Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
On September 10 — hours before President Barack Obama delivered a primetime White House speech on Syria — former House speaker Newt Gingrich, who was in his second day as cohost of CNN’s revived Crossfire, circulated a dire fundraising email on behalf of the American Legacy Political Action Committee, which he and his wife, Callista, founded and now serve as honorary co-chairs. “The current debate regarding a strike against Syria is a classic Washington distraction,” Gingrich huffed, calling the president’s proposed retaliatory attack for the regime’s use of chemical weapons ”insignificant” and “largely symbolic.” He declared that a “brief bombing campaign” would do nothing, while other issues — the possibility of a nuclear Iran, the spread of radical Islam, and cuts in US military spending — will “fall to the wayside.” Gingrich asked recipients to join him in opposing Obama’s threatened strike against Bashar al-Assad and urged them “to donate to American Legacy PAC today to help stop our nation from engaging in a costly endeavor that would result in few beneficial outcomes.”
There was one problem with this pitch: American Legacy was doing little, if anything, to oppose possible military intervention against Syria. The PAC’s website notes that it exists to support federal candidates who share conservative values. The money raised by this email would not directly finance organizing aimed at thwarting Obama’s plan. And there was another problem: This PAC, founded in 2010 and fronted by Gingrich, bags a lot of money from conservative donors, but little of this cash reaches candidates. During the 2012 election cycle, the group took in $515,321 — most of it from donors contributing less than $200 — and it doled out a measly $9,000 to seven Republican candidates, including Ohio Senate candidate Josh Mandel, Virginia Senate candidate George Allen, and Gingrich himself. MORE
In a live Web event beginning at noon ET sponsored by the Constitutional Accountability Center, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Professor Lawrence Lessig, director of Harvard’s Edmond J. Safra Foundation Center for Ethics, discuss why they believe the founding fathers would disagree with the way in which the Supreme Court interpreted the term “corruption” in its ruling on Citizens United v. FEC, the decision that allowed outside groups like super PACs to pour unlimited money into the political process. MORE
In October, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the McCutcheon v. FEC case, which challenges aggregate limits on money that individuals can give every two years in federal elections to all candidates, political parties and PACs, combined. The current limit is $123,200. When they do so, the Justices should remember the price of a Quarter Pounder in the 1970s. And here’s why.
The aggregate limit at issue in McCutcheon was one of the post-Watergate reforms put in place by Congress to discourage corruption and its appearance. With Watergate 40 years in the rear view mirror, it is easy for President Nixon’s campaign finance violations to slip from the collective consciousness.
But as a reminder, Nixon’s successful reelection campaign was remarkable for its receipt of big, secret and illegal campaign contributions. So when Congress clamped down on how much a citizen could give to individual federal candidates and collectively to all federal candidates, the members had the Committee to Reelect the President (also colloquially known as CREEP) firmly in mind.
One concrete example from the Nixon era illustrates the risks that are posed by unlimited contributions from individuals: the price of the Quarter Pounder. The story revolves around Ray Kroc, who, at the time, was the CEO of McDonald’s. Mr. Kroc had a few problems that the federal government could help fix if it were so inclined. Problem one was he wanted the minimum wage dropped for his then-largely teenage workforce. Problem two was he wanted to raise the price of his hamburgers when the Nixon administration had imposed price controls on many consumer goods, including food, in a vain attempt to stave off inflation. Solving these problems would line Mr. Kroc’s pockets. MORE
The Idaho Correctional Center south of Boise, Idaho. A group of eight inmates at the facility filed a lawsuit in 2012, contending that poor management and chronic understaffing led to an attack in which they were jumped, stabbed and beaten by members of a prison gang. (AP Photo/Charlie Litchfield, File)
Compare these two tales of corruption that illustrate how the opportunity to turn a profit distorts our supposedly impartial judicial system.
In 2008, a scandal rocked Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, when the FBI charged two judges, Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan, with taking kickbacks from a private juvenile detention facility in exchange for handing down lengthy prison terms to young offenders. Robert Mericle, who had built two for-profit detention centers, and a businessman named Robert Powell paid the judges almost $3 million over a three-year period to help smooth the way for the construction of the facilities and to keep their beds full.
According to an appeals court ruling, “over the course of several years, Ciavarella committed hundreds of juveniles to detention centers co-owned by Powell, including many who were not represented by counsel.” Hundreds of young lives were ruined. Kids, including first-time offenders, were sentenced to juvenile facilities for “offenses” like mocking an assistant principal on Myspace, taking loose change from unlocked cars and trespassing in an abandoned building. In one tragic incident, a star high-school wrestler who had never been in trouble before was sentenced to months behind bars for a minor charge of possessing drug paraphernalia. He missed his senior year of high-school, and became bitter and depressed. His mother would blame his suicide several years later on the corrupt judges. MORE
Rep. Steve King, (R-IA), speaks at the 40th annual Conservative Political Action Conference in March. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
“Since 2008, the cost of SNAP has more than doubled from $34 billion to $74 billion,” complained Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-ND) in a press release defending his vote for a $40 billion cut over 10 years to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, more commonly referred to as the food stamp program. The cuts come at a time when one in seven Americans is utilizing food stamps, as unemployment remains high. As NPR reports, “the vast majority of SNAP recipients either work or are children, disabled or elderly.”
But Cramer was not fazed by these statistics, instead asking on the House floor, “When did America trade the dignity of a job for a culture of permanent dependency?”
Given his remarks in favor of Americans pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, one would think that Cramer is a pure fiscal hawk, determined to rein in government spending and make citizens take care of themselves. But the reality is that this congressman has been happy to spend enormous amounts of money on his own district in order to secure his own political future. MORE
This post first appeared at the Center for Responsive Politics’ Opensecrets.org.
On Oct. 8, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in McCutcheon v. FEC, a case challenging the overall contribution limits for individual donors that were first enacted in the mid-1970s.
The case won’t directly impact caps on contributions to specific candidates, party committees and PACs, which Congress put in place in order to ensure that a few people didn’t have undue influence on elected officials by being their dominant source of campaign funds.
But Congress also imposed overall limits on how much one person could give, in total, to all campaigns, PACs and parties during a single two-year election cycle; that’s the issue before the Court. Lawmakers recognized that without some global contribution boundaries, it would be possible for one or a few people to support lots of PACs or party committees that in turn would support one or a few campaigns. The theory was that the candidate would know the original source of all the funneled money and might feel obliged to reward that sugar daddy with official acts. MORE
Americans for Prosperity Foundation Chairman David Koch addresses attendees of the Defending the American Dream Summit in Orlando, Fla., Friday, Aug. 30, 2013.(AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
Thought you knew all about the many tentacles the Koch brothers’ have around American politics? Politico’s Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen have the story of a heretofore unknown pot of cash that they and other deep-pocketed donors spread around in 2012…
An Arlington, Va.-based conservative group, whose existence until now was unknown to almost everyone in politics, raised and spent $250 million in 2012 to shape political and policy debate nationwide.
The group, Freedom Partners, and its president, Marc Short, serve as an outlet for the ideas and funds of the mysterious Koch brothers, cutting checks as large as $63 million to groups promoting conservative causes, according to an IRS document to be filed shortly. MORE
This artist rendering shows the Supreme Court Justices. (AP Photo/Dana Verkouteren)
Mark October 8 on your calendar – that’s when the Supreme Court will hear arguments in a case that’s being called Citizens United 2.0.
The case, McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, will test the constitutionality of limits on individual donations to candidates, parties and PACs. Under current law, a person can give up to $46,200 for federal candidates and $70,800 for parties and independent committees during a two-year election cycle.
With the support of the Republican National Committee, Shaun McCutcheon, a wealthy conservative donor from Alabama, is challenging the limits, arguing that they’re “unsupported by any cognizable government interest.” MORE
This post first appeared in AlterNet on August 27, 2013.
David Atten, right, joins others in demonstrating as he presses a sign to the window of a Church's Chicken during a one-day strike coinciding with strikes at other fast-food restaurants across the country, Thursday, Aug. 29, 2013, in Atlanta. Workers are demanding $15 an hour and the right to form a union without interference from employers. (AP Photo/John Amis)
In June, the National Restaurant Association boasted that its lobbyists had stopped minimum wage increases in 27 out of 29 states in 2013. In Connecticut, which increased its state minimum wage, a raise in the base pay for tipped workers such as waitresses and bartenders vanished in the final bill. A similar scenario unfolded in New York State: It increased its minimum wage, but the NRA’s last-minute lobbying derailed raising the pre-tip wage at restaurants and bars. The deals came despite polls showing 80 percent support for raising the minimum wage.
The NRA’s lobbying didn’t stop there. It also told members that it blocked a dozen states this year from passing laws that would require earned paid sick leave, which is what New York City and Portland, Oregon adopted. Meanwhile, it boasted that six states, including Florida, passed NRA-backed laws that preemptively ban localities from granting earned and paid employee sick time.
“These are horrible things, but there are amazing things that are happening to change it,” said Saru Jayaraman, co-director and co-founder of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC), which has been working a dozen years to slowly change the industry’s exploitive business model and labor practices. “And there will be increasingly important stuff coming up.” MORE
In his book This Town, journalist Mark Leibovich paints a compelling picture of corruption and greed in Washington. But as many critics — and commenters on our website — pointed out, for all its delightfully disgusting insider detail, the book is missing one important thing — solutions. For that, we turn to The Sunlight Foundation‘s Lisa Rosenberg. A registered lobbyist herself, Rosenberg advocates for greater transparency and accountability in government.
Lauren Feeney: Have you read This Town?
Lisa Rosenberg: I’ve read parts of it. I have to admit, it’s a little bit like work for me [laughs]. But I’ve read some key chapters.
Feeney: And does any of it shock or surprise you?
Rosenberg: No. I’ve been working on issues involving money in politics for such a long time that there was nothing really surprising in there. It didn’t shock me in any way. But I think it’s great for the rest of the country, for people who have not been paying as close attention, to get a picture of what’s been happening. Outrage is good, and I think this might foster some outrage.
I guess what did surprise me, or maybe disappointed me, is that the book doesn’t seem to offer any solutions.
Feeney: That’s of course why I called. But before we get to solutions, can you review what’s so wrong with the picture painted in Leibovich’s book, of former politicians going on to make big bucks as lobbyists?
Rosenberg: When congressmen or staffers leave to go lobby, they cash in on the connections that they’ve made on Capitol Hill. They also cash in, very often, on the work they’ve done on the Hill, which sounds okay on the surface, but when it’s cashing in on the fact that, for example, they wrote a law so they know where all the loopholes are, and then they go lobby for somebody who can take advantage of those loopholes, then I think we have a real conflict of interest. I think that’s the real problem with the so-called “revolving door.”
Feeney: So what are some solutions to this problem?
Michael Berman uses a magnifying glass to find dividend yielding stocks as he looks over one of his investment journals in his home in Cranberry, Pa. Friday, Oct. 24, 2008. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
“Forensic economists,” the sleuths of the “dismal profession,” have devised ingenious ways of analyzing big chunks of data to ferret out corruption — both the kinds of corruption that land people in jail and the kinds that help land others in Congress.
“Over the last decade or so, economists have become a lot more creative in figuring out where corruption is taking place, or firms are cheating,” explains Edward Miguel, a scholar at UC Berkeley. “There’s a lot more data publicly available than there used to be, and the basic idea is to try to assemble as much data as you can, and then look for patterns that are inconsistent with each other, but are consistent with someone cheating.” MORE
A hundred pages into his study of Washington’s elite “Club,” Mark Leibovich pauses to “proffer a brief tutorial on the recent history of the Washington entourage.” This excerpt recounts the evolution of the entourage — back some four decades, to the days when “Big Money” first rolled into town.
Tim Russert, left, greets former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, right, and his wife, Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent for NBC News, Andrea Mitchell, center, at the 60th anniversary celebration of NBC's Meet the Press at the Newseum in Washington. Leibovich says Russert was the mayor of elite Washington -- This Town. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)
The biggest shift in Washington over the last forty or so years has been the arrival of Big Money and politics as an industry. The old Washington was certainly saturated with politics, but it was smaller and more disjointed. There were small and self-contained political consultancies that worked on campaigns or raised money for elected officials or contracted a service (i.e., direct mail). PR people tried to promote a client’s interests in the media, while lobbyists did the same by engaging directly with government actors. But that “sector,” such as it was, typically comprised mom-and-pop operations. It looked outward with some level of fear and humility. It generated some wealth but not enough to make a discernible impact on the city, its culture, and its sensibilities.
Now those subindustries not only have exploded but have been folded under a colossal umbrella of “consulting” or “government affairs.” “No single development has altered the workings of American democracy in the last century so much as political consulting,” Jill Lepore wrote in the New Yorker. “In the middle decades of the twentieth century, political consultants replaced party bosses as the wielders of political power gained not by votes but by money.”
Over the last dozen years, corporate America (much of it Wall Street) has tripled the amount of money it has spent on lobbying and public affairs consulting in D.C. Relatively new businesses such as the Glover Park Group—founded by three former Clinton and Gore advisers—provide “integrated services” that include lobbying, public relations, and corporate and campaign consulting. “Politics” has become a full-grown and dynamic industry, a self-sustaining weather system all its own. And so much of its energy is directed inward.
Whenever there is an aura of money and power, an entourage grows up, and that is what’s happened in D.C. For much of the last century, the notion of a permanent D.C. was a handful of power brokers embodied by Clark Clifford. Clifford, an adviser to four presidents, was the town’s original Beltway superlawyer and wise eminence—at least until he was indicted for bank fraud. They also included a few “celebrity journalists” like James “Scotty” Reston of the New York Times and Jack Nelson of the Los Angeles Times. But the political entourage was not an industry on a par with Hollywood or Wall Street. Nor were they packaged like celebrities, with pictures splashed on blogs, stories blasted out on Twitter, and agents working multiplatform deals.
In that era, a former campaign official or White House staffer—a 1960s version of, say, Republican TV pundit Mary Matalin—might have hung around and accepted a political appointment if her candidate won. But she never would have joined a mega-industry inside The Club. “Those inside the process had congealed into a permanent political class, the defining characteristic of which was its readiness to abandon those not inside the process,” Joan Didion wrote in Political Fictions.
Perhaps more than anything, Watergate—and All the President’s Men—made journalists a celebrated class in This Town unlike in any other. The triumphs of Woodward and Bernstein and the killer persona of Ben Bradlee defined a sector of Washington at its romantic best, even while the city, during Watergate, exhibited her disgraceful worst. Bradlee partook fully of that. “We became folk heroes,” he said, while knowing that the postgame high of Watergate would never last. After the Post won the Pulitzer in 1973 for its Watergate reporting, Bradlee wrote a letter in anticipation of that day when “this wild self-congratulatory ski-jump” would end and they would all “hit solid ground again.” It would happen soon enough, with a meteor crash in 1981, when the Post was forced to give back a Pulitzer Prize won by a young Post reporter who fabricated a story about an eight-year-old heroin addict. Yet the celebrity aura of the news business in This Town never really abated.
The cable news boom of the 1990s—the Clinton years—accelerated this exponentially. It created a high-profile blur of People on TV whose brands overtook their professional identities. They were not journalists or strategists or pols per se, but citizens of the green room. Former political operatives sought print outlets, not so much because they wanted to write, but because it would help get them on TV. After leaving Tip O’Neill’s office, for example, Chris Matthews got himself a column for the San Francisco Examiner. He was even named the Examiner’s Washington bureau chief, though he was the only one in Washington for the Examiner and it had no footprint beyond being the Bay Area’s sleepy afternoon newspaper. But the affiliation and title helped Matthews get on TV. He begged himself onto political shout fests like The McLaughlin Group. Hardball had its debut in 1997, on CNBC, and was catapulted by the Clinton–Lewinsky scandal. In his book about the media’s conduct during the Monica saga, Bill Kovach, the founding chairman of the Committee of Concerned Journalists, anointed Matthews as part of a “new class of chatterers who emerged in this scandal… a group of loosely credentialed, self-interested performers whose primary job is remaining on TV.”
Now the likes of Matthews are full-throttle personalities commanding five figures a pop on the speaking circuit, big book advances, and—in Matthews’s case, at least for a while—a $5 million-a-year contract at MSNBC. Fame and celebrity feed on themselves, to a point where people outgrow their first public identities—say, in Mary Matalin’s case, as a Republican strategist. A few years back, Matalin signed a deal as a celebrity voice to present the safety instructions before takeoff on Independence Air. She is brand-oriented.
Washington’s exportable sex appeal has continued to grow even as the modern political game has grown so repellent to so many Americans. It is hard to pinpoint exactly when this started, but it seemed to again coincide with the arrival of Bill Clinton. As big money is an inherently sexy lure, Clinton’s hiring of a Wall Street mega-titan, Robert Rubin, to be his Treasury secretary created an aura of wealth creation in the city that hadn’t existed under George H. W. Bush (who presided over a bad economy) and Ronald Reagan (under whom the lobbying culture certainly thrived, but nowhere near to the degree it does now). The Clinton years also brought a new generation of staffers to routinely parlay their “service” positions into lucrative financial services jobs. Few of them had MBAs or banking experience, but the mystique of having served at high levels of politics—particularly in the White House—had become instantly bankable. Rahm Emanuel, for instance, resigned his job in the Clinton White House in 1998 to join the investment banking firm of Wasserstein Perella. Emanuel was not a “numbers guy,” he admitted, but more of a “relationship banker.” Relationship banking paid well. By the time he left to run for Congress in 2002, Emanuel had amassed more than $18 million in two and a half years and was then free to return to his life of “public service.”
Clinton also represented a killer hybrid of pop culture cachet. He was telegenic, young, and willing to discuss his underwear on MTV—and, of course, had a titillating penchant for Big Trouble in his personal life. All this lent Clinton a box-office allure. Hollywood types started showing up at the annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, which had previously been a musty spring affair and the highlight of the local social calendar by default. The dinner has sold out every table since 1993 at a price, in recent years, of about $2,500 per, and the spectacle has festered into a glitzy cold sore of pre-parties, after-parties, and live television coverage from the red carpet.
Actor Kevin Spacey, star of House of Cards laughs during the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner at the Washington Hilton Hotel, Saturday, April 27, 2013, in Washington. Julia Louis-Dreyfus of Veep is in the background. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
* * *
Bill Clinton’s winning presidential campaign of 1992 also spawned the Rise of the Celebrity Operative. While there have always been famous or infamous political aides (Ted Sorensen for JFK, Lee Atwater for Reagan and Bush 41), the Clinton campaign ushered in a fascination with “entourage” characters such as James Carville and George Stephanopoulos, among others, who themselves became stand-alone brands. Carville, for instance, was a journeyman political gym rat who had never advised a winning national campaign until Clinton’s in 1992 and has not played a major role in advising a domestic one since. Yet with his direct and homespun drawl, urchinlike appearance, and bipartisan romance to a well-known Republican pundit—Matalin—Carville has become a marquee imprint whose five-figure speaking fees, TV pundit deals, and book projects have made him and Matalin exceedingly wealthy.
The Carville–Matalin merger was not so much a joining of two warring tribes as it was the sanctification within the political class. Carville quotes Walter Shapiro, the veteran political reporter for Time and other publications, who marveled that anyone would treat the Carville–Matalin union as some kind of exotic mixed marriage. “If either of them had been in love with a tree surgeon from Idaho,” Shapiro said, “that really would have been something.” His larger point is that Political Washington is an inbred company town where party differences are easily subsumed by membership in The Club. Policy argument can often devolve into the trivial slap fights of televised debate: everyone playing a role, putting on a show, and then introducing a plot twist—in this case, “Hey, these people yelling at each other on TV are actually a couple and they’re getting married.”
Kenosha is the largest city in Wisconsin’s first congressional district, which Congressman Paul Ryan has represented since 1999 — thanks to gerrymandered district lines and heavy infusions of cash from out-of-state special interests. With Congress out of session for the August recess and Ryan expected to head home to meet with constituents, members of the Kenosha City Council decided to deliver a message. They voted overwhelmingly to ask Ryan and other Wisconsin representatives “to amend the Constitution to bar corporate wealth from unduly influencing elections.”
That’s not a particularly radical request.
Sixteen states and roughly 500 communities have petitioned Congress to support a constitutional amendment to restore the power of the people—through their federal, state and local representatives — to place limits on the influence of big money, especially corporate money, in American politics. The official calls from states across the country, and from cities such as Kenosha, come in response to the high court’s decision to remove restrictions on corporate spending to buy elections, which capped a series of rulings that undermined limits on the power of wealthy Americans to dominate the political and governing processes of the nation with unprecedented infusions of campaign money.
The Koch brothers, prime funders of conservative causes and Republican politicians, were enthusiastic backers of placing Ryan on the 2012 Republican ticket. That move entered in a fiasco that saw Ryan fail to deliver Wisconsin for the ticket led by Mitt Romney. Ryan not only lost his hometown of Janesville but many of the other communities in his district, including Kenosha.
Casual observers might guess that Ryan would be listening a little more to his district, especially to the voters in cities such as Kenosha.
Reviews of the effectiveness of Federal Election Commission — mandated by Congress back in 1975 to regulate campaign finance — have never been stellar, but lately the word most commonly used to describe it is “dysfunctional.” In the audio interview below, Michael Winship speaks with the Washington Post’s Matea Gold about what, if anything, can be done to break the gridlock at the FEC. MORE
From left to right: Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, National Economic Council Director Lawrence Summers, and Jared Bernstein, economic adviser to Vice President Joe Biden; listen as President Barack Obama meets with Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, June 29, 2010. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
“We should not oppose offshoring or outsourcing,” proclaimed a well-known economist at the 2011 World Business Process Outsourcing/Information Technology Outsourcing (BPO/ITO) Forum. Hundreds of corporate executives sat in on this economist’s lecture, including representatives from Morgan Stanley, JPMorgan, Deustche Bank, Pfizer, Coca Cola and other major businesses. The economist went on to proclaim that critics of outsourcing were like “Luddites who took axes to machinery early in England’s industrial revolution.”
This economist was not a Heritage Foundation scholar or Ayn Rand Institute fellow. The speaker that June was none other than Lawrence Summers, who had just finished up his role as director of the White House National Economic Council, where he was President Obama’s top economic adviser.
While working for the anti-corruption blog Republic Report last year, I reached out to conference organizer Kartik Kilachand to ask him about the speaking fee Summers was given and why his full remarks were never posted to the website (only a snippet was published). Kilachand replied that this was “confidential information” because the conference had signed a non-disclosure agreement with Summers that concealed both his full remarks and speaking fee. I also made a query to Julie Shample, Summers’s assistant at Harvard. “I wouldn’t have any information about this, you may want to check with the forum,” replied Shample.