Senate Candidates:  Are You Ready to Fix Citizens United?

Reversing Citizens United and establishing publicly funded elections are essential reforms if we, the citizens, are going to regain political power in our country.

The quickest way to fix Citizens United is for the next President to appoint a Supreme Court justice who will vote to overturn Citizens United.  Four of the current Justices are near or over 80 years old and it is extremely likely that the next President will appoint at least one new Justice and one may be enough to reverse the 5-4 Citizens United decision.

Presidential candidates Clinton and Sanders have both posted statements on their websites in support of publicly funded elections and about their commitment to appoint Supreme Court Justices who will overturn Citizens United.  (See statements below.)

The United States Senate also has an extremely important role in the appointment of Justices to the Supreme Court.  So, we really need to see website statements by our Pennsylvania Senate candidates, too!   

Katie McGinty, John Fetterman,  Joe Sestak, and Pat Toomey, as of today (1/14/16), have not posted any statements about ending money-in-politics corruption on the “Issues” page of their websites.

Citizens want to know:

1. Will each of them require Supreme Court nominees who seek their confirmation vote to commit to overturning the Citizens United decision?

2.  Will each of them vote to pass a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United?

3.  Will each join with the Presidential candidates and support publicly funded elections for Congress and President?

These presidential candidates recognize the importance of ending legalized corruption in our democracy and they have the courage to say so.  Do our Senate candidates?

We really need to see each of them state their commitments on the “Issues” pages of their campaign websites.

*********************************

From Sanders’ website:

AS PRESIDENT, I WILL:

Only appoint Supreme Court justices who will make it a priority to overturn Citizens United and who understand that corruption in politics means more than just quid pro quo.

Fight to pass a constitutional amendment making it clear that Congress and the states have the power to regulate money in elections. I have been a proud sponsor and leading champion of such an amendment in the Senate.

Fight for a publicly financed, transparent system of campaign financing that amplifies small donations, along the lines of the Fair Elections Now Act that I have been pleased to co-sponsor, and an effective public financing system for president.

From Clinton’s website:

Overturn Citizens United. Hillary will appoint Supreme Court justices who value the right to vote over the right of billionaires to buy elections. She’ll push for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United in order to restore the role of everyday voters in elections.

Amplify the voices of everyday Americans. Hillary will establish a small-donor matching system for presidential and congressional elections to incentivize small donors to participate in elections, and encourage candidates to spend more time engaging a representative cross-section of voters.

Your Democratic Incumbent: Reformer or Just Another Flavor of Sugar Daddy?

by Frank Kirkwood

This recent story in the Hartford Courant about Congressman John Larson of Connecticut offers insight into a very important but largely invisible role that members of Congress play: campaign financier.

Larson is a safe incumbent Democrat, that is, he represents a district heavy with Democratic voters. He is accustomed to facing no financially competitive opponent in either the primary or the general election. He vastly outspends all of his opponents and wins by wide margins. Around 90% of incumbent members of Congress, in both parties, are in safe districts.

Safe incumbents of both parties are on the receiving end of a lot of PAC money and other money from people who want something from the government. These safe incumbents usually don’t need to spend very much on their own re-election so they have a surplus. Their parties expect them to spend this surplus to help elect congressional candidates in competitive districts elsewhere. Safe incumbents in both parties are expected to do this and are rewarded with positions of power within the party for doing so. As the article points out, neither party wants to stop if the other is going to continue.

According to the FEC reports, in the 2014 election cycle, Larson’s main campaign committee (Larson for Congress) and the leadership political action committee he controls (Synergy PAC), together sent around $475,000 to Democratic candidates and Democratic Party committees around the country.

At the same time, Congressman Larson is a high profile money-in-politics reformer. He has served as Chairman of the House Democratic Caucus Task Force on Election Reform. He is a co-sponsor of the Government by the People Act (a public funding of elections bill) and a co-sponsor of H.J.Res.22 (to amend the Constitution to remedy the Citizens United decision). Larson was the prime sponsor of a public funding of elections bill in an earlier Congress.

How does he square spending large amounts of money to influence the outcomes of elections in far away congressional districts and, at the same time, holding a central role in reforming our corrupt pay-to-play system? From the article, “ ‘I recognize the contradictions and the hypocrisy of it,’ Larson said this week. ‘Of course it bothers me. … But if you don’t participate, how does that help us regain the majority?’ ”

The article also notes that, “Larson and others say that, unless Democrats retake control of the House and Senate, serious political financing reform will be impossible.”

My view is that the reforms needed to shift political power in our country from the few to the many will still be impossible after the Democrats regain control of the House and Senate, unless we citizens organize ourselves in our congressional districts to pressure our safe Democratic incumbents to pass publicly funded elections and a remedy to Citizens United. As I argue elsewhere, many incumbents in safe Democratic districts have plenty of reasons to say they support these reforms but even more reasons to make sure the reforms never pass.

The reality is that once we have publicly funded elections, safe incumbents of both parties will likely face a financially competitive challenger from their own party in the primary election. Six months later, they may face a financially competitive challenger from the other party in the general election. Eighteen months after that, they would once again face a financially competitive challenger in the next primary. Incumbents who have broad and deep public support in their district would probably not face challengers at every election but ineffective representatives may well face a continuous series of challenges. So, looking at it from an incumbent’s point of view, we reformers are asking them to vote to replace the current system, one that all but guarantees their easy re-election, with a public-funding system that might require them to face repeated challenges. It is easy to see how an incumbent’s personal interest in keeping his or her job would be in conflict with the public’s interest in reforming the system.

This is not to say that Congressman Larson is insincere. His consistent vocal support of pro-democracy legislation over the years should make us confident that he will do the right thing when the time comes for Congress to pass publicly funded elections. He is one of only handful of congressional co-sponsors of the public funding of elections bill and of the resolution to reverse Citizens United who have demonstrated leadership on these issues by using their official and campaign websites to educate and advocate for these reforms.

But, I have no confidence at all that many of the other 170+ Democratic incumbents who claim to be reformers will set aside their personal interests and actually vote for real reform . My recent review of the websites of Democratic incumbents who have co-sponsored reform bills, showed that the overwhelming majority say nothing at all about these money-in-politics solutions on their websites. In my estimation, their silence demonstrates, not just a lack of leadership, but a lack of sincerity.

So, how do sincere safe Democratic incumbents demonstrate their sincerity and advance reform? They could start by “outing” themselves and post their support for reform on their websites. But they can do even more in their role as campaign financier.

It is true that Congressman Larson and his Democratic colleagues need to fund the campaigns of other Democrats if the Democrats are regain the majority. But does putting the Democrats in charge of Congress get us any closer to passing real money-in-politics reform? It didn’t last time the Democrats were in control and, unless something changes, it won’t next time either.

Here is what needs to change: safe incumbents need to act now to make the Democratic Party what many people already mistakenly imagine it to be: the party of reform. Larson and other sincere supporters of reform need to insist that the money spent by their campaign committees and their leadership PACs be spent on candidates who are themselves supporters of real reform. They need to spend their money with organizations that are committed to publicly funded elections and to the reversal of Citizens United. This includes, most importantly, the Democratic Party and its various campaign committees.

Safe Democratic incumbents who finance congressional candidates who are Democrats, but who are not reformers, are just another flavor of sugar daddy. That is, they become self-interested, anti-democratic financiers trying to advance their personal ambitions by using large amounts of money to manipulate the outcomes of elections. Like all sugar daddies, they seek to make members of Congress dependent on, indebted to, and attentive to the financier’s interests. They degrade our democracy by inserting themselves between an elected representative and the citizens who need that man or woman to represent them, not the financier.

They become the very thing we must be rid of.

Safe Democratic incumbents must use their role as campaign financiers to promote reform. They can make the best of this bad situation by funding only reform candidates and by insisting that the Democratic Party do the same. If they are sincere reformers they can demonstrate it by becoming part of the solution rather than making the problem worse.

Our Secret Supporters

A Review of the Websites of the Co-Sponsors of Legislation to Create Publicly Funded Elections and to Amend the Constitution to Fix the Citizens United Decision

by Frank Kirkwood

(See Our Political Revolution for context and discussion of this Website Review.)

Legislation to set up publicly funded elections has been introduced in Congress many times over the last 20 years.  In the current Congress, the bill in the House of Representatives for publicly funded elections is H.R. 20, the Government By the People Act.  In the Senate, it is S. 1538, the Fair Elections Now Act.  H.R. 20, is sponsored by Rep. Sarbanes.  S. 1538 is sponsored by Sen. Durbin.  There are 174 sponsors or co-sponsors in the Congress for these publicly funded elections bills.

On the Citizens United front, there are 177 sponsors or co-sponsors in Congress of resolutions to amend the constitution to fix the Citizens United decision.   S.J.Res.5, sponsored by Sen. Udall (NM), is the Senate resolution and H.J.Res.22, sponsored by Rep Deutch, is the resolution in the House.

We should expect real leaders of these politically revolutionary bills to use their websites, their face to the public, to say to their constituents, “Like you, I recognize that our democracy is in trouble.  There are solutions to these problems and I am working hard to pass them.  Look at what I have done already.  I have co-sponsored the bills to fix Citizens United and to create publicly funded elections.

Real leaders would take the opportunity to use their websites to acknowledge the public’s frustration and to educate their constituents about the solutions that are available to the money-in-politics problem and to let the citizens know that their representative is on the forefront of this fight.

In August of 2015, I reviewed the websites of the sponsors and co-sponsors of the two bills to create publicly funded elections.  I also looked at the websites of the sponsors and co-sponsors of the two resolutions to amend the constitution to fix the Citizens United decision.  I looked at both the official congressional website and the campaign website of each of these elected officials.

For the first group, I looked for statements on their websites about the public funding of elections bills or, more generally, about their support of publicly funded elections.  In the second group, I looked for statements about the specific resolutions or for a mention of a plan to fix Citizens United.

Here is what I found:

Publicly Funded Elections

Do members of Congress who say they support publicly funded elections demonstrate their support on their websites?

The official congressional websites and the campaign websites of the sponsors/co-sponsors of the Fair Elections Now Act (in the Senate) and the Government for the People Act (in the House) were reviewed.

RESULTS FOR DEMOCRATIC SPONSORS/CO-SPONSORS: 

84% (145 of 172) of Democratic sponsors/co-sponsors of bills to create publicly funded elections do not mention their support for these bills or their support for publicly funded elections on either their official or campaign websites.

Only 16% (28 of 172) of Democratic sponsors/co-sponsors mention their support for these bills or their support for publicly funded elections generally on either or both of their official or campaign websites.

Only 3% (6 of 172) of Democratic sponsors/co-sponsors mention their support for these bills or their support for publicly funded elections generally on both their official and campaign websites.

Total Democrats sponsoring/co-sponsoring publicly funded elections bills in Congress = 172. 

RESULTS FOR REPUBLICAN SPONSORS/CO-SPONSORS:

One Republican, Rep. Walter Jones of NC, is a co-sponsor of H.R. 20.  He mentions the bill or publicly funded elections on his official website but mentions neither on his campaign website.

RESULTS FOR INDEPENDENT SPONSORS/CO-SPONSORS:

One Independent, Sen. Bernie Sanders of VT, is a co-sponsor of S. 1538.  He mentions the bill or publicly funded elections on both his official and campaign websites.

RESULTS FOR ALL SPONSORS/CO-SPONSORS (ALL PARTIES):

84% (145 of 174) of all sponsors/co-sponsors of bills to create publicly funded elections do not mention their support for these bills or their support for publicly funded elections on either their official or campaign websites.

Only 17% (30 of 174) of all sponsors/co-sponsors mention their support for these bills or their support for publicly funded elections generally on either or both of their official or campaign websites.

Only 4% (7 of 174) of all sponsors/co-sponsors mention their support for these bills or their support for publicly funded elections generally on both their official and campaign websites.

Number of sponsors/co-sponsors of publicly funded elections bills in Congress = 174.
In the Senate:  S. 1538, the Fair Elections Now Act  (22 sponsor/co-sponsors).
In the House:  H.R. 20, the Government for the People Act  (152 sponsor/co-sponsors). 

Look here for details of co-sponsor websites review.

Citizens United

Do members of Congress who say they support fixing Citizens United demonstrate their support on their websites?

The official congressional websites and the campaign websites of the sponsors/co-sponsors of S.J.RES.5 (in the Senate) and the H.J.Res.22 (in the House) were reviewed.

RESULTS FOR DEMOCRATIC SPONSORS/CO-SPONSORS: 

76% (133 of 174) of Democratic sponsors/co-sponsors of Congressional resolutions to overturn the Citizens United decision by amending the Constitution do not mention their support for the resolutions or any plan to fix Citizens United on either their official or campaign websites.

Only 24% (41 of 174) of Democratic sponsors/co-sponsors of these resolutions mention the resolutions or a plan to fix Citizens United on either or both of their official or campaign websites.

Only 6% (11 of 174) of Democratic co-sponsors mention their support for these resolutions or for a plan to fix Citizens United on both their official and campaign websites.

RESULTS FOR REPUBLICAN SPONSORS/CO-SPONSORS: 

One Republican, Rep. Walter Jones of NC, is a co-sponsor of H.J. Res 22.  He does not mention his support for this resolution or a plan to fix Citizens United on either his official or campaign websites.

RESULTS FOR INDEPENDENT SPONSORS/CO-SPONSORS: 

Sen. Bernie Sanders of VT is a co-sponsor of S.J. Res. 5.  He mentions his support for this resolution or for a plan to fix Citizens United on both his official and campaign websites.

Sen. Angus King of ME is a co-sponsor of S.J. Res. 5.  He does not mention his support for this resolution or for a plan to fix Citizens United on either his official or campaign websites.

RESULTS FOR ALL SPONSORS/CO-SPONSORS (ALL PARTIES):

76% (135 of 177) of all sponsor/co-sponsors of Congressional resolutions to overturn the Citizens United decision by amending the Constitution do not mention their support for these resolutions or for a plan to fix Citizens United on either or both of their official or campaign websites.

Only 24% (42 of 177) of all sponsor/co-sponsors of these resolutions mention these resolutions or a plan to fix Citizens United on either or both of their official or campaign websites.

Only 7% (12 of 177) of all sponsor/co-sponsors do mention their support for these resolutions or a plan to fix Citizens United on both their official and campaign websites.

Look here for details of co-sponsor website review.

(See Our Political Revolution for context and discussion of this Website Review.)

Taking One for the Team?

Here is an update on state-level campaign finance legislation around the country by way of CleanSlateNow.  The story from Oregon is particularly galling.  There, the Democratic Senate leadership refused to let the Senate vote on putting a constitutional amendment to limit campaign contributions on the ballot for the Oregon’s voters to decide.  Reformers thought they had the votes to pass the Senate and the House until Democratic leaders in the Senate killed the whole thing.

I wonder if it really would have passed.  It could be that an arrangement had been made whereby many of these legislators could say they supported the reform knowing that, in the end, leadership would kill it.   That way, leadership “takes one for the team” and all the rest of the legislators stay in the good graces of reformers and the voters, too.  Could be.

As discussed in Our Political Revolution, party leadership is often at the center of the money-for-power economy within legislatures.

This Oregon business reminds me of the Fair Elections Now Act of 2010.

Case Study: Fair Elections Now Act, 2010

by Frank Kirkwood

Those who believe the dangerously counter-productive idea that electing more Democrats to Congress will, by itself, bring about publicly funded elections should have a look at the last time the Democrats had control of the House, the Senate, and the Presidency, in 2010.  That year, the Fair Elections Now Act [H.R. 6116/1826] (a bill similar to the current public funding of elections bills) was approved in committee and sent to Speaker Pelosi.  The Speaker only needed to speak and the bill would have been voted on by the entire House of Representatives, 165 of whom were co-sponsors.  She said nothing.  There was no vote.  The bill died at the end of the year.

I have not heard any explanation for this.  If anyone has, please let me know (TrustworthyGovernment@gmail.com).

At least two explanations come to my mind.

Party leadership in Congress can provide cover to any member who needs, for political reasons, to co-sponsor reform.  These members can easily co-sponsor a reform and have plenty of reason to believe that the day will never come when they will need to actually follow through on their promise.

I think the most likely explanation is that the bill would have failed to pass the Democratic controlled House and many Democrats would have been exposed as not being any more interested in reform that the Republican members (although, to be fair, some Republicans may have voted for it, given the chance).

Maybe there are better explanations.  But, what we can conclude is that electing more Democrats will not, by itself, lead to real reform.  It didn’t then.  It won’t now.

Case Study: Senator Robert Casey

Office:  U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania

Goal:  Get the Senator to become a co-sponsor of the Fair Elections Now Act

March-May, 2010

by Frank Kirkwood

April 2015

In early 2010, I helped start the Fair Elections Committee in Pittsburgh in support of the Fair Election Now Act in the 111th Congress.  We hoped to get our Senator, Robert Casey, a Democrat, to co-sponsor of the bill.  He had joined the Senate in 2007 but had never co-sponsored a public funding of elections bill.

Using our individual organizational contacts, the Committee was able to arrange meetings with seven groups from Pittsburgh to Erie.  The groups included labor, single-payer healthcare, student, civil society, unofficial Democratic party, and religious groups.  Typically the meeting size was a dozen to several dozen members, mostly activist types.

With each group I gave a presentation about the Act and the need for it.  The audiences were all very receptive.  When I explained that our other senator, Arlen Specter, a Republican, was a sponsor of the Act but Casey, the Democrat, was not, people were baffled.  I encouraged all to contact Casey’s office and ask him, “Why not?”.

I was invited by a religious group, Common Good/Common Wealth, to attend one of their periodic meetings with Senator Casey’s staff.  The topic of the meeting was to be the Fair Elections Now Act.  About a week before the meeting, without public explanation, Casey became a co-sponsor.  At the meeting, I asked Casey’s aide why Casey had decided to become a co-sponsor.  He didn’t know.

In the absence of any alternative explanation, I believe he became a co-sponsor because of the little bit of pressure we were able to apply from several places in the western part of the state and his resulting discomfort in having to face the, “Why not?”, questions.

During the following Congress, I visited Casey’s Washington office and met with another aide.  I asked why Casey had not co-sponsored the same bill in the new Congress.  He told me that the Senator was co-sponsoring fewer pieces of legislation this session but that, perhaps, it was an “oversight” that he had not co-sponsored again.

Other than the one occasion described here, in the years since then, Senator Casey has never again co-sponsored any similar bill.

LESSONS LEARNED

It can be easy to get Democratic members of Congress to become co-sponsors.  Most citizen/activists involved with the Democrats understand the problem of money-in-politics and are eager to move toward a solution.  On the Democratic side at least, becoming a co-sponsor can be done at no political cost by incumbents.  Additionally, and most importantly, becoming a co-sponsor has great benefits for an incumbent as it gets the activists back home to calm down.  An incumbent’s failure to co-sponsor (when asked) could serve as a rallying point for a challenger in the next election.  Co-sponsoring takes the heat out of that issue – even if the member would never actually vote to pass it.  We should insist that those candidates who want our support must show their support for our cause in a public and meaningful way.

If you have had interactions with your legislators about money-in-politics issues and would like to share them, please send them to TrustworthyGovernment@gmail.com.

Case Study: Congressman Jason Altmire

Office:  U.S. House, PA 4

Elections:  2006, 2008, 2010, 2012

by Frank Kirkwood

In 2005, I created a website called CleanElectionsPA.org.  The purpose was to gather and post candidates’ statements about publicly funded elections.  I contacted all candidates for the Pennsylvania Legislature and Governor in the 2006 elections, as well as U.S. House candidates in Pennsylvania.  I asked them to make a statement about publicly funded elections, in favor or against, and I then posted their statements on-line.

Among those candidates was Jason Altmire of the 4th Congressional District, where I lived at the time.  He and several other Democrats were seeking to challenge Melissa Hart, the Republican incumbent.  Altmire sent me a favorable statement about publicly funded elections and I posted it.  At a public forum, I challenged all of the Democratic candidates to address the issue.  Altmire spoke with passion and conviction, saying that if there was one thing he would fix in Washington, it was the money-in-politics problem.  Altmire won the primary.

Between the primary and general elections, Common Cause, Public Campaign, and Public Citizen, put up a website calling for candidates to take the “Voters First” Pledge, a pledge asking candidates to state their support for publicly funded elections and other reforms.  Altmire agreed to sign it.  He also stated his support for publicly funded elections in Project Vote Smart’s 2006 “Congressional National Political Awareness Test”.

Publicly funded elections became something of an issue in the heavily contested general election campaign.  Hart ran radio ads criticizing Altmire’s support for it.  Altmire won.

After the election, in an article about business self-interests eagerly giving money to Altmire and other newly-elected member of Congress, he was quoted as saying, “I’d support and work hard to pass any bill that takes money out of politics”.

He signed the “Voter’s First” Pledge again, ahead of his re-election bid in 2008.

He never signed on as a co-sponsor of the Fair Elections Now Act during his three terms.  By 2011, he was one of only 10 Democrats in the House to vote to terminate public financing of presidential election campaigns.

His district had been heavily re-drawn and re-numbered (now the 12th) ahead of the 2012 election.  He lost the primary in 2012 in a low-turnout election dominated by union voters, a group Altmire had antagonized over the years.  The district went Republican in the general election.

LESSONS LEARNED

Having been “full cycle” with this candidate on this issue, I have to say the Altmire played the situation pretty well.  He is a politician and, as such, brings a significant amount of self-advancement and self-preservation to his interactions with reformers.

Altmire’s support of reform was beneficial to his efforts to win his first election.  Once he became an incumbent, he was in a much better position to generate payments to his re-election campaign. There was no political cost to him for his failure to actually support reform as promised or for his vote to end public funding on the Presidential level.  I would like to think that his primary loss in 2012 was, in part, due to his reneging on reform, but it was not.  Altmire and his opponent were both well-funded, re-districted incumbents.  Neither candidate was in a position to attack the other on the money-in-politics issue.

In the end, Altmire got what he wanted from reformers (our support) and reformers got very little.  We did get him to state his support for reform, to us, but not to the broader public. He used the CleanElectionsPa website and the “Voter’s First” Pledge website to tell reformers what we wanted to hear.  He never posted support for publicly funded elections on his campaign or official Congressional websites.

Reformers need to use politicians as politicians use us – to advance our cause.  As discussed in “Our Political Revolution“, we should insist that those candidates who want our support must show support for our cause in a public and meaningful way.

If you have had interactions with your legislators about money-in-politics issues and would like to share them, please send them to TrustworthyGovernment@gmail.com.