Supreme Court ruling gives small number of wealthy donors new ways to drive campaigns

By Matea Gold, Washington Post, April 2, 2014

An elite class of wealthy donors who have gained mounting influence in campaigns now has the ability to exert even greater sway.

A Supreme Court decision Wednesday to do away with an overall limit on how much individuals can give candidates and political parties opens a new spigot for money to flow into campaigns already buffeted by huge spending from independent groups.

In this year’s midterm races, outside organizations financed by very rich donors, such as the conservative advocacy group Americans for Prosperity, have significantly shaped the campaign landscape with TV ads and other expenditures totaling in the tens of millions of dollars.

The ruling by a sharply split court opens the door even wider for a narrow universe of donors to expand their giving by writing single checks for as much as $3.6 million that could flow directly to candidate and party committees.

Just 591 donors reached the limit on giving to federal candidates in the 2012 election, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

Even that small number of contributors has the potential to inject big sums into the system, now that they can give to as many candidates, party committees and PACs as they wish.

That could mean a financial infusion for the national parties, whose traditional dominance has been eclipsed in many areas by super PACs and politically active nonprofit groups that can collect unlimited sums.

The change could help candidates raise more money to fend off attacks by outside groups, focusing their fundraising on big-dollar givers whose full largess was off-limits until now — and making officeholders more indebted to those wealthy contributors.

And it could bring at least some additional transparency to the role of such big donors, whose contributions to many outside political groups are kept secret but whose checks to candidates and party committees must be reported to the Federal Election Commission and publicly disclosed.

Supporters of stricter campaign finance rules cast the decision in McCutcheon v. FEC as a sequel to Citizens United, a 2010 case that allowed corporations and labor unions to spend unlimited amounts on independent political activity. That ruling paved the way for the creation of super PACs and led to the proliferation of nonprofit advocacy groups that engage in campaigns.

That development gave new influence to billionaires such as conservative industrialists Charles and David Koch and liberal former hedge fund manager Tom Steyer, who are expected to spend tens of millions of dollars this year.

“The Supreme Court is turning our representative system of government into a sandbox for millionaires and billionaires,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a group that advocates for reducing the role of big money in politics.

After Wednesday’s ruling, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), long a champion of curbing huge donations, pointed to the influx of money and predicted, “There will be scandal.”

Many conservatives, meanwhile, cast the case as a free-speech victory.

“This is a good day for candidates, both Republican and Democratic, liberal and conservative,” said Craig Engle, an expert on GOP election law who served as a legal adviser to the team that filed the case on behalf of Alabama businessman Shaun McCutcheon and the Republican National Committee.

“This isn’t a threat to democracy – it is democracy,” Engle added. “One of the things that is anti-democratic is when people aren’t allowed to express themselves.”

Many Republicans rejected the notion that the new ruling would unleash a flood of new political giving by the rich.

“The immediate effect will be that some major donors that would like to max out to multiple committees will have the ability to do so,” said Charlie Spies, a GOP campaign finance lawyer and fundraiser. But, he added, “there is a limited universe of donors that want to give multiple hundreds of thousands of dollar contributions.”

Fundraisers for both parties were skeptical about how many donors would take advantage of the new freedom to give beyond the previously allowed maximum, which was set at $123,200 for the 2014 cycle.

“It doesn’t actually mean that much more money in the system,” said Wade Randlett, a major Democratic fundraiser in California. “The number of people who actually wanted to give more than that and were not using super PACs already is not a gigantic number of people.”

Those who do take advantage of their new freedom to give more, he added, are mostly likely to be donors “who have a particular legal or administrative result in mind.”

In its ruling Wednesday, the court declared unconstitutional a total limit on how much an individual can give federal candidates and parties in a two-year cycle. That limit had been set at $123,200 for this cycle. (The base limits on contributions — $5,200 to a candidate for the cycle — remain untouched.)

If the overall limits had been lifted for the 2012 campaign, about 1,200 wealthy donors who hit or came close to the limit on giving to candidates and party committees could have poured an additional $304 million into federal political committees, according to an analysis by the liberal groups Demos and U.S. PIRG.

That nearly equals the $313 million that 4 million small donors gave to the campaigns of President Obama and GOP challenger Mitt Romney that cycle.

Election lawyers anticipate that both parties will quickly seek ways to take advantage of court’s decision by creating national joint fundraising committees that can singlehandedly raise major sums. A committee made up of the presidential candidate, all the organizations and congressional candidates of one party could solicit a single check for as much as $3.6 million, for example.

Some legal experts said the McCutcheon decision could actually redirect some of the money going to secretive outside groups to political committees that must disclose their donors.

“The decision should be celebrated by all of us who worry about the polarizing effect of money on politics,” Nathaniel Persily, a constitutional law professor at Stanford University, wrote in an analysis of the case. “A world in which individuals can give limited amounts of disclosed money to a lot of politicians is certainly preferable to one in which large chunks are only given to Super PACs and other unaccountable outside groups.”

But others were skeptical that the decision would fundamentally alter the dynamics and momentum of independent groups.

“It’s a good day for political parties in one sense, but do I believe, given the current pressures in the campaign finance system, that this significantly reverses the flow of money back to the parties? No, I don’t think so,” said Robert Bauer, a top Democratic campaign finance lawyer.

Although the ruling may amplify the influence of deep-pocketed donors, it was not welcome news for many of those who are asked to write the checks.

“It’s much more of a curse than a liberation,” said Randlett, who noted that this is the point in the election cycle when many major contributors have reached their limit. “The sound you heard was the collective groan of all cycle-maxed donors.”

No longer will donors be able to put off political solicitations by saying, “I can’t give, I am watching my aggregate limits,’ ” noted Engle, the GOP lawyer. “Now you don’t have a legal excuse.”

Ed O’Keefe contributed to this report.

The American Government Is Open for Corruption

By Charles Pierce, Esquire, posted on, 02 April 2014

he remarkable story of how we have come to privatize political corruption in this country reached another milestone today as the Supreme Court, John Roberts presiding, handed down its decision in McCutcheon v. FEC, effectively demolishing the aggregate, two-year limit on contributions by individuals, and taking a big chunk out of Buckley v. Valeo, the misbegotten 1976 decision that got the ball rolling in the first place. It was a 5-4 vote, with the court split exactly as it had in the Citizens United case. In writing the opinion for the court, Roberts further emphasized the equation of money with speech, and also seemed to agree with Anthony Kennedy’s famous assertion in Citizens United that the ability of megadonors to shovel gobs of money into the election process,”We now conclude that independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.” Roberts writes:

Significant First Amendment interests are implicated here. Contributing money to a candidate is an exercise of an individual’s right to participate in the electoral process through both political ex-pression and political association. A restriction on how many candi-dates and committees an individual may support is hardly a “modestrestraint” on those rights. The Government may no more restrict how many candidates or causes a donor may support than it may tella newspaper how many candidates it may endorse. In its simplest terms, the aggregate limits prohibit an individual from fully contrib-uting to the primary and general election campaigns of ten or more candidates, even if all contributions fall within the base limits. And it is no response to say that the individual can simply contribute lessthan the base limits permit: To require one person to contribute atlower levels because he wants to support more candidates or causesis to penalize that individual for “robustly exercis[ing]” his FirstAmendment rights. (Davis v. Federal Election Comm’n, 554 U. S. 724, 739.) In assessing the First Amendment interests at stake, the proper fo-cus is on an individual’s right to engage in political speech, not a col-lective conception of the public good. The whole point of the FirstAmendment is to protect individual speech that the majority might prefer to restrict, or that legislators or judges might not view as use-ful to the democratic process. The aggregate limits do not further the permissible governmental interest in preventing quid pro quo corruption or its appearance.

What’s good for Koch Industries is good for Sheldon Adelson, I guess. Roberts goes on.

This Court has identified only one legitimate governmental interest for restricting campaign finances: preventing corruption or the appearance of corruption. See Davis, supra, at 741. Moreover, the only type of corruption that Congress may target is quid pro quo corruption. Spending large sums of money in connection with elec-tions, but not in connection with an effort to control the exercise of an officeholder’s official duties, does not give rise to quid pro quo corrup-tion. Nor does the possibility that an individual who spends large sums may garner “influence over or access to” elected officials or political parties.

And John Roberts apparently resides on Neptune. And, in case you didn’t get the point.

Finally, disclosure of contributions minimizes the potential for abuse of the campaign finance system. Disclosure requirements are in part “justified based on a governmental interest in ‘provid[ing] the electorate with information’ about the sources of election-related spending.” Citizens United, 558 U. S., at 367 (quoting Buckley, supra, at 66).They may also “deter actual corruption and avoid theappearance of corruption by exposing large contributionsand expenditures to the light of publicity.” Disclosure requirements burden speech, but, unlike the aggregate limits, they do not impose a ceiling on speech.

Having earlier argued that there was a First Amendment issue to be found in the aggregate limits because they hindered an individual’s right to participate in the political process — It is here helpful to note the everlasting irony of Antonin Scalia’s view of Bush v. Gore. There is no individual right to vote, but an individual’s right to purchase a candidate must be untrammeled — but here, Roberts is saying it plain. To restrict money is to restrict speech. Period. And the only real legal restraint on the wholesale subletting of American democracy is John Roberts’s strange devotion to “disclosure” as some sort of shaming mechanism within the electorate. Good luck with that one.

Justice Stephen Breyer takes up a lot of these points in his dissent, most notably, the majority’s laughably narrow definition of what political corruption actually is — that political corruption exists only if you buy a specific result from a specific legislator. But it hardly matters. The five-vote majority in favor of virtually unlimited corporate and individual spending in our elections is a rock solid one. Four days after almost every Republican candidate danced the hootchie-koo in Vegas to try and gain the support of a single, skeevy casino gazillionnaire, the majority tells us that there is no “appearance of corruption” in this unless somebody gets caught putting a slot machine in the Lincoln Bedroom on behalf of Sheldon Adelson. Money talks. Big money repeats itself, over and over, age after age.

The End Game for Democracy

 by Bill Moyers, August 23, 2013

We are so close to losing our democracy to the mercenary class, it’s as if we are leaning way over the rim of the Grand Canyon and all that’s needed is a swift kick in the pants. Look out below.

The predators in Washington are only this far from monopoly control of our government. They have bought the political system, lock, stock and pork barrel, making change from within impossible. That’s the real joke.

Sometimes I long for the wit of a Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert. They treat this town as burlesque, and with satire and parody show it the disrespect it deserves. We laugh, and punch each other on the arm, and tweet that the rascals got their just dessert. Still, the last laugh always seems to go to the boldface names that populate this town. To them belong the spoils of a looted city. They get the tax breaks, the loopholes, the contracts, the payoffs.

They fix the system so multimillionaire hedge fund managers and private equity tycoons pay less of a tax rate on their income than school teachers, police and fire fighters, secretaries and janitors. They give subsidies to rich corporate farms and cut food stamps for working people facing hunger. They remove oversight of the wall street casinos, bail out the bankers who torpedo the economy, fight the modest reforms of Dodd-Frank, prolong tax havens for multinationals, and stick it to consumers while rewarding corporations.

We pay. We pay at the grocery store. We pay at the gas pump. We pay the taxes they write off. Our low-wage workers pay with sweat and deprivation because this town – aloof, self-obsessed, bought off and doing very well, thank you – feels no pain.

The journalists who could tell us these things rarely do – and some, never. They aren’t blind, simply bedazzled. Watch the evening news – any evening news – or the Sunday talk shows. Listen to the chit-chat of the early risers on morning TV — and ask yourself if you are learning anything about how this town actually works.

William Greider, one of our craft’s finest reporters, fierce and unbought, despite a long life in Washington once said that no one can hope to understand what is driving political behavior without asking the kind of gut-level questions politicians ask themselves in private: “Who are the winners in this matter and who are the losers? Who gets the money and who has to pay? Who must be heard on this question and who can be safely ignored?”

Perhaps they don’t ask these questions because they fear banishment from the parties and perks, from the access that passes as seduction in this town.

Or perhaps they do not tell us these things because they fear that if the system were exposed for what it is, outraged citizens would descend on this town, and tear it apart with their bare hands.

The Billionaires Behind The Hate

RADICAL RIGHT – by Faiz Shakir, Amanda Terkel, Matt Corley, Benjamin Armbruster, Zaid Jilani, Lee Fang, and Alex Seitz-Wald,, December 8, 2009


Billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch are the wealthiest, and perhaps most effective, opponents of President Obama’s progressive agenda…are also responsible for a vicious attack campaign aimed directly at obstructing and killing progressive reform. Over the years, millions of dollars in Koch money has flowed to various right-wing think tanks, front groups, and publications…In addition to its efforts to misinform the public, Koch Industries has spent nearly $9 million dollars so far on direct lobbying, much of it on climate change legislation…In their quest to block health care reform, Koch-funded groups have fostered extremism…part of their opposition stems from a long family tradition of funding conservative movements to shift the country to the far right. Fred Koch, father of Charles and David and the company’s namesake, helped to found the John Birch Society in the late 1950s. The John Birch Society harnessed Cold War fears into hate against progressives, warning that President Kennedy, Civil Rights activists, and organized labor were in league with communists. By presenting progressive reform as a capitulation to the Soviet Union, Fred Koch and the other industrialists bankrolling the Birch Society were able to galvanize hundreds of thousands of middle class people into supporting their narrow agenda of cutting corporate taxes and avoiding consumer regulations.

Full text

Billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch are the wealthiest, and perhaps most effective, opponents of President Obama’s progressive agenda. They have been looming in the background of every major domestic policy dispute this year. Ranked as the 9th richest men in America, the Koch brothers sit at the helm of Koch Industries, a massive privately owned conglomerate of manufacturing, oil, gas, and timber interests. They are best known for their wealth, as well as for their generous contributions to the arts, cancer research, and the Smithsonian Institute. But David and Charles are also responsible for a vicious attack campaign aimed directly at obstructing and killing progressive reform. Over the years, millions of dollars in Koch money has flowed to various right-wing think tanks, front groups, and publications. At the dawn of the Obama presidency, Koch groups quickly maneuvered to try to stop his first piece of signature legislation: the stimulus. The Koch-funded group “No Stimulus” launched television and radio ads deriding the recovery package as simply “pork” spending. The Cato Institute — founded by Charles — as well as other Koch-funded think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, produced a blizzard of reports distorting the stimulus and calling for a return to Bush-style tax cuts to combat the recession. As their fronts were battling the stimulus, David’s Americans for Prosperity (AFP) spent the opening months of the Obama presidency placing calls and helping to organize the very first “tea party” protests. AFP, founded in 1984 by David and managed day to day by the astroturf lobbyist Tim Phillips, has spent much of the year mobilizing “tea party” opposition to health reform, clean energy legislation, and financial regulations.



STOPPING CLEAN ENERGY: David Koch presents himself as a champion of science. Next year, because of his donations, a wing of the Smithsonian will be named after him. Nevertheless, Koch has done more to undermine the public’s understanding of climate change science than any other person in America. The Competitive Enterprise Institute, funded in part by Koch foundations, has waged an underhanded campaign to falsely charge that a set of hacked e-mails somehow unravels the scientific consensus that global warming is occurring. Koch finances the “Hot Air” tour, a nationwide roadshow using a balloon to depict climate change science as “hot air.” Despite the brothers’ extravagant wealth, Koch’s Americans for Prosperity has run populist ads mocking environmentalists as spoiled brats more concerned about their “three homes and five cars” than about economic conditions. In addition to its efforts to misinform the public, Koch Industries has spent nearly $9 million dollars so far on direct lobbying, much of it on climate change legislation. With a team of Koch-funded operatives going as far as attempting to crash the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen this week, the brothers may succeed in scuttling any prospect for addressing climate change.



STOPPING HEALTH REFORM: Much of the fierce opposition to health reform can be credited to Koch organizations. As the health care debate began, AFP created a front group, known as “Patients United,” dedicated itself to attacking Democratic health care reform proposals. Patients United has blanketed the country with ads distorting various provisions of the health reform legislation, particularly the public option. Patients United even centered a media campaign around Shona Robertson-Holmes, claiming she had a brain tumor the Canadian system refused to treat. However, the Ottawa Citizen reported that Patients United has been exaggerating Holmes’ case, and that she in fact had a benign cyst. In their quest to block health care reform, Koch-funded groups have fostered extremism. A speaker with the roving Patients United bus tour repeatedly compared health reform to the Holocaust while an eight-by-five foot banner at an AFP health care rally with Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) read, “National Socialist Health Care: Dachau, Germany” superimposed over corpses from a concentration camp. Although many were surprised at the level of anger AFP channeled into Democratic healthcare town halls in August, it wasn’t the first time Koch groups have helped to hijack the health reform debate. Back in 1994, Americans for Prosperity, then known as Citizens for a Sound Economy, worked closely with then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich to bring mobs of angry men to health reform rallies with then-First Lady Hillary Clinton.




A LONG HISTORY OF STOPPING PROGRESS: The Koch brothers clearly have a financial stake in blocking reform. Koch Industry oil refineries are major carbon dioxide polluters, and George-Pacific, a Koch Industries timber subsidiary, is one of the largest contributors to the loss of carbon-sink capacity. According to the EPA, Koch Industries is responsible for over 300 oil spills in the U.S. and has leaked three million gallons of crude oil into fisheries and drinking waters. So there are clear business-related reasons why Koch would want to block regulatory enforcement, clean energy, labor, and other reforms. But part of their opposition stems from a long family tradition of funding conservative movements to shift the country to the far right. Fred Koch, father of Charles and David and the company’s namesake, helped to found the John Birch Society in the late 1950s. The John Birch Society harnessed Cold War fears into hate against progressives, warning that President Kennedy, Civil Rights activists, and organized labor were in league with communists. By presenting progressive reform as a capitulation to the Soviet Union, Fred Koch and the other industrialists bankrolling the Birch Society were able to galvanize hundreds of thousands of middle class people into supporting their narrow agenda of cutting corporate taxes and avoiding consumer regulations.


Conservative donors eye independent groups with new skepticism

By Matea Gold, Published: June 22, 2013

Charlie Spies knows how to raise money. The Republican lawyer helped rake in $153 million for Restore Our Future, the pro-Mitt Romney super PAC.

But he’s had a harder slog with one of his latest projects, Republicans for Immigration Reform, a super PAC that aims to be a dominant force in the fight over revamping the country’s immigration laws. So far, the organization has made just a tiny ad buy in South Carolina and financed a poll with two other advocacy groups.

“It has been a challenge to get donors on the Republican side to reengage,” Spies said.

Seven months after the 2012 election, a lingering hangover among conservative donors has stalled efforts by right-leaning independent groups to fill their coffers. Wealthy contributors who dashed off six- and seven-figure checks last year are eyeing super PACs and other politically active groups more skeptically, frustrated that the hundreds of millions of dollars spent to elect Romney went for naught.

“There’s donor fatigue,” said Fred Malek, a veteran GOP operative wired into high-net-worth circles. “Everyone was in a frenzy of giving up until the November elections, and then everyone was sort of worn out on the whole process. It’s very hard to raise money after an election, especially after you lose.”

Several Republican fundraisers said they remain optimistic that the money spigot will reopen as the 2014 congressional elections approach. But this time around, donors are seeking to be more judicious about where they put their money, asking groups for detailed strategy and spending plans.

“At the moment, I’m kind of in a waiting and watching mode,” said Howard Leach, an ambassador to France under President George W. Bush. In 2012, Leach gave $100,000 each to Restore Our Future and American Crossroads, the conservative super PAC co-founded by former Bush political strategist Karl Rove.

Post-election donor apathy is not limited to the political right. Organizing for Action, a nonprofit group launched by former advisers to President Obama to back his agenda, has halved a $50 million fundraising goal for its first year after slower-than-expected fundraising, according to people familiar with the group’s plans. The decision came after the group reversed course and said it would not accept corporate funds.

But the pressure to bring in big checks is greater for pro-Republican groups, which have not been able to match the extensive small-donor network that was built by Obama’s campaign and that OFA is now drawing on.

There are signs that donor reticence stems in part from dissatisfaction with the uneven track record of super PACs, which report their funding sources, and opaque nonprofit groups, which do not disclose their donors. Both types can raise unlimited funds.

One well-connected Republican donor and fundraiser, who has held off writing big checks to outside groups since the election, said he is among a group of top contributors now questioning the value of financing such organizations, which operate independently of candidates and party leaders.

“I do find it a little worrisome, frankly, that there’s so much more money and so few people behind it,” said the contributor, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about his misgivings. “I am concerned that all that money didn’t seem to bring results.”

Frank VanderSloot, chief executive of an Idaho nutritional-supplement company who gave abundantly to Romney and groups backing him, said he has concluded that it is not effective to finance tax-exempt advocacy groups that can only spend a limited amount on politics.

“If you can’t say what candidate you’re for, it’s hard,” said VanderSloot, who said he gave “several million” in all to various groups, including $1.1 million to Restore Our Future.

From now on, he said, he is sticking with super PACs, which have more latitude to directly engage in elections: “That’s where my money is going.”

Major conservative groups such as Crossroads have stayed out of Tuesday’s special election for a U.S. Senate seat in Massachusetts, leaving Republican Gabriel Gomez outmatched against the resources of Democrat Edward J. Markey and his allies.

Conservative donors said they have not softened in their opposition to Obama or stopped trying to stymie his presidency. If anything, recent revelations about the National Security Agency’s data gathering and the Internal Revenue Service’s scrutiny of conservative groups have intensified those sentiments, they said.

Having failed to deny Obama a second term, some contributors said they plan to work on flipping the Senate to Republican control in 2014 in order to block the president legislatively. Obama is “taking this country down the tubes,” said Andrew Sabin, owner of a New York-based precious-metal refining business, who gave $100,000 to American Crossroads in the last election cycle. “I’m extremely motivated.”

One fundraiser for a top conservative group, who requested anonymity to discuss private conversations with donors, said contributors understand that the midterms will be important. “I think they just have to understand how the money is being spent,” the fundraiser said.

New conservative outfits are finding that they have to work much harder to win over donors, some of whom now hire lawyers to conduct due-diligence inquiries about the organizations soliciting their support.

“We’ve learned to ask people: ‘What is your message? Where are you going to spend the money, and how?’” said VanderSloot, who said that he also requests information about how much of a group’s budget goes to paying people running the organization. “In some cases, you may want to get that answer in writing.”

The intense scrutiny “is winnowing the field of consultants who are able to raise significant funds,” said Robert Kelner, a Washington campaign finance lawyer who heads the political law practice at Covington & Burling.

“You’re seeing more impressive business plans, on better paper with fancier graphics,” Kelner added, referring to the efforts of political groups. “They look more like the kind of proposals someone would submit to a private equity fund.”

In their pitches, many organizations are pledging to diversify their approaches and not rely as heavily on expensive television advertising as they did in the last election, when the airwaves were crowded with discordant messages. The new emphasis is on digital campaigns and get-out-the-vote organizing — strategies that some groups expect to test this year in Virginia’s governor’s race and New Jersey’s U.S. Senate contest.

The desire of donors to see specific political plans has slowed the efforts of Republican groups seeking to promote their preferred versions of immigration reform, strategists said. The Senate is on track to approve a bipartisan compromise by the end of next week, but prospects in the House are less certain.

It remains to be seen whether any groups on the right will provide significant air cover for lawmakers who support the legislation.

So far, Crossroads GPS, the nonprofit sister of American Crossroads, has spent less than $100,000 to run a newspaper and online ad calling for comprehensive immigration reform. A spokesman declined to comment on whether the organization’s modest efforts so far were due to fundraising challenges.

One of the biggest players was expected to be Republicans for Immigration Reform, which Spies launched in the fall with Carlos Gutierrez, a former Kellogg chief executive who served as commerce secretary under Bush.

“This is not small ball,” Gutierrez told The Washington Post in November. “We’re serious, and we are going to push the debates on immigration reform to a place where I believe the Republican Party should be in the 21st century.”

Spies said that the group still hopes to launch a paid media campaign this summer but that no plans have been finalized.

A ‘money bomb’ for 2016

By Matt Miller, Washington Post, May 2, 2013


…an idea so simple yet subversive that it offers a glorious ray of hope…Lawrence Lessig’s “money bomb.” It’s an ingenious plan to make the drive for small-dollar publicly funded elections a central issue in 2016. With a little luck, the Harvard law professor’s idea could help save the republic…our leaders are groveling half a day every day to just 150,000 out of the 311 million of us. Forget “the 1 percent.” This is the one-twentieth of 1 percent who can afford to give a couple of thousand dollars to campaigns… He’s working to launch “a super PAC to end all super PACs.” He wants 50 patriotic billionaires to pony up $20 million to $40 million dollars each…Toss in contributions from less well-heeled folks who believe in the cause. Presto: You have a $1 billion to $2 billion dollar war chest devoted to making grass-roots public funding of campaigns a viable path to office…If enough high-net-worth patriots from both parties see past the irony to its potential, Lessig’s money bomb might just be the beginning of a cure.

Full text


Just when you were fed up with our petty, craven politics and were ready to write off the next few years as a circus of filibusters, gridlock and investigations, comes an idea so simple yet subversive that it offers a glorious ray of hope.

Call it Lawrence Lessig’s “money bomb.” It’s an ingenious plan to make the drive for small-dollar publicly funded elections a central issue in 2016. With a little luck, the Harvard law professor’s idea could help save the republic.

Here’s why. Everyone knows the ubiquity of big money in politics undermines democracy. But the mechanics of the money chase now warps daily political life so thoroughly that it would seem funny if it weren’t so shocking.

New legislators are told by party leaders to spend no less than four hours a day “dialing for dollars” for reelection. That’s twice the time they’re expected to spend on committee work, floor votes or meeting with constituents. And it doesn’t count the fundraisers they attend in their “free time.”

“Members routinely duck out of the House office buildings, where they are prohibited by law from campaigning,” the Boston Globe recently reported, “and walk across the street to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee offices…. There, on the second floor, 30 to 40 legislators and their staffers squeeze into the ‘bullpen’ … a makeshift call center of about two dozen cubicles, each 2½ feet wide and equipped with two land lines.”

The two parties function “basically like telemarketing firms,” Tom Perriello, a Virginia Democrat who lost in 2010 after serving one term in the House, told the Globe. “’You go down on any given evening and you’ve got 30 members with headsets on dialing and dialing and dialing, trying to close the deal.’”

This is your democracy at work.

“I won’t dispute for one second the problems of a system that demands immense amount of fund-raisers by its legislators,” Rep. Jim Himes (D- Conn.) told the New York Times the other day. “It’s appalling, it’s disgusting, it’s wasteful and it opens the possibility of conflicts of interest and corruption.

“It’s unfortunately the world we live in,” he added.

Well! At least our leaders are ushering in American decline with eyes wide open. As Lessig pointed out in an interview, our leaders are groveling half a day every day to just 150,000 out of the 311 million of us. Forget “the 1 percent.” This is the one-twentieth of 1 percent who can afford to give a couple of thousand dollars to campaigns.

What does this brand of begging do to elected officials? How does it skew what gets on the agenda? What kind of person wants to do this kind of work? How many rhetorical questions are needed to convince you this situation is corrupt and insane?

Enter Lessig’s idea. He’s working to launch “a super PAC to end all super PACs.” He wants 50 patriotic billionaires to pony up $20 million to $40 million dollars each (provided their fellow tycoons do the same). Toss in contributions from less well-heeled folks who believe in the cause. Presto: You have a $1 billion to $2 billion dollar war chest devoted to making grass-roots public funding of campaigns a viable path to office.

The super PAC would champion a short slate of reforms centered around publicly supported small-dollar campaign funding. It would intervene in campaigns to help elect congressional candidates who sign on to this agenda and to defeat candidates who oppose it. Building on recent reforms in Connecticut and New York, the bedrock fix might involve a system of matching grants or tax credits or vouchers that enable average citizens (via public dollars) to be the main source of finance for competitive campaigns.

Politicos are helping Lessig develop a more precise, district-by-district estimate of how much money it would take to win a congressional majority pledged to these reforms, but his guesstimate feels like it is in the ballpark.

What we have here, of course, is a plot through which billionaires lead the charge to get money out of politics. “You have to embrace the irony,” Lessig told me.

I agree. If such folks are willing to invest big sums to reduce their own power, more power to them. Jonathan Soros piloted a miniature version of such a super PAC in the last election, and with just $2.4 million helped defeat seven of eight candidates targeted for caving to special interest cash. Lessig said that if this “money bomb” can be up and running even on a modest basis by 2014, it might put a scare into candidates and raise the odds that in 2016 they’ll commit to reform. (A new group, Fund for the Republic, is helping explore the idea).

When I worked in the Clinton White House, I heard Al Gore say something I’ve never forgotten. It was in an early meeting on health care reform in the Cabinet Room. Gore observed matter-of-factly that “we’ll never do health care reform right unless we do campaign finance reform first.” Twenty years later, his point still rings true for every major plank on the agenda for American renewal.

If enough high-net-worth patriots from both parties see past the irony to its potential, Lessig’s money bomb might just be the beginning of a cure.

Read more about this issue: The Post’s View: Hidden campaign cash Katrina vanden Heuvel: Reversing ‘Citizens United’ Bob Bauer and Trevor Potter: A new recipe for election reform Jennifer Rubin: McConnell vs. McCain on campaign finance reform Ron Wyden and Lisa Murkowski: Our states vouch for transparent campaign financing

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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Here’s who is buying America’s democracy

Edited by Jim Hightower and Phillip Frazer, April 2013

The spark that ignited tea party wrath in 2008 was not such right-wing bugaboos as “Obamacare,” the federal deficit, or states’ rights, which were added on later by Koch-created front groups. Rather, the uprising sprang directly from the public’s raw outrage over Washington’s flagrant coddling of Wall Street banksters.

People were affronted by the most naked example in recent times of the power of corporate campaign cash to buy an obscene injustice. Here were America’s most privileged elites in plain view, jetting into the capitol city to call in all of the favors they were owed for the political “donations” they had previously made. That binding, ongoing dependence of lawmakers on Big Money is what allowed the Wall Street titans to (1) escape jail for their reckless selfishness, which crashed our entire economy and destroyed millions of our jobs; (2) keep their top-executive jobs, their grossly inflated paychecks, and their even-more-inflated sense of self-worth; and (3) be handed trillions of dollars from us taxpayers and Federal Reserve “regulators” to bail them out while workaday people were left to sink.

Brandishing the tea party banner in 2010, a bevy of new candidates parlayed the public’s fury into a Republican takeover of the US House. However, having gained the power to push for a little less corruption, one of the very first actions these fire-breathing “reformers” took after being sworn in was to make special-interest political money more influential than ever by voting to kill the Presidential Election Campaign Fund (PECF), the sole financing mechanism for clean elections in national law. It disburses no-strings-attached public funds to presidential candidates so they don’t have to debase themselves by dragging a sack down K-Street, through Wall Street suites, and into the penthouses of the super-rich–literally selling themselves to private interests, one check at a time.

It’s the most god-awful human activity that doesn’t involve physical pain. —- FORMER REP. BARNEY FRANK, remarking on constantly having to solicit campaign donations from wealthy interests, which he candidly calls “begging” and “debasing yourself.”

Admittedly, the presidential fund has been greatly weakened since it was enacted in 1974. But, in the wake of the Wall Street bailout scandal, the logical step to take would’ve been to strengthen and extend that public financing alternative as a way to limit the spoilage that inevitably flows from special-interest political spending.

But no. Such pinheaded potentates of the House as Majority Leader Eric Cantor strutted out to declare that killing public financing was “a no-brainer” (a phrase that, ironically, admitted the mindlessness of his move).

The supremacy of private-interest funding has turned our elections into a crass auction of government power to the wealthiest of moneyed elites.

Who are these masked men? We the People have a right to follow the money, right down to the brand names that take our consumer dollars and convert them into political donations that produce anti-consumer, anti-worker, anti-environment, anti-democracy public policies. This month and next, the Lowdown will name as many of these heavy hitters as we can unmask, including some of the severely shy ones trying to hide their self-serving corporate donations by funneling them through secretive “dark money” front groups.

In this issue, we chart the flow of publicly reported contributions that corporations make through their executives, PACs, and “soft money” channels. The numbers here are drawn from the comprehensive compilations of our country’s two preeminent trackers of political money: OpenSecrets and the Sunlight Foundation. We break the brand name donors into industry groups, listing major corporations that gave $100,000 or more to the GOP’s presidential and congressional campaigns, with at least two-thirds of their money going to Republican presidential and congressional candidates, party groups, or outside electioneering fronts.

We also list the top-20 brand name backers of 2012′s Democratic candidates for the White House and Congress. In the May issue, the Lowdown will focus on the self-serving corporate donations funneled in by secretive SuperPACs and dark-money front groups run by the likes of Karl Rove and the US Chamber of Commerce.

Jump ahead to:


Supermarkets | permalink to this section
Corporation & products Total contribution % to Republicans
Publix Super Markets $1,103,598 83%
Kroger $365,067 81%
Shamrock Foods $254,235 100%
Meijer $235,689 96%
Houchens Industries
Houchens Markets, IGA, Save-A-Lot, Mad Butcher, Piggly Wiggly, Tobacco Shoppe.
$116,800 100%

Go back to the list of industries


Retail sales and services | permalink to this section
Corporation & products Total contribution % to Republicans
Home Depot $2,151,998 76%
Amway/Alticor $761,200 87%
Best Buy $254,235 65%
Lowe’s $339,862 75%

Go back to the list of industries


Corporate farms and suppliers | permalink to this section
Corporation & products Total contribution % to Republicans
John Deere
Tractors, mowers, tools, bbq grills, chemicals, wagons and toys for children, etc.
$874,605 88%
Pesticides (especially its “Roundup” brand) and seeds (top maker/marketer of corn, soybean, cotton, and others seeds that have had their DNA altered with genetically modified organisms). These seeds, branded as “Roundup Ready,” are bio-engineered to make the plants they produce able to absorb heavier doses of “Roundup” pesticides.
$536,604 66%
Global grain trader. Also markets animal and food processing ingredients. Brands include Purina, Nutrena, LNB, Provimi, Cargill.
$412,941 80%
Sanderson Farms
Chicken products.
$213,700 77%
Agri Beef
Packaged beef products include Snake River Farms, Double R Ranch, St. Helens, Rancho El Oro.
$181,950 97%
Brand of frozen vegetables.
$171,038 96%
Peace River Citrus
Fresh citrus and frozen juice products.
$159,250 92%
J.R. Simplot
Major supplier of potatoes to McDonald’s, Burger King, and Wendy’s.
$153,150 88%
Case New Holland
Tractors, other agricultural equipment, and construction equipment.
$149,988 95%

Go back to the list of industries


Food and beverage processors | permalink to this section
Corporation & products Total contribution % to Republicans
Altria Group
Tobacco giant (Philip Morris), but also owns such wineries as Chateau Ste. Michelle, 14 Hands, Antica Napa Valley, Antinori, Col de’Salici, Columbia Crest, Conn Creek, Distant Bay, and Erath.
$1,721,888 81%
Dean Foods
Owns dozens of milk brands including Borden, Oak Farms, Meadow Gold, TruMoo, Swiss Premium, Dean’s, Garelick Farms, Lehigh Valley, Shenandoah’s, Morning Glory, Alta Dena, PET, Purity, and Hygeia. Also owns Horizon, the largest seller of organic milk products, and Silk, which makes soymilk, almondmilk, and coconutmilk.
$331,967 74%
Tyson Foods
America’s biggest factory farm operator and meat processor. Brands of poultry, pork, and beef include Tyson, Bonici, Mexican Original, Wright, IBP (formerly Iowa Beef Processors), and Lady Aster.
$294,261 65%
Miller beers, Blue Moon, Coors Light, Hamm’s, Henry Weinhard’s, Icehouse, Leinenkugel’s, MGD 64, Mickey’s Malt Liquor, Milwaukee’s Best, Old English 800 Malt Liquor.
$278,736 76%
Bacardi, Bombay Sapphire, Oxley, Eristoff, Grey Goose, 42Below, Martini, Noilly Prat, Martini sparkling wines, Dewar’s, Cazadores, Corzo, B&B, Benedictine, Drambuie, Disaronno, and Hatuey beer.
$264,295 96%
ConAgra Foods
Reddi-wip, Hunt’s, Ro*Tel, Healthy Choice, Swiss Miss, Marie Callender’s frozen foods, PAM, Chef Boyardee, Orville Redenbacher’s, Egg Beaters, Fiddle Faddle, Fleischman’s, Gulden’s, Hebrew National, P.F. Chang’s, Parkay, Penrose, Peter Pan, Poppycock, Ranch Style beans, Rosarita, ACT II popcorn, Alexia, Andy Capp’s, Banquet, Bertolli, Blue Bonnet, Crunch ’n Munch, Jiffy Pop, Kid Cuisine, Libby, Manwich, SlimJim, Snack pack, UltraGrain, VanCamp’s, Wesson, and Wolf Brand Chili, etc.
$213,697 80%
Trident Seafoods
Biggest US seafood processor. Brands of frozen, canned, and prepared products include Louis Kemp, Red King, Alaska, Salmon Burger, and PubHouse.
$211,370 98%
Johnsonville Sausages $206,750 100%
H.J. Heinz
Heinz, Bagel Bites, Classico, Jack Daniel’s Sauces, Lea & Perrins, Nancy’s, Ore-Ida, Poppers, Smart Ones, T.G.I. Friday’s frozen foods, and Wyler’s bouillon and soup/dip mixes.
$200,790 71%
Flowers Foods
Nature’s Own, Whitewheat, Cobblestone Mill, Sunbeam, Bunny Bread, ButterKrust Bakery, European Bakers, Tastykake, Mrs. Freshley’s, Blue Bird, Mi Casa.
$195,500 100%
Russell Stover Candies
Russell Stover’s, Whitman’s, Pangburn’s.
$190,302 100%
Silverado Vineyards $184,750 73%
Patrón Spirits
Patrón, Ultimat Vodka, and Pyrat Rum
$182,650 73%
J.M. Smucker
Adams peanut butter, Café Bustelo, Crisco, Crosse & Blackwell, Dunkin’ Donuts (in stores), Dutch Girl, Eagle Brand, Folgers, Hungry Jack, Jif, Kava, Knott’s Berry Farm, Laura Scudder’s, Magnolia, Martha White, Mary Ellen, Pillsbury, R.W. Knudsen, Santa Cruz Organic,
and Smucker’s.
$161,410 93%
Swift meats, Gold Kist Farms, Pilgrim’s Pride (Pilgrim’s Co.), 1855, Aspen Ridge Natural Beef, 5 Star Beef, Miller’s Blue Ribbon Beef, Liberty Bell, Moyer, Packerland.
$126,000 84%
McKee Foods
Little Debbie snacks, Sunbelt, Heartland, Fieldstone Bakery.
$119,815 98%
Jel Sert
Freezer Bars (Fla-Vor-Ice, Pop-Ice, Otter Pops, Bolis,
Mr. Freeze, Frootee Ice, Slush Puppie, Wyler’s, Kool Pops, Soda Pop Freezer Bars , Arnold Palmer, Sunkist Freezer Bars, Snapple Sorbet Bars). Beverages (Flavor Aid, Hawaiian Punch, Warheads, Airheads). Dessert Mixes (Royal, My-T-Fine).
$108,800 100%

Go back to the list of industries


Restaurant chains | permalink to this section
Corporation & products Total contribution % to Republicans
McDonald’s $1,334,547 69%
OSI Restaurant Partners
Outback Steakhouse, Carrabba’s Italian Grill, Bonefish Grill, Flemings, Roy’s.
$805,670 97%
Wendy’s $447,907 84%
Taco Bell Franchisees.
$443,250 98%
Buffalo Wild Wings $226,615 92%
Yum! Brands
KFC, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell.
$211,564 85%
Pizza Hut Franchisees $197,500 98%

Go back to the list of industries


Oil & gas | permalink to this section
Corporation & products Total contribution % to Republicans
ExxonMobil $2,769,917 88%
Koch Industries
Millions more donated to GOP campaigns by Koch brothers. Their front groups (such as Americans for Prosperity and Freedomworks) and various right-wing SuperPAC’s and dark-money groups.
$2,391,048 98%
Chesapeake Energy $1,759,933 76%
Occidental Petroleum $1,550,976 66%
Valero Energy $828,919 91%
ConocoPhillips $638,902 88%
Marathon Petroleum $616,698 93%
Hess Oil & Gas $583,175 76%
Williams Companies $452,750 82%
Spectra Energy $344,586 67%
El Paso Corp. $302,744 73%

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Trucking | permalink to this section
Corporation & products Total contribution % to Republicans
Cen Tra $449,450 95%
Knight Transportation $247,200 100%
Oshkosh Corp. $245,131 68%
Allen Trucking $245,100 100%
Prime $232,300 99%
Werner Enterprises $202,850 100%
Ryder Systems $192,853 88%
Old Dominion Freight $178,910 97%
AAA Cooper Transportation $169,500 100%
Penske Truck Rental $155,807 96%
Navistar International $155,726 79%

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Forestry & paper | permalink to this section
Corporation & products Total contribution % to Republicans
International Paper
Hammermill, Springhill, Williamsburg, etc.
$943,584 66%
Koch Industries
Its Georgia-Pacific division owns such paper-product brands as Brawny, Dixie, Angel Soft, Quilted Northern, Soft ’n Gentle, Sparkle, Mardi Gras ,Vanity Fair napkins, Zee, Advantage, and Spectrum. Also owns Stainmaster carpets and the Lycra line of clothing.
$336,113 93%
Sierra Pacific Industries
Lumber, millwork, building materials.
$336,113 93%
Stimson Lumber $111,200 98%
Sun Mountain Lumber $100,500 100%

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Trucking | permalink to this section
Corporation & products Total contribution % to Republicans
Cen Tra $449,450 95%
Knight Transportation $247,200 100%
Oshkosh Corp. $245,131 68%
Allen Trucking $245,100 100%
Prime $232,300 99%
Werner Enterprises $202,850 100%
Ryder Systems $192,853 88%
Old Dominion Freight $178,910 97%
AAA Cooper Transportation $169,500 100%
Penske Truck Rental $155,807 96%
Navistar International $155,726 79%

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Trains & ships | permalink to this section
Corporation & products Total contribution % to Republicans
Burlington Northern
(owned by Berkshire Hathaway)
$1,935,309 66%
Union Pacific $1,564,499 67%
Norfolk Southern $1,296,290 65%
Kirby $465,998 95%

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Equipment & materials | permalink to this section
Corporation & products Total contribution % to Republicans
Caterpillar $671,592 84%
Cement products including Brisket, Dixie, Richmortar, Richcolor, Victor, Broco, Citadel, Kosmortar.
$238,152 91%
84 Lumber stores $152,240 91%
Owens Corning $143,192 85%
Bath & kitchen fixtures.
$122,250 91%

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Insurance corporations | permalink to this section
Corporation & products Total contribution % to Republicans
USAA $1,545,191 78%
Massachusetts Mutual Life $1,413,624 68%
Northwestern Mutual $1,142,686 67%
Zurich Financial Services $751,029 71%
Travelers $743,705 68%

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Builders | permalink to this section
Corporation & products Total contribution % to Republicans
M.D.C. Holdings
Richmond American Homes.
$348,150 67%
Ryan Homes, NVHomes, Fox Ridge Homes, Heartland Homes.
$240,984 98%
Granville Homes $235,400 90%
Robson Communities $144,050 94%
William Lyon Homes $143,100 90%
Clayton Homes $141,775 85%
George Lewis Homes $114,650 100%

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Coal | permalink to this section
Corporation & products Total contribution % to Republicans
Murray Energy $1,407,352 93%
Alpha Natural Resources $816,092 72%
Arch Coal $712,703 82%
Peabody Energy $559,475 92%
Drummond Co. $395,600 89%
Patriot Coal $333,300 89%
Pine Branch Coal $292,600 79%
Boich Companies $267,600 83%

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Airlines/Air freight | permalink to this section
Corporation & products Total contribution % to Republicans
United Parcel Service (UPS) $2,331,7452 65%
FedEx $1,841,226 70%
AMR American Airlines $810,947 69%
Bell Helicopter, Cessna, E-Z-GO golf carts and utility vehicles, Greenlee, Jacobsen.
$495,451 73%
Southwest Airlines $287,143 74%
Azul Airlines $151,600 100%

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Investment houses | permalink to this section
Corporation & products Total contribution % to Republicans
Goldman Sachs $7,887,924 65%
Morgan Stanley $3,729,163 69%
Bank of America $4,624,122 70%
Wells Fargo $3,579,349 70%
Credit Suisse Group $2,359,598 71%
Deutsche Bank $408,612 66%

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Capital management | permalink to this section
Corporation & products Total contribution % to Republicans
Elliott Associates and Elliott Management $5,223,996 100%
KKR $2,309,466 75%
H.I.G. $1,369,294 75%
Carlyle Group $1,083,228 67%
Madison Dearborn Partners $836,950 83%
Cerberus Capital Mgmt. $801,588 74%
Arclight Capital Partners $763,950 99%
Summit Partners $695,095 69%
AQR Capital Management $673,349 84%
SAC Capital Advisors $499,550 72%

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Commercial and mortgage banks | permalink to this section
Corporation & products Total contribution % to Republicans
PNC Financial $637,589 72%
Quicken Loans $611,524 92%
SunTrust Banks $424,645 81%
Huntington Bancshares $405,628 77%
BB&T Corp. $399,706 88%
IBC Bank. $165,256 96%
Mortgage Investors Corp. $350,400 71%
Academy Mortgage $155,450 100%

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Loan companies | permalink to this section
Corporation & products Total contribution % to Republicans
Capital One Finance $979,050 69%
SLM $511,762 81%
General Electric $311,595 72%
Jones Mgmt. Services $295,772 88%
CIT Group $241,852 82%
QC Holdings $216,205 77%
First Data $204,743 89%

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Resorts/entertainment | permalink to this section
Corporation & products Total contribution % to Republicans
Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation
Sycuan Casino
$431,614 68%
Wynn Resorts $406,926 98%
Blackstone Group
SeaWorld, Busch Gardens; investments include LegoLand, Madame Tussauds, La Quinta, Luxury Resorts, Hilton Hotels, The Weather Channel.
$422,346 65%
Station Casinos
Red Rock Casino, Green Valley Ranch, Palace Station, Sunset Station, Boulder Station, Santa Fe Station, Texas Station, Fiesta Henderson, Fiesta Rancho, Wild Wild West Gambling Hall.
$365,600 72%
Bandon Dunes Golf Resort $189,900 68%
Herschend Family Entertainment
Stone Mountain Amusement Parks, Silver Dollar City, Dollywood, Dixie Stampede, Elitch Gardens, Newport Aquarium.
$182,997 100%
Woodside Hotels & Resorts $131,100 81%
Abercrombie & Kent $112,050 77%
Treasure Island Hotel $110,800 100%

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Pro sports | permalink to this section
Corporation & products Total contribution % to Republicans
NASCAR $458,926 96%
Ultimate Fighting Championship $451,362 68%
Arizona Cardinals $304,470 98%
Washington Redskins $221,905 100%
Atlanta Hawks $215,790 75%
International Speedway $196,650 77%
Jacksonville Jaguars $169,900 90%
Arizona Diamondbacks $169,250 99%

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Radio/television/music | permalink to this section
Corporation & products Total contribution % to Republicans
CC Media Holdings
Clear Channel (radio stations, billboards, etc.).
$862,637 71%
Cablevision $806,336 68%
Salem Communications
Dozens of right-wing and Christian radio stations, websites, magazines, etc.
$162,500 100%
Curb Records $137,500 94%
Weather Channel $103,200 75%
Liberty Global
Brands include UPC, Unitymedia, Kabel BW, Telenet, VTR.
$100,005 91%

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Publishing | permalink to this section
Corporation & products Total contribution % to Republicans
Hallmark Cards $259,051 69%
Ingram Industries
Distributor of books, Christian books, eBooks; also largest US inland barge operator/shipper.
$227,000 97%
Christian Book Distributors $224,299 100%
Paisano Publications
Magazines include Easyriders, Road Iron, V-Twin, Wrench, Tattoo, In The Wind, Savage, Flash, Rebel Rodz, and Ink Fashion.
$193,200 94%
Newsmax $123,800 100%

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Health care corporations | permalink to this section
Corporation & products Total contribution % to Republicans
Rothman Institute $259,051 69%
Ingram Industries
Distributor of books, Christian books, eBooks; also largest US inland barge operator/shipper.
$887,700 100%
Humana $734,881 69%
Cancer Treatment Centers of America $586,435 100%
Hercules Holding $439,415 70%
HCR ManorCare $421,773 72%
Bayer Aspirin, Flintstones Vitamins, Alka-Seltzer, One A Day, Citracal, Midol; Prescription: Yaz, Mirena, Adalat, etc.
$420,177 69%
21st Century Oncology $326,990 67%
Invacare $293,750 80%
American Kidney Stone Management $279,000 98%
Starkey Laboratories
Hearing aids.
$213,051 100%
Electrostim Medical Services $168,580 100%
AdvoCare $156,750 100%
Shaklee $99,250 72%

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Miscellaneous | permalink to this section
Corporation & products Total contribution % to Republicans
Altria Group
Marlboro, Basic, Benson & Hedges, Cambridge, Chesterfield, Commander, Dave’s, English Ovals, L&M, Lark, Merit, Parliament, Players, Saratoga, Virginia Slims, Copenhagen, Cope (smokeless), Skoal, Red Seal, Husky, John Middleton cigars, Prince Albert’s pipe tobacco, Nu Mark tobacco mints, etc.
$1,721,888 81%
Dow Chemical $843,307 77%
Timken car parts $527,420 100%
Reynolds American
Camel, Pall Mall, Winston, Salem, Doral, Kool, Misty, Capri, Grizzly, Kodiak, Cougar, American Spirit.
$465,975 94%
Lorillard Tobacco
Newport, Kent, True, Maverick, Old Gold.
$354,3300 74%
Swisher International
Swisher, Santa Fe, King Edward, Goodies, Blackstone, Keep Moving Goodies, Kayak, Silver Creek, Casino Gold, Clasico, La Intimidad, Macbeth, Miramar, Vieja Tradicion, Swisher Sweets.
$326,000 98%
US Steel $273,496 85%
Goodyear Tire & Rubber
Camel, Pall Mall, Winston, Salem, Doral, Kool, Misty, Capri, Grizzly, Kodiak, Cougar, American Spirit.
$225,132 74%
AutoNation $197,777 93%
3M $333,000 72%


The Source of Corporate Power

by Robert C. Koehler, January 28, 2010 by


…Cit­i­zens United vs. Fed­eral Elec­tion Com­mis­sion case over­turns restric­tions on cor­po­rate spend­ing to influ­ence elec­tion results, giv­ing enti­ties with mil­lions (in some cases, bil­lions) of dol­lars at their dis­posal unlim­ited license to elec­tion­eer for the can­di­date with the friend­liest atti­tude toward their inter­ests. The ten­dency of money and power is to con­cen­trate, of course. The big trick, from a human per­spec­tive, is to make sure our core val­ues remain pre-eminent, that they are served by the ways in which we con­cen­trate power. Democ­racy is the great mech­a­nism for doing so…the con­cept of democ­racy is mor­tally wounded…This is an “activist” judi­cial deci­sion, that is to say, a deci­sion that serves a prior agenda, with any prin­ci­ples cited (e.g., the sanc­tity of free speech) sheer win­dow dress­ing in ser­vice to a larger, and covert, cause…I see lit­tle hope for a gullible nation that allows the tube to hem­or­rhage urgent inani­ties directly into its con­scious­ness for 18 hours a day. This gulli­bil­ity is the source of cor­po­rate power. Democ­racy can only thrive where peo­ple think for themselves.

Full text

“If the First Amendment has any force, it prohibits Congress from fining or jailing citizens, or associations of citizens, for simply engaging in political speech.”

The words are those of Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, writing for the majority in last week’s landmark Supreme Court decision marking some sort of culmination in the long corporate trek to personhood. It’s the word “simply” that gets to me: Exxon-Pinocchio is a real boy now, and has his opinions, and the government has no right to stop him from “simply engaging in political speech.”

What a cheap cover story; it’s up there with “bringing democracy to Iraq” in its tawdry manipulation of iconic national values to justify a raw power grab. The 5-4 decision in the long-awaited Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission case overturns restrictions on corporate spending to influence election results, giving entities with millions (in some cases, billions) of dollars at their disposal unlimited license to electioneer for the candidate with the friendliest attitude toward their interests.

The tendency of money and power is to concentrate, of course. The big trick, from a human perspective, is to make sure our core values remain pre-eminent, that they are served by the ways in which we concentrate power. Democracy is the great mechanism for doing so, the hope of the world, or so we are told, but the wakeup message in this nakedly cynical ruling by the Roberts Court, with its slim (but sufficient) right-wing majority, is that the concept of democracy is mortally wounded.

As former Sen. Bob Kerrey wrote recently on Huffington Post: “Instead of doing the nation’s business, elected officials are spending a third of their time or more dialing for special interest dollars in never-ending campaigns for re-election.

“Industry lobbyists,” he goes on, “are helping to write the very bills in Congress that affect their bottom line, placing private profit ahead of the public good. Billions of taxpayer dollars are going to benefit big contributors through earmarks, subsidies, and special regulations.”

And as Chris Hedges explains on TruthDig: “Corporations have 35,000 lobbyists in Washington and thousands more in state capitals that dole out corporate money to shape and write legislation.”

The interests of Big Oil, Big Pharma, Big Coal, agribusiness, the financial sector, the insurance sector and, of course, the military-industrial complex, have infinitely more clout in government than the collective popular will and the voices calling for eco-sanity, universal health care and an end to war. Note: This is already the case.

Corporate entities have thoroughly gamed the system, leaving us with little more than a textbook-democracy façade. What the latest Supreme Court decision does is legitimize all this, shoving the corruption in our faces by declaring the absurd: Corporations are people too! They have a right to weigh in on the candidates just like the rest of us – to get their billion-dollar opinions out to the public throughout the election campaign.

This is an “activist” judicial decision, that is to say, a decision that serves a prior agenda, with any principles cited (e.g., the sanctity of free speech) sheer window dressing in service to a larger, and covert, cause.

As a New York Times story points out, the case itself – involving a conservative, not-for-profit corporation called Citizens United, which was restricted in its ability to distribute an attack film about Hillary Clinton, “Hillary: The Movie,” during the 2008 presidential primary elections – could have been decided on narrow grounds. The court chose instead to expand the scope of the case, making it into a challenge of existing laws that regulate corporate election spending, most notably the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, a.k.a. McCain-Feingold, which prohibits corporate electioneering within 60 days of an election. This is what we’ve lost.

The good news is that the decision has generated a huge outpouring of anger around the country. Within a day of the ruling, the website had garnered some 40,000 signatures (it’s now close to 50,000) in support of a constitutional amendment to establish that money is not speech and only human beings have constitutional rights. The amendment would also guarantee our right to vote and participate in elections, and to have our votes count.

A number of bills and legislative actions are also in the works, attempting to circumvent the Supremes. The proposals range from patch jobs to cries for profound change, both of which are necessary in the process of resuscitating democracy.

No matter what, though, the Roberts Court has hastened the propagandizing of the national discourse, mostly through the medium of television, as corporate interests amp up their thought-control machines in the name of free speech. I see little hope for a gullible nation that allows the tube to hemorrhage urgent inanities directly into its consciousness for 18 hours a day. This gullibility is the source of corporate power. Democracy can only thrive where people think for themselves.

© 2010 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound is now available. Contact him at or visit his website at

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.”

Full text

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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