Mike Kueber's Blog

March 26, 2014

Citizens United and Americans for Prosperity

Filed under: Culture,Issues,Law/justice,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 6:53 pm
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When liberals wrung their hands over Citizens United (i.e., the Supreme Court free-speech decision that allows private groups to spend unlimited amounts of money trying to influence American politics), I initially pooh-poohed their concern in my blog, but later came to agree that this is an ominous development.  A recent article in the NY Times this week further reveals the danger of Citizens United.

The article reports on the Koch brothers’ favorite super-PAC, Americans for Prosperity. This PAC is dominating all other PACs in spending and is becoming super-sophisticated in manipulating the thinking of American voters.

On one hand, the manipulation is scary, but on the other hand it reminds me of when I was growing up there was a great concern that American consumers would soon be under the spell of Madison Avenue manipulators. (See Vance Packard’s “The Hidden Persuaders.”)

We survived Madison Avenue (I think), and maybe we will find a way to survive the Americans for Prosperity.

August 20, 2012

Living with Citizens United

Filed under: Issues,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 3:59 am
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Several times I’ve blogged about Citizens United, the Supreme Court decision that removed restrictions on the right of right people to advocate for their cause/candidate.  This controversial decision has led to the explosion of super-PACs that is threatening to drown out all other political speech.  Obviously, that is an ominous development, but no one has come up with an acceptable fix.  Suggested fixes are basically two types:

  1. Constitutional amendment.  The First Amendment of the Constitution should be amended to allow the McCain-Feingold restrictions.  That suggestion is problematic because amending the Constitution is hard to do, and the forces that benefit from burgeoning super-PACs will be able to obstruct the change. 
  2. Full disclosure.  Columnist George Will has always opposed limits on campaign contributions as ultimately ineffective and bureaucratic.  Instead he has argued in favor of full disclosure because it is essentially self-regulating.  The current law could be vastly strengthened by requiring broader and prompter disclosure of who is funding the advocacy.  Unfortunately, most pundits believe such disclosure will do little to limit the effectiveness of negative ads being run by super-PACs.

While riding my bike this weekend, I thought of a means to emasculate the power of the super-PAC ads.  Why not require the ads to be preceded by a harsh, ugly warning similar to that put on packages of cigarettes, something like – “Warning, the following message is paid-for by a super-PAC that was formed to advocate for a cause or candidate.  Because it is not formally a part of any candidate’s campaign, it is not subject to contribution limits that apply to campaign contributions and rich people or entities can contribute unlimited amounts.”  Then a similar message could be required at the end of the ad.

Such a warning would go a long way toward muting these organizations.

August 9, 2012

Fact-checking, negative ads, and super-PACs

Filed under: Issues,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 1:24 pm
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Both James Poniewozik in Time magazine and Ross Douthat in the New York Times wrote this week on the limits of fact-checking. 

As a liberal, Poniewozik questioned whether PolitiFact was justified in giving Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid a “pants on fire” rating for his statement that an unnamed source said Mitt Romney hadn’t paid taxes for the ten years prior to 2010.  Poniewozik concedes that Reid is “willfully rumormongering, trying to spread an impression that is at worst completely bogus and at best he has given no evidence for,” but believes “pants of fire” should be reserved for proven liars.  The problem is that Reid can’t be proven a liar unless Romney releases his tax returns, which is obviously what Reid’s ultimate objective is.

As a conservative, Douthat focused his column on a political ad by an Obama super-PAC that falsely accuses Mitt Romney and Bain Capital of shutting down a steel plant, with this shutting-down resulting in a woman losing her job, and then her health insurance, and finally her life to cancer. 

The first half of Douthat’s column was devoted to debunking the super-PAC ad as “so preposterous that it can be swatted down by media fact-checkers.”  The problem is that most negative ads from the super-PACs won’t be so extreme that fact-checkers will be able to play a significant role – “This means that with rare exceptions, viewers and voters, not reporters and pundits, will always get the final say on whether a particular advertisement crosses a line.” 

Douthat concludes his column by expressing his judgment that voters will rise to the challenge:

  • Even before its details were debunked, my instinct was that the anti-Romney cancer spot fell squarely into the latter category – not because jobs and health care don’t matter in 2012, but because there’s only so far over the top you can go before voters tune you out.  If I’m right, conservatives should save their outrage: Even if the media’s fact-checkers can’t quite close the book on this particular exercise in demagoguery, the wisdom of the American people will finish what they started.”

I have previously expressed similar sentiments about the influence of super-PACS.  In fact, the cover of Time magazine this week read, “For Sale: How to Buy the White House,” and the gist of its follow-up articles was that the super-PACs now own the process of electing our president.  Unless someone can figure out a constitutional method for muzzling rich politically-minded people, American voters will need to develop an appreciation (and disdain) for various negative ads.

January 24, 2012

Citizens United and Justices Scalia and Breyer

Filed under: Issues,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 3:22 am
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On New Year’s Eve, I blogged about the untoward effect of the Citizens United decision (and the super-PACs) on the Iowa primary.     In my blog, I concluded that the U.S. Constitution gives rich people the right to buy more speech than the rest of us. 

A recent Associate d Press article reported that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has taken a similar position.  According to the article, Scalia suggested during a public discussion in South Carolina that “a simple solution for people who don’t like all the political advertisements unleashed by the court’s decision two years ago that ended limits on corporate contributions in political campaigns — change the channel or turn off the TV.”

  • I don’t care who is doing the speech — the more the merrier,” Scalia said. “People are not stupid. If they don’t like it, they’ll shut it off.”

Scalia contends that the Supreme Court should not be blamed for interpreting the Constitution as it was written.  “Instead, he said the ones who have to change things are the politicians who created the system and the voters who often reward the candidates who spend the most money.”

Justice Stephen Breyer was involved in the same public discussion, and his opinion is a bit different – “There are real problems when people want to spend lots of money on a candidate … they’ll drown out the people who don’t have a lot of money.” 

The article reports that super-PAC money flooded South Carolina.  TV advertising alone in South Carolina was estimated at $12 million, or nearly $27 per voter when calculated using the 2008 Republican primary turnout numbers.

Although Scalia’s position seems academic and ivory-towered, while Breyer’s is more worldly and pragmatic, Scalia at least provides an unlikely solution while Breyer merely grumbles.  As I noted in my blog entry, this is a problem without a solution.

December 31, 2011

Citizens United takes effect in Iowa

Earlier this year, I blogged about a recent Supreme Court decision, Citizens United, that authorized corporations and and rich people to spend unlimited amounts of money advocating for a specific candidate, provided that the spending is not formally coordinated with the candidate’s campaign.   The Citizens United decision was based on the constitutional right of free speech.  Although many people, mostly Democrats, expressed grave concern about the decision – President Obama said, “this ruling strikes at our democracy itself.” – I downplayed its significance in my blog:

  • As George Will suggested decades ago – don’t limit the speech, just require full disclosure of who is paying for the speech.  Then let the voters decide.  I realize that many think my view is impractical and Pollyannaish – that American voters aren’t capable of avoiding manipulation by slick marketing – but I believe we can rise to the occasion.

Unfortunately, according to an article in the NY Times, my view is being refuted by the Republican presidential campaigns in Iowa.  The Times article reports that a super-PAC supporting Mitt Romney has blanketed the state with negative ads on Newt Gingrich and the ads are having a devastating effect on Gingrich’s campaign.  Even if my previous suggestion that American voters are “capable of avoiding manipulation by slick marketing” remains true, there remains a fundamental flaw that the super-PACs have an unfair advantage because of their virtually unlimited spending.

The $2,500 limit on individual contributions to presidential campaigns was designed to prevent rich people from being able to buy out-sized influence with campaigns.  Just imagine how much influence a rich person or a corporation can buy with a $1 million contribution to a super-PAC that supports the candidate.

The Times article reports that, while Mitt Romney’s campaign is clearly benefiting from the super-PAC attack ads on Newt Gingrich, Romney is not being tarred as the guy responsible for going negative.  Instead, he can accurately assert that he has no control over the super-PAC spending.  But the article also points out that Romney has been a bit disingenuous in bemoaning the out-sized influence of super-PACs:

  • “In recent days, Mr. Romney has tried to distance himself from the group. ‘We really ought to let campaigns raise the money they need and just get rid of these super PACs,’ Mr. Romney said on MSNBC.  But in July, Mr. Romney appeared before dozens of potential donors to Restore Our Future at an organizational meeting, effectively blessing its work.”

I’m not sure what the answer is.  Typically, I believe that incorrect Supreme Court decisions should be corrected by a constitutional amendment.  But I don’t think the result of Citizens United was incorrect.  If George Soros wants to spend $100 million on TV ads saying what a great president Barack Obama is, I think he should have that right.  Similarly, if the Koch brothers want to spend $100 million on TV ads saying what a horrible president Barack Obama is, they should have that right.

So, until Mitt Romney or someone else comes up with a constitutional way to “just get rid of these super PACs,” I think we are stuck with them.  Rich people will be able to buy more free speech than the rest of us.

February 24, 2011

Citizens United – the Supreme Court decision

In a recent blog entry about the anti-union movement in Wisconsin, I made a glib comment about the merits of a Supreme Court decision – Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 130 S.Ct. 876 (2010) – that I hadn’t read.  Fortunately, an anonymous reader called me to task for that glibness, and as penance I decided to read the decision. 

Citizens United (Citizens) is a non-profit corporation with an annual budget of $12 million.  Although most of its money comes from individuals, a small portion of it comes from for-profit corporations.  In January 2008, Citizens released an anti-Clinton movie titled Hillary: The Movie.  Because of Citizens’ concerns that the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (BCRA) prohibited it from marketing the movie (and paying cable companies to make it available to free), Citizens sued the FEC to have the BCRA declared a violation of its constitutional right to free speech.

The BCRA, which was enacted in 2002, is also known as the McCain-Feingold law.  Among other things, it prohibited corporations and unions from making expenditures for speech defined as “electioneering communication” – “any broadcast, cable, or satellite communication… that refers to a clearly identified candidate for Federal office,” and is made within 30 days of a primary or election.  This limitation on electioneering communications was upheld in a 2003 Supreme Court decision (McConnell v. FEC) that relied on a 1990 Supreme Court decision, Austin v. Michigan Chamber of CommerceAustin had held that political speech may be banned based on the speaker’s corporate identity. In 2010 Citizens asked the Court to reconsider the Austin decision, and it did, with five justices ultimately agreeing to reverse the decision.  “The government may regulate corporate political speech through disclaimer and disclosure requirements, but it may not suppress the speech altogether.” 

My glib comment in an earlier blog was:

  • When I campaigned for Congress, I was asked about Citizens United and I indicated that I supported it.  It makes perfect sense that political speech by rich people should be constitutionally protected, so why make a distinction for corporations?  As George Will suggested decades ago – don’t limit the speech, just require full disclosure of who is paying for the speech.  Then let the voters decide.  I realize that many think my view is impractical and Pollyannaish – that American voters aren’t capable of avoiding manipulation by slick marketing – but I believe we can rise to the occasion.

Despite the glibness of the comment, it does contain two important concepts:

  1. Why make a distinction for corporations?  According to the Citizens decision, there is no good reason to make a distinction – “Corporations and other associations, like individuals, contribute to the discussion, debate, and the dissemination of information and ideas that the First Amendment seeks to foster. [We] rejected the argument that political speech of corporations or other associations should be treated differently under the First Amendment simply because such associations are not natural persons.
  2. American voters will be duped by slick corporate ads.  The 1990 Austin decision was based on the government’s interest in preventing “the corrosive and distorting effects of immense aggregations of wealth that are accumulated with the help of the corporate form and that have little or no correlation to the public’s support for the corporation’s political ideas.”  In the 2010 Citizens decision, the Supreme Court rejected that basis and declared – “The right of citizens to inquire, to hear, to speak, and to use information to reach consensus is a precondition to enlightened self-government and a necessary means to protect it…. When Government seeks to use its full power, including the criminal law, to command where a person may get his or her information or what distrusted source he or she may not hear, it uses censorship to control thought.  This is unlawful.  The First Amendment confirms the freedom to think for ourselves.”

The majority decision for Citizens was written by Justice Kennedy and joined by Scalia, Thomas, Alito, and Roberts.  The dissent, which was written by Stevens and joined by Sotomayor, Breyer, and Ginsberg, warned that the majority decision, “threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions across the Nation. The path it has taken to reach its outcome will, I fear, do damage to this institution.”  It concluded by noting:

  • At bottom, the Court’s opinion is thus a rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self-government since the founding, and who have fought against the distinctive corrupting potential of corporate electioneering since the days of Theodore Roosevelt. It is a strange time to repudiate that common sense. While American democracy is imperfect, few outside the majority of this Court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics.”

President Obama was so upset with the decision that he referred to it unfavorably in his weekly radio address (“this ruling strikes at our democracy itself” and “I can’t think of anything more devastating to the public interest.”) and in his State of the Union address (“Last week, the Supreme Court reversed a century of law to open the floodgates for special interests — including foreign corporations — to spend without limit in our elections. Well I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities.”)

Well, I think our democracy and our Democrats will survive the involvement of corporations and unions in elections.  As I said in my earlier blog entry, American voters will rise to the occasion.

February 22, 2011

Money in politics in Wisconsin

A Koch Industries lobbyist in Wisconsin has described the state’s current brouhaha as, “a dispute between public-sector unions and democratically elected officials over how best to serve the public interest.”  I agree, but a lot of liberal pundits don’t.  They see this as an assault by conservative outside interests, including a public-interest group called Americans for Prosperity, to kill public-employee unions countrywide.

According to an article in the NYTimes, Americans for Prosperity is heavily funded by the secretive conservative owners of Kansas-based Koch Industries, David and Charles Koch, although the association has 70,000 other contributors.    Koch Industries also was one of the biggest contributors to the campaign of Wisconsin governor Scott Walker.

The growing prominence of conservative public-interest groups is well documented.  According to the Center for Responsive Politics, seven of the top ten spenders in the most recent election were conservative and only three were liberal.  Ironically, all three of the liberal groups were public-employee unions – Service Employees International Union ($16), American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees ($13m), and National Education Association ($9m).  However, Americans for Prosperity did not make the top ten, even though the Times article indicated the group had spent $40 million in 2010.  According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the seven biggest-spending conservative groups were the US Chamber of Commerce ($33m), American Action Network ($26m), American Crossroads ($21m), Crossroads Grassroots Political Strategies ($17m), American Future Fund ($10), Americans for Job Security ($9m), and Club for Growth ($8m).

Most pundits correctly blame the U.S. Supreme Court for this monetary deluge.  In 2010, the Court in Citizens United v. FEC held that the McCain-Feingold law limiting “electioneering communications” by associations, unions or corporations was an unconstitutional infringement of free speech. 

Liberals are incensed about the 5-4 holding because so much of the new money deluge is coming from associations of conservatives like the Koch brothers.  Citizens United will probably become for liberals what Roe v. Wade is for conservatives – i.e., something of a litmus test for all Supreme Court nominees – with hopes of an eventual reversal. 

When I campaigned for Congress, I was asked about Citizens United and I indicated that I supported it.  It makes perfect sense that political speech by rich people should be constitutionally protected, so why make a distinction for corporations.  As George Will suggested decades ago – don’t limit the speech, just require full disclosure of who is paying for the speech.  Then let the voters decide. 

I realize that many think my view is impractical and Pollyannaish – that American voters aren’t capable of avoiding manipulation by slick marketing – but I believe we can rise to the occasion.