On the Money: A New Gilded Age

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Terry McAuliffe's successful political campaign for governor in Virginia was richly funded by billionaire Tom Steyer. (AP Photo/Bristol Herald Courier, Earl Neikirk)

Telecom Giants Paid Millions to ‘Honor’ Minority Lawmakers Before the Merger → When the Senate Judiciary Committee meets on March 26, it will hear representatives from Time Warner Cable and Comcast answer questions about their planned $45.2 billion merger. While legislators are all promising a careful antitrust review, Huffington Post’s Paul Blumenthal reveals how an army of lobbyists have been working for years to grease the skids for mega-merger success. The two telecom giants have contributed millions of dollars to “honor” members of Congress and congressional caucuses by contributing to their causes. Blumenthal writes: “The biggest recipients of this money have been nonprofits linked to minority lawmakers, traditionally some of the most progressive members of Congress.”

The Pro-Money Court: How the Roberts Supreme Court Dismantled Campaign Finance Law → The Supreme Court decision in McCutcheon v. FEC is expected any day now and the Brennan Center Center for Justice has published a detailed backgrounder explaining how this decision will fit into a string of campaign finance decisions that allow moneyed interests to eclipse those of average American voters. In McCutcheon v. FEC, aggregate contribution limits — the total amount that one contributor can give in a federal election to all candidates, political parties and PACs, combined – are at risk. David Earley and Avram Billig write, “McCutcheon threatens to exponentially worsen the political spending arms race — and to create risks of government corruption unlike anything the country has seen since the Gilded Age.”

The Brown Grad Student Who Chased the NRA Out of Rhode Island → Sam Bell is a graduate student in geology at Brown University. He’s also the state coordinator of the Rhode Island Progressive Democrats. No, he didn’t chase the National Rifle Association out by throwing rocks, but he did do some digging. He and his group unearthed serious campaign finance violations by the NRA’s state and national PACs. In an interview with Talking Points Memo, Bell explains that suspicions arose after a popular assault weapons ban failed to pass in Rhode Island’s Democratically controlled House and Senate. He learned that the NRA was taking money from its federal PAC, laundering it through its state PAC and giving thousands of dollars to  Rhode Island’s top four lawmakers, which is illegal under state law. The complaint from Bell’s group resulted in the NRA paying a large fine and shutting down its Rhode Island PAC.

What Makes a Good US Ambassador? American Foreign Service Association offers advice as Obama faces criticism → The American Foreign Service Association, a group of former ambassadors, just released a new report detailing the essential qualifications to be a successful diplomat. And not a moment too soon. Earlier this month the press slammed President Obama for offering ambassadorships as political plums. Sitting before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, some of the nominees had to admit they had never even visited the countries to which they’d been appointed. According to an analysis by the Center for Public Integrity, 48 of the 85 ambassadors Obama nominated in the last year have been political appointees, rather than career diplomats. According to CPI’s Michael Beckel, that’s 56 percent compared to some 30 percent under Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

The Steyer Brothers: “We’re Fearless” → Politico’s Stephanie Simon and Caitlin Emma profile Tom and Jim Steyer, two wealthy brothers aiming to be major political players and inviting comparisons to the Koch brothers. Billionaire Tom Steyer already made headlines when he poured money into the Virginia governor’s race to help Democrat Terry McAuliffe eke out a victory. He’s now promising to spend at least $100 million this fall backing candidates who will combat global warming. Now his older brother Jim –  a children’s advocate  focused on education, technology, poverty and privacy –  is promising to raise  millions of dollars to stock his war chest in order to enter the political fray. As he told Politico, “you don’t bring a squirt gun to a fight where the other guys have AK-47s.”

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

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