Money and Politics: The Most Undercovered Stories of 2014

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The influence of big money on our politics was a huge story in 2014. But we wanted to know what the media may have missed — or underplayed — in their coverage of lobbying, campaign finance, the revolving door between business and government and other factors shaping the policy landscape. So we asked some good government activists what they thought should have gotten more attention this year — here’s what they had to say.

Why Isn’t Obama Using His Executive Power to Clean Up a Corrupt System?

Lisa Gilbert, director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch Division.

lisa gilbert, public citizenWhile there is always a good amount of news coverage on the issue of excessive money in politics during any year that holds an election, the piece of the story that has gotten less than the appropriate attention is that the Obama administration could act to remedy parts of this problem. Since we can’t count on a deadlocked Congress to take this issue up, the need for the administration to do something is clear. The White House must act to reestablish its bonafides as an administration that cares about cleaning up government. One example ― the SEC has the power to move on a rule that has gotten a record number of public comments requiring disclosure of political spending at public companies. The White House could also move on a long-dormant proposal to require similar disclosure from government contractors who receive taxpayer dollars. No matter what the solution, it is incumbent upon the administration to act, and for the media to spotlight the void until they do.

Foreign Dark Money?

Trevor Potter, former chairman of the Federal Election Commission and President and General Counsel of the Campaign Legal Center.

Trevor-Potter_6836_gestBillionaires and other deep-pocketed US special interests may not be the only anonymous backers of “dark money” groups. Only a few easily evaded regulations — really nothing more — guard the door to our democracy from China, North Korea or any other nation wishing to determine the results of our elections. Yes, it is technically illegal for foreign nationals to contribute to nonprofit groups that spend hundreds of millions in our elections, but how will we ever know? The donors to these groups are not made public, so only the IRS will ever see names — and how can they know if these are shell companies funneling money to elect or defeat candidates? Without a red flag being raised, the funders will never be checked by the IRS.

If North Korea hacked Sony and China penetrated our national defense systems, it would be naïve to think a number of nations have not at the very least considered hacking our elections.

Greasing the Revolving Door

Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight (POGO).

Danielle Brian, Pogo The federal revolving door is spinning fast — government and congressional officials are leaving for contractors, industry associations and think tanks, and at some point most will circle back to public service. In the old days, the mid-1970s when large-scale outside influences on government were creating concerns, the government tracked the revolving door and the press wrote about the issue. But today, the revolving door has become such a frequent occurrence that little is said until an inspector general finds that someone violated the law. Ashton Carter, President Obama’s nominee to be Secretary of Defense, has revolved so many times that he’s broken the door at the Pentagon. The same holds true at Agriculture, Homeland Security, Treasury, and the Securities and Exchange Commission. Often, there is a financial incentive to leave government for the private sector but going to the government can have a payoff as well. Antonio Weiss, the president’s nominee to be Treasury undersecretary, is in line to receive millions of dollars in “accelerated” financial payments from his current firm if he is confirmed.

It all creates cozy ties between industries and federal regulators who are supposed to be overseeing the safety of our food and medicines, as well as the well-being of our financial markets. The end result is that we now rely on a government that outsources most of its work and relies on the advice of outsiders who have or had a personal financial interest in the outcome. The revolving door creates a subservient government and more should be done to question the practice and the government’s policies that are steered by those coming and going.

The FCC and Regulatory Capture

Tim Karr, campaign director for Free Press, the Free Press Action Fund and

Tim Karr, Free PressNowhere were those revolving doors more evident than at the FCC. New Free Press research finds that of the 28 commissioners who served at the agency since the Reagan administration, 21 (or 75 percent) left to become employees, consultants, legal counsel or lobbyists for the communications companies they were meant to oversee. The issue came to a head in 2011, when Commissioner Meredith Attwell Baker left the agency for a top job in Comcast’s Washington shop — just months after she voted to approve the cable giant’s multibillion-dollar takeover of NBC Universal.  And it’s a problem today under Chairman Tom Wheeler, who formerly served as a top lobbyist for the wireless and cable industries. Wheeler is now weighing a decision on the vital issue of Net Neutrality, which pits the rights of Internet users against the profit motives of the companies he once represented.

Civil Liberties Advocates Square Off Against Police Unions

Nicole Austin-Hillery, director and counsel at the Washington, DC, office of The Brennan Center for Justice.

Screen Shot 2014-12-30 at 10.49.57 AMFollowing the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, there has, understandably, been a sea of protests and cries for criminal justice reform. Few have turned to Congress for solutions, but despite abysmal approval ratings and some lobbying resistance to police reforms, there’s a glimmer of hope. This month, Congress passed a bill requiring law enforcement agencies to report information about the deaths of individuals in their custody. While not in direct response to the turmoil in Ferguson and New York, it represents a win for civil liberties advocates and sorely-needed leadership from Congress, which has paved the way for significant change throughout our nation’s history (the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act is a good reminder). As the 114th Congress begins, I’m hopeful that our nation’s legislative leaders will follow its own storied history and help us legislate our way to a better criminal justice system for all.

Court Victories for Election Spending Disclosure Continued in 2014

J. Gerald Hebert, executive director and director of litigation of the Campaign Legal Center.

G_Hebert_pic_bio-e1372258962507-150x150Courts from coast-to-coast have continued to uphold laws requiring disclosure of election spending. A long and growing list of Republican politicians may have flip-flopped and abandoned their longstanding support for disclosure, but fortunately the courts have held firm.

Disclosure of those seeking to buy election results and curry favor with the winners is now demonized as an attack on First Amendment rights. Fortunately, the courts continue to overwhelmingly support disclosure laws against a wave of such challenges.

While the Supreme Court has not been kind to campaign finance reforms or Court precedent upholding them, the Court has not wavered on its support for disclosure by overwhelming 8-1 margins.

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