Corporate Money in Politics: Who's Complaining?

It has been the Democrats’ pitch to the uninformed that they -- the recipients of millions of dollars worth of free puffery and support from America’s almost uniformly left-wing press, unions and big foundations, academic and fat cat dollars -- want to keep corporate money out of politics. In fact, the record of this administration and the Democrats in Wisconsin show what they really mean is they want to keep their opponents broke and unable to advance their political message.

In Reason, Elizabeth Nolan Brown informs readers who might have missed it that the democrats are rolling in corporate funds:

Over at Vice, Lee Fang, an investigative fellow with The Nation Institute, looks at some of the "dark money"  flowing around Democratic political circles. Turns out some secret sources of Democrat campaign funding are the very mega-companies many progressives rail against, especially when they're donating to Republican causes. 

From Fang: 

"While much of the talk about a progressive revival revolves around populist figures like New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Senator Elizabeth Warren, there are other, better funded efforts afoot. Corporate titans from finance to natural gas to big retail and telecom are attempting to steer the party, and as the midterms shape up, these interests are pushing to ensure they continue to have wide sway over America's only viable outlet for center-left expression at the polls. Which brings us to the latest venture in corporate-centered party-building and the group hosting a chat in (the America's Natural Gas Alliance's) headquarters: The NewDEAL."

The NewDEAL was created by Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley and Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) to support pro-business progressives (DEAL stands for "Developing Exceptional American Leaders"). Led by Sen. Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, the NewDEAL is a 501(c)(4) issue advocacy non-profit, allowing for campaign activity without disclosure of donors. But Vice claims to have uncovered a NewDEAL donor list:

"VICE has obtained a 'supporter list' showing donors of the NewDEAL, which reads like a who's who of corporations seeking government access: Comcast, Fluor, Merck, Microsoft, New York Life, Pfizer, Qualcomm, Verizon, Wal-Mart, the Private Equity Growth Capital Council, among others, including, of course, the host of Tuesday's event, ANGA.

[...] the same corporate forces that Democrats are leaning on are propping up the far right tilt of the Republicans as well. On the local level, meaning state legislative races, there are two competing committees, the RSLC for the GOP and DLCC for Dems. A VICE review of recent campaign filings show that the two committees share many of the same top 25 donors: Wal-Mart, Pfizer, tobacco giant Reynolds America, PhRMA (a drug industry trade group), AT&T."

As long as the federal government intrudes ever more substantially into the economic life of this country, corporations have no choice but to get involved and contribute to parties and candidates‘ campaigns. And as the amount of money candidates need to run successful campaigns gets increasingly large, more efforts are made in the elusive and certainly futile effort to pretend there’s a good, constitutionally sound reason to regulate it. In the 1970s the Federal Election Commission was created to control such funds in federal elections and to make it illegal for corporations, labor organization, federal government contractors, and foreign nationals to make “contributions or expenditures to influence federal elections”

The FEC also administers the public funding of presidential campaigns financed by tax return checkoffs of citizens. Oddly enough, the Democrats who demanded public financing of presidential campaigns ended the practice when Barack Obama reneged on his promise to opponent Senator John McCain to use only public moneys in their contest for the presidency. No one will be dumb enough to follow McCain’s lead and stick with public financing while his opponent is awash in private contributions. As my online friend Alex Bensky says, ”it shows a lack of appreciation of irony that the left fusses about the increased influence of money on politics when their messiah basically destroyed public financing of presidential campaigns."

As for the FEC, in the 2008 campaign, the Democrats refused to seat enough nominees to fill vacancies so the commission  lacked a quorum  It was out of service  for the campaign and unable to act to prevent violations. This was most convenient for Obama as his team disabled the identifying links to contributors on its website, and it is no exaggeration to note that thousands of contributions poured into his campaign in obvious disregard of the cash limitations of the law, the requirement of identifying contributors, and the prohibition on foreign contributions.

The lie that there was a way to keep money out of politics led to the ill-fated McCain Feingold Campaign Finance Reform Act.  That law was always a constitutionally dubious restriction on free speech. It squeaked by the initial challenge to the Supreme Court in McConnell  v. FEC 540 U.S. 93 (2003), has faced several other challenges which slightly limited its reach (including  Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1 (1976) in which it interpreted freedom of speech as including contributing money to get your speech heard) and finally was partially overruled in Citizens United v, FEC. where the Court held that the restriction on independent expenditures by corporations, associations or labor unions to federal campaigns violated the First Amendment.

Within days of the decision, the president, in an unprecedented childish temper tantrum, criticized the court decision in a State of the Union address to which members of that Court were in attendance and unable to respond to his attack.

This was a dog whistle, if not a directive, to the IRS to preclude the ruling from taking full effect, and Lois Lerner and her subordinates dutifully followed by refusing to allow the president’s opponents to take advantage of the ruling through tax-exempt contributions to tea party and other opposition groups. Was she acting only at the directive of the White House? Or were other Democrat leaders involved?  A year ago  the National Republican Senatorial Committee sent a Freedom of Information act request to the IRS seeking correspondence between January 1, 2009 and May 21, 2013 between top IRS officials and Sen. Schumer (D-NY), Sen. Reid (D-NV), DSSC Chair Sen. Bennett (D-CO), Sen. Landrieu (D-LA), Sen. Pryor (D-AR), Sen. Hagan (D-NC), Sen. Begich (D-AK), Sen. Shaheen (D-NH), Sen. Mark Udall (D.CO), Sen. Franken (D-MN), Sen. Warner (D-VA), Rep. Braley and Rep. Peters (D-MI). The IRS sought 6 extensions to that request.

In the meantime, Judicial Watch has uncovered evidence that Congressional Democrats were actively seeking IRS assistance in defeating their opponents.

Earlier this week Judicial Watch released documents showing Democratic Michigan Senator Carl Levin was in contact with former Deputy IRS Commissioner Steven Miller repeatedly throughout 2012 and was working with the agency on how conservative groups, specifically those working against his reelection, could be targeted through IRS rules and regulations. Last month we learned the staff of Ranking Member of the House Oversight Committee Elijah Cummings had been in touch with the IRS about voter fraud prevention group True the Vote, despite direct denials from Cummings any contact with the IRS had ever occurred. 

If Cummings and Levin were involved in this illegal scheme to shut down their opposition, is it likely Schumer, Reid and the others were not also?

On a state level, the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board Director, the Milwaukee district attorney, and the Milwaukee County Assistant district attorney engaged in wide ranging effort to terrorize and halt in their tracks those groups which supported Governor Walker. The Wisconsin Reporter has a lengthy, detailed account of the secret John Doe proceedings in which these three engaged in midnight raids on the homes of the key players, raided their offices, instituted long-running secret John Doe grand juries which they forbade the targets to disclose and otherwise violated their rights. U.S. District Court Judge Randa shut down the operation, issuing an opinion so rightly critical of the operation that in my opinion the men involved are vulnerable to civil damages and the loss of their legal licenses. 

As the prosecution sought a stay of Randa’s order, the Seventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals issued a ruling on a previously filed suit, declaring the state campaign laws restricting issue advertising -- the very point of the Citizens United decision -- unconstitutional.

And in his ruling shutting down the John Doe proceedings, Judge Randa revealed the very danger of allowing government agencies to pass on questions of political speech: They use it aggressively to favor their own political advantage.

In issuing his decision, Randa agreed with the plaintiffs, opening up some previously sealed information in making his argument.

The ruling discloses what sources previously had told Wisconsin Reporter, that the investigation pushed subpoenas across the country, and extensively targeted Wisconsin Club for Growth advisor  Richard “R.J.” Johnson, also a consultant for the Walker campaign. Prosecutors contend that Johnson acted as the conduit between advocacy groups and Walker’s campaign, according to the filing.


The prosecutors argue that issue advocacy, political speech that does not expressly advocate for against a candidate, “does not create a free-speech safe harbor when expenditures are coordinated between a candidate and a third-party organization,” Randa wrote. Chisholm and crew, according to court documents, have characterized the activities of groups like Wisconsin Club for Growth as covered by Chapter 11 of Wisconsin campaign finance statutes, “rendering the plaintiffs a subcommittee of the Friends of Scott Walker and requiring that money spent on such speech be reported as an in-kind campaign contribution,” according to the ruling.

“This interpretation is simply wrong,” the judge wrote.

Randa draws from McCutcheon v. FEC, the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision raising political contribution limits and knocking down what the court saw as walls to the exercise of free speech. He describes the high court’s ruling as a “a ringing endorsement of the full protection afforded to political speech.” It just so happened to be rendered in the weeks after O’Keefe and the Wisconsin Club for Growth filed the civil rights suit.

“In a series of cases over the past 40 years, we have spelled out how to draw the constitutional line between the permissible goal of avoiding corruption in the political process and the impermissible desire simply to limit political speech,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote. “We have said that government regulation may not target the general gratitude a candidate may feel toward those who support him or his allies, or the political access such support may afford.”

Contrary to what the John Doe prosecutors believe, Randa said, issue advocacy, even that involving like-minded groups that share the same political philosophies as a candidate, is not a quid pro quo.

“O‘Keefe and the Club obviously agree with Governor Walker‘s policies, but coordinated ads in favor of those policies carry no risk of corruption because the Club‘s interests are already aligned with Walker and other conservative politicians,” the ruling states. “Such ads are meant to educate the electorate, not curry favor with corruptible candidates.”

The federal judge said the prosecutors effectively attempt to transform issue advocacy into express advocacy by “interpretive legerdemain and not by any analysis as to why it would rise to the level of quid pro quo corruption.”

“If correct, this means that any individual or group engaging in any kind of coordination with a candidate or campaign would risk forfeiting their right to engage in political speech,” Randa wrote.

That would include all of the left-wing organizations that prosecutors have failed to target in John Doe probes for effectively doing what the conservative groups are accused of doing, according to the plaintiffs. [Emphasis Supplied.]

“The legislative tail would wag the constitutional dog,” Randa added.

The past few years have taught us valuable lessons about efforts to curtail money in politics: The rules could be and were ignored with impunity by the simple measure of insuring that there was no one available to enforce them; government bureaucrats are not impartial and are also subject to political pressures themselves and such pressure will be applied; the power to regulate is the power to damage and destroy your political opponents. The only real way to limit the effect of money on politics is to reduce the government footprint.