live on, no matter the outcome of the election, continuing to cash in even as they look for their next victims. And with the post-Citizens United explosion of money now available via super PACs and 501c4s (the “social welfare” groups that keep their deep-pocketed donors anonymous), the potential, ongoing profits are more enormous than ever.

For example, Bloomberg News recently reported, “More than five months after Newt Gingrich dropped out of the Republican presidential primary, the founder of the super-political action committee backing him was still drawing a check. In fact, almost half of the $480,000 Rebecca Burkett paid herself as founder of Winning Our Future came after the former House speaker quit the race.”

… While the 2012 election is over, the financial windfall for political consultants and fundraisers spawned by the millions of dollars donated to super-PACs continues — and often with little oversight.

Entrepreneurs who set up super-PACs wrote their own paychecks. The new groups sometimes moved as much money into the pockets of employees as they did into races. And some showed evidence of self-dealing.

According to the Center for Media and Democracy’s PR Watch, “In 2012, the total spending of outside groups — the super PACs and dark money nonprofits which spend money to influence elections, but do so separately from campaigns — amounted to about $1.3 billion.” As a result, a handful of consultants are making out like bandits.

About a third of that money, more than $482 million, “ultimately passed through just six media companies” — ad production houses Mentzer Media and McCarthy Hennings Media, direct mail company Arena Communications, online advertising firm Targeted Victory, Karl Rove-affiliated Crossroads Media LLC, and “a mysterious Democrat-aligned media group” called Waterfront Strategies.

Some of these companies used the money to produce ads, others to purchase the slots where the ads ultimately aired, others to send ad mailers. Industry experts tell CMD that media buyers typically take a 10 to 15 percent commission on ad buys, but consultants involved in ad production or mailers may be paid an even greater percentage.

… the largest outside spenders tended to rely on the same vendors. Many of these media firms often did work for the same candidate campaign accounts that the outside spending groups were supporting, allowing for potential collusion between campaigns and ‘independent’ groups that are required by law to keep their operations separate.

In many ways, Washington is still a small town and the coziness of these companies – many of them owned and operated by close associates of the parties and candidates — approaches the incestuous. Mentzer Media, for example, worked closely with McCarthy Hennings. McCarthy Hennings and online ad agency Targeted Victory worked with Karl Rove’s American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, both of which are affiliated with ad purchasing company Crossroads Media (which had its name nearly a decade before Rove started his groups). Several of them also worked for the pro-Romney Restore Our Future super PAC.

This tangled web of connectivity and the money being made have angered many, including conservatives who believe Romney’s defeat and other losses at the polls this year were in part due to consultants who placed profit over victory. Erick Erickson of pointed a finger specifically at the fifth floor of 66 Canal Center Plaza in Alexandria, Virginia, just across the Potomac from the capital. It’s the location of several campaign consultancies, including the aforementioned Crossroads Media and Targeted Victory. Restore Our Future is there, too.

Erickson dramatically wrote, “Strip away the candidate and coalition and it is on the fifth floor of 66 Canal Center Plaza where the seeds of Mitt Romney’s ruin and the RNC’s get out the vote (GOTV) effort collapsed — bled to death by charlatan consultants making millions off the party, its donors, and the grassroots…

Here the top party consultants waged war with conservative activists and here they waged war with the Democrats. On both fronts, they raked in millions along the way with a more fractured, minority party in their wake. And they show no signs of recognizing just how much a part of the problem they are.

Back in early June, The Huffington Post calculated that the top 150 consulting companies – “media, fundraising, digital/social, direct mail and others” – had already grossed $465.76 million in the 2011-12 election cycle. From that, they extrapolated “an eventual take for the consulting industry of as much as $3 billion if, as some expect, total spending on all levels of campaigns tops out at some $8 billion this time (compared with $6 billion in 2007-08 and $4 billion in 2003-4).”

PR Watch contributing writer Will Dooling concludes, “Groups like these may drive funds toward expenditures that maximize their personal commission, even if those expenditures do not make good strategic sense. This may explain the massive emphasis big-spending super PAC’s place on radio and television advertising, rather than door to door campaigning and other get-out-the-vote efforts.”

Fortunes are being made at the expense of retail campaigning and true representative democracy, and with the big money come endless possibilities for corruption and abuse. “These guys spent as much money in Virginia as we used to spend in America,” Democratic consultant Tad Divine, an ex-Gore and Kerry staffer, told The Washington Post. “That is not an exaggeration. It is beyond anything we would have been able to comprehend.”

What Sheldon Adelson Wants – Editorial

New York Times, June 23, 2012

No American is dedicating as much of his money to defeat President Obama as Sheldon Adelson, the casino magnate who also happens to have made more money in the last three years than any other American. He is the perfect illustration of the squalid state of political money, spending sums greater than any political donation in history to advance his personal, ideological and financial agenda, which is wildly at odds with the nation’s needs.

Mr. Adelson spent $20 million to prop up Newt Gingrich’s failed candidacy for the Republican nomination. Now, he has given $10 million to a Mitt Romney super PAC, and has pledged at least $10 million to Crossroads GPS, the advocacy group founded by Karl Rove that is running attack ads against Mr. Obama and other Democrats. Another $10 million will probably go to a similar group founded by the Koch brothers, and $10 million more to Republican Congressional super PACs.

That’s $60 million we know of (other huge donations may be secret), and it may be only a down payment. Mr. Adelson has made it clear he will fully exploit the anything-goes world created by the federal courts to donate a “limitless” portion of his $25 billion fortune to defeat the president and as many Democrats as he can take down.

One man cannot spend enough to ensure the election of an unpopular candidate, as Mr. Gingrich’s collapse showed, but he can buy enough ads to help push a candidate over the top in a close race like this year’s. Given that Mr. Romney was not his first choice, why is Mr. Adelson writing these huge checks?

The first answer is clearly his disgust for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, supported by President Obama and most Israelis. He considers a Palestinian state “a steppingstone for the destruction of Israel and the Jewish people,” and has called the Palestinian prime minister a terrorist. He is even further to the right than the main pro-Israeli lobbying group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which he broke with in 2007 when it supported economic aid to the Palestinians.

Mr. Romney is only slightly better, saying the Israelis want a two-state solution but the Palestinians do not, accusing them of wanting to eliminate Israel. The eight-figure checks are not paying for a more enlightened answer.

Mr. Adelson’s other overriding interest is his own wallet. He rails against the president’s “socialist-style economy” and redistribution of wealth, but what he really fears is Mr. Obama’s proposal to raise taxes on companies like his that make a huge amount of money overseas. Ninety percent of the earnings of his company, the Las Vegas Sands Corporation, come from hotel and casino properties in Singapore and Macau. (The latter is located, by the way, in China, a socialist country the last time we checked.)

Because of the lower tax rate in those countries (currently zero in Macau), the company now has a United States corporate tax rate of 9.8 percent, compared with the statutory rate of 35 percent. President Obama has repeatedly proposed ending the deductions and credits that allow corporations like Las Vegas Sands to shelter billions in income overseas, but has been blocked by Republicans.

Mr. Obama’s Justice Department is also investigating whether Mr. Adelson’s Macau operations violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, an inquiry that Mr. Adelson undoubtedly hopes will go away in a Romney administration. For such a man, at a time when there are no legal or moral limits to the purchase of influence, spending tens of millions is a pittance to elect Republicans who promise to keep his billions intact.

People power or money power?

** Money Unlimited by Jeffrey Toobin, Annals of Law, New York Times, May 21, 2012 (Citrizens United)

** Lobbyists, Guns and Money by Paul Krugman, New York Times, March 25, 2012

** How Big Money Bought Our Democracy, Corrupted Both Parties, and Set Us Up for Another Financial Crisis By Bill Moyers, Moyers & Company, January 22, 2012

** How Big Business Subverts Democracy by Joseph Huff-Hannon and Andy Bichlbaum, The Guardian/UK, February 16, 2011

The Billionaires Bankrolling the Tea Party by Frank Rich, New York Times, August 28, 2010

The ‘Devastating’ Decision by Ronald Dworkin, The New York Review of Books, January 29, 2010  (Citizens United)