Money & Politics

Who Buys the Spies? The Hidden Corporate Cash Behind America’s Out-of-Control National Surveillance State

This post first appeared at Alternet. This is the first in a new series from AlterNet’s New Economic Dialogue Project, edited by Lynn Parramore. 

Long before President Obama kicked off his 2008 campaign, many Americans took it for granted that George W. Bush’s vast, sprawling national security apparatus needed to be reined in. For Democrats, many independents and constitutional experts of various persuasions, Vice President Dick Cheney’s notorious doctrine of the “unitary executive” (which holds that the president controls the entire executive branch), was the ultimate statement of the imperial presidency. It was the royal road to easy (or no) warrants for wiretaps, sweeping assertions of the government’s right to classify information secret, and arbitrary presidential power. When Mitt Romney embraced the neoconservatives in the 2012 primaries, supporters of the president often cited the need to avoid a return to the bad old days of the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld National Security State as a compelling reason for favoring his reelection. Reelect President Obama, they argued, or Big Brother might be back.

But that’s not how this movie turned out: The 2012 election proved to be a post-modern thriller, in which the main characters everyone thought they knew abruptly turned into their opposites and the plot thickened just when you thought it was over.

Glenn Greenwald, a reporter of The Guardian, speaks to reporters at his hotel in Hong Kong Monday, June 10, 2013. (AP Photo/Vincent Yu)

Glenn Greenwald, a reporter of the Guardian, speaks to reporters at his hotel in Hong Kong. (AP Photo/Vincent Yu)

In early June 2013, Glenn Greenwald, then of the Guardian, with an assist from journalists at The Washington Post, electrified the world with stories drawn from documents and testimony from Edward Snowden, an employee of Booz Allen Hamilton working under contract with the National Security Agency, who had fled the country. They broke the news that the US government had been collecting vast amounts of information on not only foreigners, but also American citizens. And the US had been doing this for years with the cooperation of virtually all the leading firms in telecommunications, software and high tech electronics, including Google, Apple, Microsoft, Verizon and Facebook. Sometimes the government even defrays their costs. MORE

The $13 Billion JPMorgan Settlement is a Good Start — Now Someone Should Go to Jail

This post first appeared in The Nation.

JPMorgan Chase Chairman, President and CEO Jamie Dimon presents his driver's license to Justice Department security officer G. Rocher, as he arrives at the Justice Department in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

JPMorgan Chase Chairman, President and CEO Jamie Dimon presents his driver's license to Justice Department security officer G. Rocher, as he arrives at the Justice Department in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

JPMorgan Chase, the star of mega-banks, is up against the wall at the Justice Department, trying to settle its myriad crimes for $13 billion. That’s real money, even for a trillion-dollar bank. So this is progress. After years of scandalous indifference, the Obama administration appears to have found its backbone.

Better late than never, grumpy citizens can say. But that doesn’t settle the matter. Four years ago, Senator Ted Kaufman of Delaware crisply described the more fundamental problem posed by the wantonly reckless behemoths of Wall Street. MORE

Citizens United, McCain-Feingold Fueled This Standoff

This post first appeared on HuffPost.

In this Jan. 25, 2006 file photo, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), left, chats with Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) on Capitol Hill. (AP Photo/Lauren Victoria Burke, File)

Dysfunctional politics led a coalition of independent conservative groups and hardline Republican lawmakers to push for a showdown on Obamacareover a continuing resolution to fund the government and thus to shut down the government for more than two weeks. But what empowered a fracturing Republican Party to bring chaos on Washington?

The short answer: a one-two punch rewriting of campaign finance law that drove legislators to heed their own parties’ extreme elements.

Former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL) has blamed the 2002 McCain-Feingold reform law, calling it “the worst thing that ever happened to Congress.” By taking unlimited “soft money” away from the political parties, but especially from the Republican Party, the law empowered the nascent insurgents at the Club for Growth. MORE

End Game: John Boehner Doesn’t Even Have to Cave

Flickr/ sayednairb

Seven days into a government shutdown, and 9 days away from a potentially catastrophic breach of the nation’s debt limit, and the question everyone is asking is: who will blink first?

The White House says that it absolutely will not negotiate over a debt limit hike. They see it as imperative to delegitimize the tactic of using the threat of default to squeeze policy concessions out of the majority once and for all. For the administration, this is much more than a partisan spat – they see this series of forced crises as a fundamental threat to our democratic system, an approach that has the potential to permanently alter the balance of power between the White House and Congress, and between the House and the Senate. They believe that if they give anything substantial to House Republicans in exchange for a short-term deal funding the government, we’ll just end up in the same situation a few months from now. Lurching from showdown to showdown will become a new norm in Washington, DC.

The only way to delegitimize nullification-through-brinksmanship is to force the GOP to back down without winning anything (or without winning anything more than a symbolic, face-saving concession that everyone will see as such).

On the other side, Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) can’t get his caucus to vote for anything that doesn’t win them significant policy concessions. “We’re not going to be disrespected,” Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R-IN) said last week in a much cited interview. “We have to get something out of this. And I don’t know what that even is.”

That position is being shored up by a significant bloc of GOP lawmakers in the House who represent overwhelmingly conservative districts and fear primary challenges from their right – backed by deep-pocketed outside groups that demand a hardline –if they don’t hold fast.

But it’s also been widely reported that there are enough votes in the House to pass a clean budget resolution, and presumably a clean debt limit hike, with mostly Democrats and a handful of Republican moderates. So far, John Boehner has refused to bring a bill to the floor, insisting that he will only consider legislation that has the support of most Republicans.

According to the conventional wisdom, Boehner will face a revolt from within his own ranks and lose his speakership if he folds and passes a bill with mostly Democratic votes (although Jonathan Bernstein argues that Boehner’s got the safest job in Washington because nobody wants to deal with the messy caucus he has to wrangle).

So what is the end-game? Democrats have offered what’s known as a discharge petition which would force Boehner to allow a vote on a clean budget resolution, but it requires the support of a couple of dozen Republican lawmakers, and that’s unlikely to happen. And because of various procedural rules, it won’t be effective for lifting the debt ceiling before the October 17 deadline.

But there are other procedural tricks available if at least 17 Republican lawmakers join with a united Democratic caucus to force a vote. And that’s where a potential escape hatch lies. A couple of dozen Republican lawmakers are on record supporting a clean resolution that would end the impasse. Many in this group don’t come from deep red districts – about 20 representatives come from districts with lots of federal workers in Virginia, or from purple districts in New Jersey, New York, California and Minnesota. They’re not immune to tea party challenges, but they are much more secure from threats on the right and their constituents aren’t pressing them to keep up the fight in the same way as their colleagues are being pushed.

What this means is that John Boehner doesn’t need to bring a bill to the floor himself – he doesn’t need to cave publicly. He can quietly signal to this group that they can join Democrats without fear of retaliation by the party’s leadership, and then he can hold a press conference and weep and yell about he’s been betrayed when the deed is done.

So far, those Republicans who want to vote for a clean budget resolution haven’t bucked their party’s leadership – they haven’t walked the talk. And a number of informed commenters have pointed out that they have little incentive to do so. Those points are well taken, but premature. They have every reason to remain disciplined now, nine days before we breach the debt limit. Soon, the financial markets will start reacting violently as we get closer to the moment of truth. GOP donors will be calling friendly legislators, and they’ll become more frantic as the day of reckoning approaches.

The administration sees this as a do-or-die moment for the relevancy of the executive branch. Obama is not seeking re-election, and his team knows that the polls show that the other side will take more blame for a disaster.

So in the eleventh hour, either Boehner allows a vote on a debt limit hike, there’s a mutiny by Democrats and a handful of Republicans, or we find out what happens when investors lose confidence in the full faith and credit of the US government.

Money Corrupting Politics Could Get Even Worse

People stand in line outside the Supreme Court in Washington D.C.,on Tuesday, October 8, 2013, to hear arguments in McCutcheon v. FEC.
People stand in line outside the Supreme Court this morning to hear arguments in McCutcheon v. FEC.

If you think we need more money influencing politics in America, then today could be a great day for you.

The Supreme Court is hearing arguments this morning in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission (FEC),  a case challenging the overall limits an individual can donate to political action committees, candidates and parties in a two-year federal election cycle.

Under current law, a person can give up to $46,200 for federal candidates and $70,800 for parties and independent committees during the 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.”

The outcome is considered critical to the future of campaign finance, with many calling it Citizens United 2.0, referring to the 2010 Supreme Court ruling in Citizen United v. FEC  allowing corporations to give political candidates unlimited funds.

A “bad sequel”

In a phone call yesterday the advocacy group Common Cause called the case a “bad sequel” to Citizens United, which paved the way for the most expensive election in history and a flood of negative ads (those of you in swing states will remember how miserable watching TV was last fall). MORE

Report: Conservative Dark Money Groups Planned This Budget Standoff for Months

Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., walks out of the Republican policy luncheon on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2012. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

A must-read report by Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Mike McIntire in Sunday’s New York Times should put to rest any lingering debate about who’s ultimately to blame for the shutdown. According to the report, a who’s who of conservative activists headed by deep-pocketed funders have planned for months to trigger a budgetary showdown as a last-gasp effort to kill off Obamacare before the American people have a chance to see its biggest benefits come online.

From the story:

Shortly after President Obama started his second term, a loose-knit coalition of conservative activists led by former Attorney General Edwin Meese III gathered in the capital to plot strategy. Their push to repeal Mr. Obama’s health care law was going nowhere, and they desperately needed a new plan.

Out of that session, held one morning in a location the members insist on keeping secret, came a little-noticed “blueprint to defunding Obamacare,” signed by Mr. Meese and leaders of more than three dozen conservative groups. MORE

Businesses Refusing to Cover Contraception Because…Citizens United?!

This post first appeared at Mother Jones.

Ann Robbins, left, from Richboro, Pa., holds a sign during a rally for religious freedom organized in part by the Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia, in front of Independence Hall, Friday, March 23, 2012, in Philadelphia. The rally was in objection to the Health and Human Service mandate that private health care cover women's contraception. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Ann Robbins, left, from Richboro, Pa., holds a sign during a rally for religious freedom organized in part by the Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia, in front of Independence Hall, Friday, March 23, 2012, in Philadelphia. The rally was in objection to the Health and Human Service mandate that private health care cover women's contraception. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Frank and Philip Gilardi live in Ohio and own produce packing and delivery companies that employ about 400 people. The brothers are also devout Catholics who donate food to religious charities, provide a trailer for the local parish picnic every year, put pro-life bumper stickers on all company trucks — and don’t want their companies’ insurance plans to cover contraception, as the Affordable Care Act (ACA) requires. They’ve sued the Obama administration, arguing that the mandate violates their constitutionally protected religious freedoms.

How? By citing the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling, which suggested that corporations have the same First Amendment rights as human beings to spend unlimited amounts of money to influence elections. The Gilardis’ lawyers — and a host of similar lawsuits — are arguing that if the courts have found that corporations have free-speech rights, they ought to also find that businesses have the right to free expression of religion.

Judges have so far been pretty skeptical of this line of argument, given that the law still defines a corporation as “an artificial being, invisible, intangible, and existing only in contemplation of law.” No court has ever held that a corporation can actually exercise religion, no matter how many bumper stickers are put on its trucks. MORE

Tea Party Lawmaker Letter on Med Device Tax Repeal Authored by Lobby Group

This post first appeared in The Nation on September 28, 2013.

The sun rises behind the White House in Washington, Sunday, Sept. 29, 2013. Locked in a deepening struggle with President Barack Obama, the Republican-controlled House approved legislation early Sunday imposing a one-year delay in key parts of the nation's health care law and repealing a tax on medical devices as the price for avoiding a partial government shutdown in a few days' time. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Today, House Republicans pushed one more step towards a government shut down by coalescing around a continuing resolution that delays the implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) by one year, while permanently repealing one of the primary funding mechanisms for the law, a 2.3 percent excise tax on medical device companies.

While its clear that Democrats will reject any delay of health reform, the move to revoke the medical device tax can be seen as a coup by industry lobbyists. The medical device industry, led by AdvaMed, a trade association that spends $29 million a year, has pushed aggressively to ensure that medical device companies contribute nothing to the financing of the ACA.

After the tea party catapulted House Republicans into the majority, 75 right-wing lawmakers wrote a letter to Speaker Boehner demanding that a vote to repeal the device tax occur “as soon as possible.” The metadata of the letter shows that it was authored by Ryan Strandlund, a member of AdvaMed’s government affairs team. MORE

Some People Are Making Big Bucks Sabotaging Obamacare

This story originally appeared at The Nation.

Senator Ted Cruz, R-Texas, greets supporters after addressing thousands of tea party activists at the US Capitol. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

To gain steam for his initiative to tie funding of the government to defunding Obamacare, Senator Ted Cruz appeared at events over the summer with the Tea Party Express, a political action committee. “Either continue funding the government without giving one more dime to Obamacare, or shut down the government,” demands Tea Party Express chair Amy Kremer.

The Tea Party Express, in turn, has sponsored fundraising drives to help “elect more leaders like Ted Cruz.”

One problem for Cruz-acolytes hoping to make their way into office? The Tea Party Express PAC has spent nearly every dollar of the $2.1 million it has raised this year on campaign consultants and fundraising fees, but not a dime in transfers to candidates or on independent expenditures. In previous years, the PAC has funneled much of its proceeds to Russo Marsh and Rogers, a Republican consulting firm in Sacramento, California.

The frantic crusade to screw up the launch of the Affordable Care Act is a sad tale in American politics. If conservatives are successful, even with a short-term government shutdown Cruz and his House GOP allies might achieve, patients will suffer. If young people fail to sign up for health insurance — the stated goal of one Koch-backed front group now airing television advertisements — more will drown under crushing debt if they find themselves in need of serious medical care. But Washington, DC, has a bizarre way of incentivizing harmful behavior, and the sabotage Obamacare campaign is not without its winners. MORE

Is Newt Fronting for a Dubious PAC?

This article first appeared on Mother Jones.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

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

Live Event: “The Founders vs. The Roberts Court”

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

Justices Should Think of Quarter Pounders in Latest Money in Politics Case

This post first appeared in the Brennan Center blog.

Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese
(Coal Miki/flickr)

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

Report: “Low-Crime Tax” Keeps For-Profit Prisons Profitable

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

Some Congressional Food Stamp Critics Have Their Own Safety Net

Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, speaks at the 40th annual Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Md., Saturday, March 16, 2013. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
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

Why Campaign Contribution Limits Matter

This post first appeared at the Center for Responsive Politics’

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

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