On the Money: Four Years After Citizens United

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This is the third installment of a new feature at Moyers & Company, as producer Gail Ablow shares her must-read money-and-politics stories every week.

Legalized bribery –> It is four years this week since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision struck down the limits on how much money corporations and unions can spend in federal elections. A number of legal watchdogs have been keeping close tabs on the repercussions. In an essay in Politico Magazine, Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, describes how super PACs, social welfare groups and corporations poured more than $1 billion into the 2012 election cycle; with $300 million of those dollars from undisclosed sources. Wertheimer argues that we are at a watershed moment and Americans must seize the chance to make a change. On the Brennan Center blog, law professor Ciarra Torres-Spelliscy details some of the high and low points since the decision and the efforts to fight its impact – “the good, the bad and the ugly,” she calls it; while her colleague at the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program, Ian Vandewalker, warns on MSNBC.com that our few remaining campaign finance restrictions are still under siege. He suggests the best way to re-empower voters, and protect American democracy from torrents of independent political spending is to create a system of public financing that matches small donors.

Loophole allows lawmakers to reel in trips and donations –> For a window into how money from special interests buys access to lawmakers legally, take a trip to the ski slopes of Vail, CO and Park City, UT with New York Times reporter Eric Lipton. Lipton’s report describes how lawmakers, donors and lobbyists are hobnobbing and fundraising at “destination events” in exclusive vacation venues. Since a corruption scandal in 2007, Congress prohibits lobbyists from giving gifts to lawmakers. But there’s a legal workaround: corporate and lobbyist dollars can be given to political campaigns and leadership PACs. If the PACs then use the money to pay for lavish ski vacations or trips to the golf course it’s no longer “technically” a gift. And it’s entirely legal for lawmakers to travel home to DC with their vacation buddies’ business interests in mind.

New Koch-linked political firm aims to handpick “electable” candidates –> Aegis Strategic, a new political consulting firm, is the latest affiliate of the Koch brothers’ growing political conglomerate, writes Andy Kroll at Mother Jones. It was founded with the blessing of the Koch’s political advisors according to the Republican operatives who spoke to Kroll. The mission is to identify, train and support budding conservative or libertarian candidates who are “committed to freedom and economic opportunity.” In other words, Kroll explains, it’s an effort by the Koch brothers’ allies “to bring in-house the business of campaigns.” It is decidedly big business – in 2011 and 2012, the Koch’s vast donor network raised more than $400 million to influence House and Senate races, shape policy debates, and attempt to defeat President Barack Obama.

10 super PACs you’ve never heard of that will make news in 2014 –> In 2012 we heard plenty about the big money flowing from name-brand super PACs like American Crossroads, founded by Karl Rove to support conservative candidates, and Priorities USA Action, founded by former Obama campaign officials to fuel President Obama’s reelection. In 2014 many smaller groups will join their ranks, according to Scott Bland of National Journal. Bland introduces us to ten of these new super PACs pouring big bucks into individual Senate and House races with hopes of impacting the outcome. As Bland writes: “With unlimited donations permitted, any of these groups could go from flat broke to major player with one penstroke across a check.”

The ugly, sordid, damning details in the Bob McDonnell indictment–> Ten days after leaving office, the former governor of Virginia, Bob McDonnell and his wife were indicted this week on corruption charges. The indictment came after a long federal investigation into allegations that the couple received cash and gifts worth more than $150,000 from businessman Jonnie Williams and extended political favors to him in return. Washington Examiner reporter Byron York provides a helpful overview of the stunning indictment. As York writes, “wanting to drive Ferraris and wear Rolexes and play golf at swanky courses,” McDonnell, a rising Republican star, and his wife attempted to staunch their deep financial troubles and cash in on his political influence even before he took the oath of office. The scandal has inspired several bills that would limit the value of gifts to Virginia legislators.

Four years after Citizens United, there is real movement to remove big money from politics –> The Nation’s John Nichols reports on a broad-based movement for an amendment to the constitution that is supported by progressive reformers as well as Republican legislators and other conservatives at the state and national level. Sixteen states have formally asked Congress to re-establish the premise that “money is property and not speech;” six states have called for corporate accountability; and some 500 cities and towns have passed resolutions in favor of a constitutional amendment.

Gail Ablow is a producer for Moyers & Company and a Carnegie Visiting Media Fellow, Democracy.

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