Kickstart Citizen Koch

The process that led to “Citizen Koch” being pulled from the airwaves illustrates exactly the point that Lessin and Deal’s film makes: Money can not only buy action in our democracy, it can also buy silence.

– Michael Keegan, President, People for the American Way

American democracy has been compromised. In reality, we reside in a plutocracy in which the wealthy and corporate overlords have an out-sized say in legislative and regulatory processes due to their sizable campaign contributions and high-paid lobbyists. This influence the capitalist elite have over our government is unpalatable enough, but it gets even more distasteful when they can stifle the media and the free speech of journalists and filmmakers, or anyone trying to communicate a message. Lest they forget, the Constitution still guarantees free speech to the rest of us too.

An article in the New Yorker recently reported that a public television station in New York, succumbed to pressure, either directly or indirectly, from David Koch to halt the funding and airing of Carl Deal and Tia Lessin’s documentary film, Citizen Koch. Mr. Koch has donated $23 million to public television over the years, and until he resigned on May 16, had served on the board of WNET since 2006. Citizen Koch focuses on the unlimited campaign spending that the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizen’s United ruling unleashed. The filmmakers say that the documentary’s title is a “metaphor for American politics today and the outsized influence wealthy individuals and corporate interests have in our democracy.”

It was rumored earlier this year that the Koch brothers had an interest in purchasing the Tribune Company’s newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and the Baltimore Sun. Since the 1990s, media consolidation has been happening at an alarming rate. This consolidation is detrimental to a democracy because a diversity of voices and ideas can too easily be silenced as reporters and opinion writers are directed to reflect the political ideology and interests of the owners.

I have the same problem with billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg. While I do support many of his policies, he can reek of arrogance. When he decided to run for a third term, he basically spit in the face of New York City voters who had twice voted to limit the mayor and city council members to two terms. (Current mayoral candidate Christine Quinn, Speaker of the New York City Council, was complicit in changing the law so that Bloomberg and city council members could run for a third term, which is one reason some New Yorkers oppose her candidacy.)

I remember distinctly when Bloomberg received pushback and criticism from constituents for this power play and in a defensive huff (okay, that’s how I perceived it) proclaimed something akin to the fact that he could finance his own campaign. I lost some respect for him that day. Just because he could finance his own campaign, doesn’t mean he should. But then billionaires live and play by different rules than the rest of us, which is my point.

Americans take great pride in residing in a democracy and boasting about our freedoms. Yet our current democratic system is broken. When moneyed interests are allowed to shape public policy and shred regulations to their benefit regardless of the cost to everyone else, that is a travesty. The American people are the losers. When wealthy donors influence non-profit organizations’ programs and try to suppress free speech in the media, the American people are the losers.

If rich people want to donate money to causes, great, but it should be done because they believe in the organization’s mission. They should not be free to take an organization they don’t like (maybe a public television station) and try to manipulate and shape it with their millions of dollars to reflect more closely their worldview. It is time to stand up for ourselves and stop letting people like the Kochs, Bloomberg, and the Sheldon Adelsons of the world bully us into submission by enticing us with dollar signs.

Wall Street gets bailed out time and again, but not Main Street. A hedge fund manager commits a hit and run of a bicyclist causing spinal cord injuries yet is charged with only a misdemeanor (should have been a felony) and no jail time  because his company would be affected negatively by his absence. A crack cocaine user faces much harsher sentencing than a powder cocaine user (though the sentencing ratio was decreased from 100:1 to 18:1 in 2010 when President Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act).  These inequities should have us all seeing red.

The funding aspect of Citizen Koch is more complicated than I’ve described above. To get a better understanding of it, watch DemocracyNow!’s fifteen-minute interview with the filmmakers here:

So, I challenge you. Kick in some money on Kickstarter to close the funding gap needed for the Citizen Koch documentary. The filmmakers have 15 days left and have raised $126,084. Their goal of $75,000 has been exceeded, but the funding they lost was $150,000, so to recover that amount, they still need $23,916. I made a contribution today, becoming the 2,747th funder. It’s past time to get serious about protecting our democracy before we hit the point of no return.

The Biggest Problem

Quick! What’s the biggest problem in American politics today?

Answer: Money.

Now you might find it odd, with all of America’s problems, I can come up with one single word that stands out above all other problems. But my reasoning is simple: all the other problems spring from this one.

The NRA’s money has blocked expanded background checks before people can buy guns. Big money watered down banking reform in the wake of the financial crisis of 2007-2008, and has hindered any and all legislation that could potentially help the majority of Americans, if it might in any way harm the finances of the super-rich.

Both parties put campaign contributors at the top of their “listen-to” lists, paying donors back with tax breaks, subsidies, and other ear-marks. Congress reps and senators spend more time wooing money than they do pass laws to help the country. No one wants to lose the lavish perks that come with lush campaigning, let alone lose an election.

I’m not naïve. I know there’s been money in politics for as long as there’s been politics, and it’s been a problem for every system. The Romans may have had a Republic, but only “citizens” were allowed to vote. Denying a voice to the slaves and former slaves (and of course women) tilted the playing field heavily towards those with money. Aristocratic, monarchical systems naturally restricted political power to those with economic power as well. The early 19th-century U.S. government had its inherently-corrupt spoils system, and the late-19th-century Grant Administration was legendary for the influence that Big Money wielded.how a bill is passed

As corporations have grown in size and sway in the 20th century, so too has the clout they’ve had in Washington. Half-hearted efforts have been made here and there to curtail the influence of the affluent, but it’s been nothing more than symbolic and has barely slowed the march of monetary power in politics.

The Citizens United case, though, raised the influence of money to an entirely new level. Campaign finance laws, however weak, mean nothing when there are no limits to corporate spending on “issues”. Equating “money” with “free speech” gives the rich Constitutional protection.

____

The problem is that Congress is never going to vote to give themselves a massive pay cut, which is what meaningful campaign finance reform would amount to.

Never, that is, unless we force them to.

The only way we’re going to reduce the influence of money in American politics – and the only way we’re going to be able to solve the myriad other problems we face – is by screaming our heads off at our State and Federal representatives, and letting them know beyond any shadow of doubt that we’re not going to take it any more.

Tell them in no uncertain terms that getting Big Money out of the political system is Priority Number One. That’s it’s one person, one vote, not one dollar, one vote. That we’re not going to stand still while they reap millions in legal kickbacks in return for sponsoring special interest legislation.

_____

Specifics? For starters, ban Congress members from taking cushy “consultant” jobs as influence-peddler – excuse me, “lobbyists” – for 10 years after leaving office. That’s one of the chief ways wealth special interests reward lawmakers who do their bidding, and it’s one of the easiest reforms to put in place.

Overturning Citizens United is something that we’ll have to leave up to the Supreme Court. Let’s hope that the existing members will either come to their senses, or else future Presidents and Congressional members will have the sense to appoint sane Justices in the future.

Down the road, government funding of all campaigning is the only answer. Have the federal government provide the same amount of campaign money to all qualified candidates. That not only will level the political playing field between rich and poor, but it will cut down on the number of annoying and counter-productive political ads and robocalls.

_____

The last national election saw literally billions in campaign spending, much of it on misleading, distorted, negative campaign ads. Did all that additional money get a better government? No. All it did was divide Americans even more, and make our political representatives all the more beholden to special interests.

The time is long past for meaningful campaign finance reform. Start screaming now.

Money, Money Everywhere

“We can have a democracy or we can have great concentrated wealth in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both.”   ~ Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis

English: Louis Brandeis

Louis Brandeis (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The 2012 Presidential Election cost a whopping $2.23 billion according to Bloomberg’s Gregory Giroux.

Per the New York Times, the Obama Campaign + the Democratic Party + Priorities USA Action Super PAC raised $1,072.6m and spent $985.7m, while the Romney campaign + the Republican Party + Restore Our Future Super PAC raised $992.5 m and spent $992.0m. 7% of Obama’s money came from Priorities USA Action while 16% of Romney’s came from Restore Our Future, both Super PACs.

Official photographic portrait of US President...

Official photographic portrait of US President Barack Obama (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In other outside spending: 8 of the top 10 groups went to defeat Obama while only 2 in the top 10 were against Romney—$281.6 million supporting Romney, or against Obama; $68.4 million against Romney. More independent spending totals can be found here.

The Center for Public Integrity recently released their free ebook, Consider the Source, offering analysis of the 2012 presidential race including a compilation of articles tracking outside money and its influence on the election.

In Consider the Source, p. 139, “Super PACs, Nonprofits favored Romney Over Obama,” Michael Beckel and Russ Choma on October 30, 2012, published the below figures:

Contributions raised by Super PACs: Obama – $249 million; Romney – $397 million

Spending by Super PACs and other groups: Obama – $237 million; Romney – $577 million

The spending from outside Republican groups helped keep Mitt Romney viable, but not enough to outperform the Obama fundraising machine on Election Day. The break-out for candidate donors, up to the contribution maximum of $2,500 was:

Obama: 57% under $200, 33% at $200 – $2,499, 11% at $2,500 (max.)

Romney: 24% under $200, 37% at $200 – $2,499, 39% at $2,500 (max.)

Romney

Photo: Roger Barone/TRNS
Governor Mitt Romney during campaign stop in Philadelphia. Romney’s visit to Philly was organized by a local chapter of the Tea Party. © Roger Barone 2012

Many of the Super PACs were backed by billionaire donors. Casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and his family topped the list at $30 million for Mitt Romney. However, Huffington Post reported on October 27, 2012, the Adelson family’s total contribution to GOP candidates was $53.69 million.

It has proved more difficult to find contribution totals for 501 (c)(4) organizations, or social welfare organizations. These groups are also able to raise unlimited funds but are not required to disclose donor names, so there is a lack of transparency.

Per OpenSecrets.org, there are hundreds of millions of dollars off the books and “What remains unknown — and may never fully be accounted for — is how much money secretive “shadow money” organizations spent, with some investing massive sums on ads, but also on unreported and purportedly “non-political” activities, as the election neared. It may take years to determine how much they spent.” This secrecy further degrades the low-level of confidence many Americans have regarding the integrity of our democracy.

Overall the Super PACs and non-profits favored Romney over Obama. While these groups didn’t allow Romney to win the presidency, they definitely helped put him on a more level-playing field with President Obama. From the Beckel and Choma article referenced above,  “of all the outside spending in the 2012 election, more that $450 million was dedicated to the presidential election with more than $350 million spent helping Romney and about $100 million spent to help President Barack Obama (p. 136).

That’s a staggering amount of money–money spent to influence elections and the electorate as well as to buy influence once the candidates are in office.  As written in a previous post, senators and congressmen spend anywhere from 30-70% of their work day fundraising, on the phone or meeting with donors to ask for contributions, instead of legislating.

The Center for Public Integrity reported on February 1 that Democratic Super PACs started 2013 with a cash advantage but GOP Super PACs will not be outdone. Already these outside groups are gearing up for the 2014 midterm elections. John Bolton recently started his own Super PAC that will focus on his foreign policy agenda. 

While the money continues to roll in, there are grassroots efforts from organizations whose goal is to overturn Citizens United and restore financial integrity to our elections. A few of those organizations and their efforts will be profiled next week.

Cross-posted at The Feisty Liberal

Other resources:

 Related articles