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New York Times: When ‘Super PACs’ Become Lobbyists

Sunday, December 2nd, 2012

The “super PACs” and secret-money groups that polluted this year’s election with hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of largely ineffective attack ads are not slinking away in shame. Many are regrouping and raising more money for a task that is no less pernicious: lobbying Congress and the White House on behalf of their special-interest donors, using the new, anything-goes rules of super PACs to make their advocacy more powerful.

New York Times

Americans for Prosperity, the so-called social welfare group founded with the support of David and Charles Koch, spent at least $36 million this cycle in a largely fruitless attempt to defeat Democrats and elect Republicans. Now it is joining with other conservative groups to lobby Congress not to raise taxes in the current negotiations over the “fiscal cliff.” The group is also demanding there be no reduction or delay in the budget sequester, the widely loathed measure that, in January, will begin cutting $1 trillion in spending over a decade.

It will be joined in that effort by the Club for Growth, which spent $19 million to elect Republicans; by Americans for Tax Reform, led by Grover Norquist, which spent almost $16 million; and by the American Crossroads groups, founded by Karl Rove, which spent $175 million. None of the candidates Crossroads supported won their races, but, nonetheless, the groups are planning a new lobbying and advertising effort on the fiscal cliff, as well as energy and health care issues, according to Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper.

It’s bad enough that these groups and their wealthy donors, many of them secret, missed the message of the election, in which voters rejected their stridency and supported policies like higher taxes on the rich. But by combining lobbying with lavish campaign donations, they are enhancing the danger of the unlimited-spending era.

Super PACs can use the threat of raising unlimited money for the purpose of electing or defeating a candidate far more effectively than old-fashioned trade associations. Corporations, unions and other interests now have two ways to pressure public officials. They can unleash an expensive advertising and lobbying campaign on an issue like taxes or military spending, and then they can threaten to pummel lawmakers in primary or general election campaigns if they don’t get their way. Business leagues like the United States Chamber of Commerce have been doing this for years, but the ease of opening super PACs makes it possible for a much larger group of moneyed players, from conservative to liberal, to join the game.

That’s why the National Association of Realtors formed a super PAC to praise lawmakers for supporting tax deductions for second homes. The American Dental Association has one, as does Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York (promoting centrism) and the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund.

Many of the social welfare groups need to spend money on lobbying to show the Internal Revenue Service that their primary purpose isn’t electing candidates, though those goals are so intertwined that the I.R.S. still needs to force those groups to disclose their donors. Short of a constitutional amendment prohibiting unlimited spending, Congress can counter these combined political and lobbying assaults by passing the Empowering Citizens Act, which gives individuals a chance to be heard.

Wall Street Journal: The Super PAC Lesson

Monday, November 12th, 2012

Thoughts on campaign spending from the Wall Street Journal.  There was not enough of it for their tastes.

Apparently Mitt was “defenseless” against Obama’s ads.

Wall Street Journal

In every election there are issues that take up an inordinate amount of media attention but turn out to be sideshows. This year’s champion is Super PAC spending. Liberals first claimed that the Koch brothers and other wealthy donors were “buying” the election, but now that Democrats have won they are claiming that these GOP donors were gullible fools for giving at all. They’re wrong on both counts.

Money did matter, as it always does to some extent. But the cash that really counted was the more than $100 million that the Obama campaign used from May through July in the battleground states to portray Mitt Romney as Gordon Gekko without the social conscience. The Election Day exit polls show that Mr. Romney’s image never recovered from that ad barrage. He ran largely a biographical campaign and the Obama campaign destroyed his business biography. His net favorability was negative.

Mr. Romney’s advisers told us in early August that they would have liked to respond to the attacks but lacked the cash to do that and at the same time to portray a positive message after they had run through all of their money during the primary. They went with the positive message, albeit one that didn’t make much of an impact.

By the way, this is also the early-advertising strategy that Bill Clinton and adviser Dick Morris used to destroy Bob Dole in 1996. You’d think Republican strategists would have remembered that.

The GOP Super PACs tried to fill the gap by attacking Mr. Obama, but they were hard pressed to speak for a candidate whom by law they are prohibited from coordinating with. Perhaps their ads could have been more effective, and perhaps some of that money would have been better spent on matching Democratic voter turnout operations. Those questions deserve to be part of a GOP self-examination. But it’s hard to believe that Mr. Romney would have done any better if the Super PACs hadn’t existed.

All of which suggests that the real problem this year wasn’t too much campaign spending but too little. The GOP lacked the cash to counter the attack ads when its candidate really needed it. Mr. Romney raised enough money after the conventions, but by then it was too late to expand the field of competition other than with a late sneak attack of the kind the campaign tried in Pennsylvania.

In focusing so much on rich GOP donors, the media also underplayed the way the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision helped Democrats. That ruling overturned longstanding rules that prohibited unions from using dues money to communicate politically with non-union members. This allowed unions to run more efficient voter-targeting operations, since they didn’t have to skip non-union households, and it contributed to voter turnout in places like Nevada, Wisconsin and Ohio.

The unions were also helped by the many White House and campaign officials whom Mr. Obama dispatched to fund-raise for Democratic Super PACs—when he wasn’t busy criticizing GOP spending.

The history of campaign-finance limits is that attention to the issue recedes when Democrats win. But expect it to return in time for the 2014 campaign cycle, when the media will find some new Sheldon Adelson to portray as a threat to democracy even as unions go on spending their cash below the radar.

A far better reform would remove all donation limits to candidates, so nominees like Mr. Romney of either party aren’t left defenseless again. The Super PACs would fade in importance and the candidates would get to better control their own message. The U.S. is a huge country and it takes lots of money to educate voters.

Washington Post: Vendors finesse law barring ‘coordination’ by campaigns, independent groups

Sunday, October 14th, 2012

Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign and American Crossroads, an allied interest group, are barred by federal law from working together on political advertising.

But it’s perfectly legal for them to hire the same company to run Internet ads. That company uses some of the same employees to represent the two clients, and the same databases to store information on people it will target with ads.

Washington Post

By all accounts, Romney’s campaign and the group spending millions of dollars on his behalf are not violating the law that prohibits campaigns and independent organizations from coordinating their efforts.

The law was meant to separate campaigns from outside groups with wealthy donors — the theory being that large political contributions could have a corrupting influence on candidates.

But it is a fuzzy line that separates the campaigns from groups such as Crossroads and the super PACs that have sprung up in the wake of a 2010 Supreme Court decision that allowed unrestricted corporate spending on campaigns. And the 2012 campaign, with its surge in spending from independent groups, offers many examples of how little the law actually prohibits when it comes to “coordination.”

The major super PACs helping President Obama and Romney, for example, were formed by men who previously worked as aides to the candidates.

And at least 30 political consulting companies have been hired by both a campaign or party and an independent group, according to campaign disclosure reports. The consultants provide a range of services, from polling to legal advice to media consulting.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee shares 10 vendors with the major super PAC helping Democrats win House races, the House Majority PAC. The super PAC, for example, paid $31,000 to Ralston Lapp Media to produce television ads, while the DCCC paid $173,000 for the same purpose. Nine Democratic congressional candidates also hired the company.

Contributions to candidates are capped at $2,500 for each election, but for many types of interest groups, there are no restrictions on donations. In order to prevent the groups from becoming de facto extensions of the campaigns, they are prohibited from spending money at the request of candidates or using inside knowledge of their strategies or wishes. But hiring a firm that works for both sides is legal as long as information is not shared.

Advocates for tighter restrictions on political money say the weakness of the law has allowed interest groups to essentially become another arm of the campaigns.

“The real scandal in 2012 is what’s legal,” said Paul S. Ryan, a lawyer with the Campaign Legal Center, which supports tightening campaign finance laws. “Certainly the law does not prevent coordination in the way that word is generally understood by the public.”

Over the past decade, more than 30 complaints of alleged coordination in federal races have been brought to the Federal Election Commission. But the complaints rarely prompt investigations because of the difficulty of collecting private communications that might prove coordination.

The high-tech realm of online ad targeting offers a new example of how tightly integrated campaigns and interest groups can become.

Romney’s campaign has bought $21 million in online advertising through an Alexandria-based ad agency called Targeted Victory, the same firm hired by American Crossroads to run $1 million in ads. The company spends most of that money buying space on the Web through ad networks.

The company also works for the Republican Party, prominent Republican House and Senate candidates, and interest groups active in congressional races, including the American Action Network, Americans for Prosperity and Crossroads GPS, which is affiliated with American Crossroads.

Targeted Victory uses Internet video ads to persuade people to oppose Obama and vote for Romney. It also uses a stockpile of data it has collected on Web users to reach them with ads for both Romney and Crossroads.

Separately, Targeted Victory keeps a record of those who have visited the Romney campaign Web site or the Crossroads site, and stores that information in the same location.

Romney campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul said the campaign’s vendors “understand the law and follow it.”

Targeted Victory’s chief executive, Michael Beach, said in an e-mailed statement that the company has separate teams of strategists for the two clients, crafting ad messages and finding potential voters online. Those teams work on opposite sides of a “firewall” described in FEC regulations, he said.

“Targeted Victory takes its compliance responsibilities seriously and continually reviews its operations to ensure compliance with the FEC rules,” Beach wrote.

He said the rules allow some employees to work for both Romney and Crossroads, including “personnel who merely forward the Internet ad buys to placement firms.”

FEC regulations specifically point to those working on “the selection or purchasing of advertising slots” as employees with the potential to share inside information that could be used for coordination.

A look at the same custom-built software running on the Romney and Crossroads Web sites shows the tight links between the organizations. When people visit the Romney or Crossroads site, their browsers download software written by Targeted Victory.

The code creates a trigger so that when users press a “donate” button, for example, their browsers report that information, which is kept in a database that commingles Romney and Crossroads users.

When users move on to a site with ads, that starts another chain reaction of code, transmitting the Romney and Crossroads information to ad networks, which may then display Romney or Crossroads ads.

Storing data together and using the same employees to represent Romney and Crossroads is not coordination under the law. To break the rule, an interest group would have to use inside information on the candidate’s needs or wishes to shape its own ad campaign.

Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster who works for prominent liberal super PACs, said he uses a password-protected computer system to keep sensitive materials from his colleagues who might work directly for candidates or the official party committees. He praised the value of the rules as one of the only defenses keeping the work of candidates and well-funded interest groups separate.

“It seems we have a Swiss-cheese system here,” Garin said. “No offense to Swiss cheese.”

Dan Eggen contributed to this report.

© The Washington Post Company

Salon: Super PAC spending is about to explode

Tuesday, October 9th, 2012

Outside groups have already poured half a billion dollars into the 2012 elections, and they’re just getting started

Salon

Things have taken a turn for the worse for Democrats in recent days — and just as the campaign enters what could be described as the super PAC death zone. Even though we’ve already seen at least $517 million spent by outside groups, almost all of it on attack ads, during this election cycle so far — more than every other cycle since 1990 at similar points combined  — the wave of outside money about to crash down on the race between now and election day could add up to double what’s already been spent.

For 10 of the past 11 election cycles, about half of the total outside money spent during the entire campaign came during the month preceding the election, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics. In 2010, the first election following the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, 56 percent of the total spent that cycle came in last 30 days alone. The only exception was 2008, when a still considerable 40 percent of the total was spent in October and early November. If that past is precedent, the next month could see another $400-570 million spent, easily pushing outside spending over the $1 billion threshold.

“In a cycle where we’ve already blown away the totals for how much is being spent outside of the campaigns themselves and the parties before that time, then it’s reasonable to expect that — who knows how much? — more will come this cycle,” Bob Biersack, a senior fellow at the Center for Responsive Politics told Salon. Because of insufficient disclosure requirements, Biersack said it’s very hard to predict how much that might be. “It’s a lot harder to look forward and anticipate with these kind of activities than it is with campaigns.”

In 2010, outside groups made huge last-minute ad buys, the largest of which came from the Karl Rove-backed American Crossroads groups, which together pumped $50 million into competitive House races. That announcement didn’t come until October 13. And with Romney’s campaign suddenly ascendant after a strong debate performance last week, it’s possible donors who had been on the sidelines will suddenly decide to pony up. Democrats in the House fear their surprisingly strong positions in over 30 races could be overrun practically overnight by big, late super PAC buys.

Another new phenomenon this year is a sharp uptick in spending from groups that don’t have to disclose their donors , like 501(c)4 social welfare organizations and 501(c)6 trade organizations, like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. So far this year, even before the final onslaught, these groups have spent more than all outside groups in 2010 combined, according to the CRP data. A court ruling in a case brought by Rep. Chris Van Hollen would have required disclosure for these groups running ads in a window immediately preceding the election, but an appellate court overturned that decision last month, allowing these groups to keep their donors secret. And not surprisingly, the vast majority of this secret money has come from conservative groups.

Of course, there’s a possibility that all this spending so late will have little impact after the deluge of political ads voters in key states have already withstood. Most consultants, political scientists, and psychologists agree that negative political ads are effective, but there may be a limit, which this election cycle could test unlike ever before. In some key media markets, which see as many as three times the number of ads as other markets, negative spots are “popping up on soap operas, game shows and even cable reality programs like Here Comes Honey Boo Boo,” NPR reported of Colorado Springs, Colorado. When voters can’t watch Honey Boo Boo dressing up Glitz Pig without being told why Barack Obama is dangerous for America, maybe they’ll ignore the message, but that remains to be seen. For now, donors are willing bet millions of dollars that the ads will do something more than annoy views.

LA Times: $119 million and counting: Track groups’ spending on 2012 race

Friday, August 31st, 2012

The figures reveal just part of the picture of outside spending, however. While super PACs must report their spending to the Federal Election Commission, tax-exempt advocacy groups only have to report money they spend on certain kinds of ads

LA Times

“Super PACs” and other outside groups have reported spending more than $119 million on the presidential campaign since Mitt Romney unofficially clinched the Republican nomination in early April, a sum that underscores the profound impact independent political groups are having on the 2012 presidential race.

Two-thirds of that money has gone into television ads and other efforts opposing President Obama’s reelection and backing Romney’s bid, according to an analysis of Federal Election Commission data by the Times Data Desk.

Readers can track the spending by outside groups with a new online tool, which provides the expenditures for each group and a sample of the television ads that have shaped each week of the race. 

The number of outside groups engaging in campaign activity increased exponentially in the last two years, the result of a series of federal court decisions that allowed corporations to make unlimited political expenditures and blessed the creation of super PACs, which can raise unlimited sums.

Ostensibly, super PACs must operate independent of the candidates and political parties. But both Obama and Romney are being backed by super PACs run by former aides. The pro-Romney Restore Our Future has spent $28.5 million against Obama so far. The pro-Obama Priorities USA Action has poured in nearly $21.5 million against Romney. (Both groups have spent additional funds on ads backing their candidates.)

The figures reveal just part of the picture of outside spending, however. While super PACs must report their spending to the Federal Election Commission, tax-exempt advocacy groups only have to report money they spend on certain kinds of ads.

And those groups, which do not disclose their donors, have been some of the most active in this campaign.

Together, American Crossroads and its nonprofit arm, Crossroads GPS, are expected to spend $300 million, and Americans for Prosperity, backed by billionaire energy executives and brothers David and Charles Koch, has a $151-million budget. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce plans to pump at least $50 million into congressional races — which means those four groups alone could account for half a billion dollars of spending in the 2012 cycle.

Crossroads co-founder Karl Rove told donors in a private briefing Thursday that conservative outside groups spent $110 million against Obama just between May 15 and July 31, Bloomberg reported Friday.

Los Angeles Times: After winning right to spend, political groups fight for secrecy

Wednesday, June 27th, 2012

Conservatives who said disclosure of donors would prevent corruption now are attacking such rules, citing fears of harassment

Los Angeles Times

During their long campaign to loosen rules on campaign money, conservatives argued that there was a simpler way to prevent corruption: transparency. Get rid of limits on contributions and spending, they said, but make sure voters know where the money is coming from.

Today, with those fundraising restrictions largely removed, many conservatives have changed their tune. They now say disclosure could be an enemy of free speech.

High-profile donors could face bullying and harassment from liberals out to “muzzle” their opponents, Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in a recent speech.

Corporations could be subject to boycotts and pickets, warned the Wall Street Journal editorial page this spring.

Democrats “want to intimidate people into not giving to these conservative efforts,” said Republican strategist Karl Rove on Fox News. “I think it’s shameful.”

Rove helped found American Crossroads, a “super PAC,” and Crossroads GPS, a nonprofit group that does not reveal its donors.

“Disclosure is the one area where [conservatives] haven’t won,” said Richard Briffault, an election law professor at Columbia Law School. “This is the next frontier for them.”

A handful of conservative foundations, themselves financed with millions in anonymous funding, have been fighting legal battles from Maine to Hawaii to dismantle disclosure rules and other limits on campaign spending.

One group, the Center for Individual Freedom based in Alexandria, Va., has spent millions on attack ads against Democratic congressmen and state judicial candidates. It also has sued to block laws and court rulings that would have required disclosure of the source of the money for the ads.

Jeffrey Mazzella, the center’s president, declined to comment on the lawsuits or discuss the group’s donors, saying the center lays out its positions in detail on its website and in news releases.

Bradley A. Smith, a Republican and former chairman of the Federal Election Commission, is among those whose views have changed on disclosure. In 2003, he endorsed disclosing donors as a way to discourage corruption by “exposing potential or actual conflicts of interest.”

But later, he said, he concluded that disclosure requirements could be burdensome for citizen groups. And now that campaign reports are posted online, he added, people can easily identify and target their opponents.

The business community began fighting disclosure in 2000, when the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, after buying ads supporting candidates for the Mississippi Supreme Court, successfully challenged the state’s requirements on revealing donors.

The anti-disclosure campaign was joined by libertarian legal advocacy centers, such as the Institute for Justice, founded in 1991 with seed money from trusts controlled by billionaire brothers Charles andDavid H. Koch. Starting in 2005, the institute began sponsoring studies that argued disclosure laws were ensnaring ordinary citizens in red tape and inviting reprisals.

Then came California’s Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage. After the initiative passed in 2008, some same-sex marriage advocates used the state’s campaign finance data to publicly identify donors who supported the ban. Proposition 8 supporters claimed they were subject to harassing phone calls and e-mails, vandalism and protests.

In arguing against disclosure rules, conservatives even reach back to the civil rights era, when authorities in Alabama tried to identify members of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People. In 1958, the Supreme Court ruled those names could remain secret.

A leader of the crusade against disclosure has been James Bopp Jr., a libertarian lawyer based in Terre Haute, Ind. The original lawyer in the Citizens United case, in which the Supreme Court eased restrictions on independent political spending, he has brought suits to attack campaign rules in at least 30 states. In one of those suits, the Supreme Court on Monday ruled in Bopp’s favor and eliminated a Montana ban on corporate contributions.

Bopp and others say there’s nothing wrong with forcing candidates and political parties to reveal their donors, at least the larger ones. But for private citizens and independent groups, “the price of disclosure is too high,” he said.

So far, the anti-disclosure arguments haven’t won much support on the Supreme Court.

Starting with a key decision in 1976, the court has stood behind the principle that such rules help prevent corruption and keep voters informed. In the 2010 Citizens United case, an 8-1 majority affirmed disclosure rules. And later that year, conservative Justice Antonin Scalia was even more forceful in backing transparency.

Los Angeles Times: Justices may take up Montana campaign finance case addressing two-track system

Wednesday, June 13th, 2012
Citizens United and an appeals court ruling created a two-track campaign funding system favoring the wealthy. Now the Supreme Court is being asked to hear a Montana case to address some of the issues.

Los Angeles Times

When the Supreme Court ruled that corporations had the right to political free speech, it set loose a tidal wave of campaign money that helped elect a new Congress in 2010 and is now reshaping the presidential race.

But the impact of the Citizens United decision has been as surprising and controversial as the ruling itself. Although the high court’s 5-4 decision is best known for saying that corporations may spend freely on campaign ads, the gusher of money pouring into this year’s campaigns has mostly not involved corporate funds. And some of the practices that critics of the decision decry actually stem from a separate case decided by a U.S. Court of Appeals after the Citizens United ruling.

The rise of “super PACs,” which may raise and spend unlimited amounts so long as they do so independently of a candidate, has allowed close aides to candidates to set up supposedly independent committees that have raised huge amounts, primarily from wealthy individuals. The PACs have spent most of their money on negative ads attacking the opposition. That unlimited fundraising was set in motion by Citizens United, but came to full flower after the subsequent Court of Appeals decision.

By design or happenstance, a two-track campaign funding system has been created: One features small donors and strict regulation; the other exists for the very wealthy, who are largely freed from regulation.

Exasperated defenders of the campaign funding laws see the Citizens United decision as a historic blunder that has all but destroyed not just the 1940s limits on campaign spending by corporations and unions, but the post-Watergate reforms as well. This week, which marks the 40th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, they are asking the justices to reconsider the Citizens United ruling by taking up a case from Montana that raises some of the same issues.

Fred Wertheimer, a champion of the campaign funding laws, says the Citizens United decision has “fundamentally undermined our democracy and is taking the nation back to the system of ‘legalized bribery’ that existed in the robber baron and Watergate eras.”

The Supreme Court meets behind closed doors Thursday to discuss the Montana case. But the five justices who supported Citizens United, led by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, are not likely to agree with the critics. They believe the 1st Amendment fully protects independent spending on campaigns and that more public speech and debate on politics is a plus, not a minus.

But they may be concerned over how political spending has shifted away from candidates and political parties and toward new outside groups.

Before 2010, political action committees were common. They allowed like-minded people — including a company’s employees — to contribute as much as $5,000 each to spend on candidates or campaigns. But in March of 2010, two months after the Citizens United ruling, the contribution lid was lifted.

The U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, citing the 5-4 opinion, reasoned that since the 1st Amendment guaranteed the right to unrestricted “independent” spending on politics, PACs should have the right to collect unlimited sums, so long as they too were independent.

Thus, the parallel system was born.

Congress had set limits on individual contributions after the Watergate scandal, and they remain in effect today. A person who wants to contribute to the campaigns of President Obama or Mitt Romney, his Republican challenger, may give no more than $5,000 this election cycle. But those who have a million dollars to spend can send their money to a super PAC supporting Obama or Romney. Restore Our Future, a super PAC supporting Romney, has at least 16 donors who have given more than $1 million.

“The real impact of Citizens United,” said Columbia University law professor Richard Briffault, has been to legalize “the unlimited use of private wealth in elections…. You haven’t seen nearly as much business or corporate money as people expected. Most corporations are not eager to be involved in an obvious ways.”

Super PACs must disclose their donors, but those who wish to maintain their anonymity can do so through the not-for-profit groups and trade associations that do not disclose their donors. “More than $120 million in anonymous funds was spent to influence the 2010 elections,” the Campaign Legal Center reported. That number is expected to be far higher in 2012, the group said.

Most companies that have given directly from their corporate treasuries to super PACs are privately held.

The Citizens United issue returned to the high court because of an unusual rebellion in the West.

The Montana Supreme Court refused to strike down its state ban on election spending by corporations. Its judges cited Montana’s history of “copper kings” who bribed legislators.

Indiana attorney James Bopp, who started the Citizens United case, appealed and urged the justices to straighten out the recalcitrant state judges. Defenders of campaign funding laws, including Sen. John McCain, launched their own attack on what they say are errors and “faulty assumptions” in the Citizens United opinion.

Although the high court turns down 99% of appeals, no one expects the Montana appeal to be denied.

The justices could write a summary opinion this month explaining why Citizens United was right — or hear the case in the fall and reconsider whether indeed a mistake was made.

 

Emory Wheel: Media and Super PACs Dominate Our Political Discourse

Wednesday, March 28th, 2012

In our time, the best advice to give someone looking to make a difference in the nation’s political discourse would be to not seek elected office and stay out of politics. With the advent of Super PACs and a 24-hour news cycle, pundits and political agencies have more influence than Congress itself.

Emory Wheel

In the words of comedian Robin Williams: “Politicians should wear uniforms like NASCAR drivers so we can identify their corporate sponsors.”

Gallup.com has consistently rated congressional approval around 12 percent for the past several months and for good reason — it doesn’t get anything done. Last summer’s debt ceiling debate, stalling the American Jobs Act and preventing members of Congress from participating in insider trading are only a few examples of the impotence of the legislative branch.

Even in the 111th Congress, which passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 and the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), required 60 votes in the Senate to even debate the passage of a bill.
This is certainly not a recent development, but what has become increasingly relevant are the rise of political organizations that lack transparency, as they are fueled by anonymous donors, as a result of the disastrous Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.

Although Super PACs are prohibited by law from aligning with a particular candidate, it is no secret that there is a definite connection between candidates and the innocuous-sounding money machines that put our nation’s interests in the hands of the wealthy few.

Winning Our Future supports the imminent bust of Newt Gingrich’s candidacy, Restore Our Future is the Super PAC funding Mitt Romney’s future “restoration” of his ever-changing political opinions, the Red White and Blue Fund pulls in the green for Santorum and Revolution PAC appears to back Ron Paul’s ash heap candidacy.

The irony of Super PACs in the Republican primaries is that with as much money and power they control, they prop up a band of misfits who are clearly unable, with the potential exception of Romney, to make the White House their next place of residence. If the Republican National Convention is split in Tampa this August, it will likely be because of the many nameless individuals controlling Super PACs.

Following the theme of centralized power and individuals pulling the political strings from behind the curtain are people like Grover Norquist who is unfamiliar to most Americans despite being called, by many, the most powerful man in Washington. His often-overlooked role is his so-called Taxpayer Protection Pledge, which binds 238 Representatives and 41 Senators, and in effect, the rest of Congress from ever raising taxes despite support from the majority of Americans to do so. The punishment for breaking the pledge is conservative uproar, but the consequence for following through with it is fiscal irresponsibility and denying the reality that taxes occasionally need to be raised.

The problem exists not only for conservative causes, but also with people like George Soros funding liberal organizations and several democratic congressmen across the nation. Organizations like the Human Rights Campaign that fights for gay rights, though a noble cause, have gained considerable influence in recent years.

And if controlling the money in elections isn’t enough, the media is also drastically more powerful than Congress. Although they use completely different tactics, Fox News and people like Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert do more to shape public opinion than just about anyone in the country, and their viewers have more trust in them than their elected officials.

Fox News, in particular, has done a fantastic job to blur the line between quasi-pundits and quasi-politicians with Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee and Karl Rove as contributors. This is particularly troubling considering that the rule of thumb for these talking heads is to make the most outlandish statements in order to have better ratings.

If the argument that individuals who do not hold public office have more power than those on Capitol Hill is not clear enough, consider the last time any lawmaker received more attention for legislating than did Rush Limbaugh’s recent comments about Georgetown Law student Sandra Fluke or the last time a lawmaker received more attention for legislative efforts than for controversy.

In the current political system, money and the media have managed to tilt power in favor of the few and the result is a Washington that works for special interests, rather than special interests working for Washington, let alone Washington working for its constituents.

New York Times: Loose Border of ‘Super PAC’ and Campaign

Saturday, February 25th, 2012

The fantasy that candidates and their campaigns are not effectively coordinating with SuperPACs should be very clear from this NY Times report.

Both parties are spending record amounts of money, from disclosed and undisclosed donors as they hide behind an impotent Federal Elections Commission.

New York Times

When Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign needs advice on direct mail strategies for reaching voters, it looks to TargetPoint Consulting. And when the independent “super PAC” supporting him needs voter research, it, too, goes to TargetPoint.

Sharing a consultant would seem to be an embodiment of coordination between a candidate and an independent group, something prohibited under federal law. But TargetPoint is just one of a handful of interconnected firms in the same office suite in Alexandria, Va., working for either the Romney campaign or the super PAC Restore Our Future.

Elsewhere in the same suite is WWP Strategies, whose co-founder is married to TargetPoint’s chief executive and works for the Romney campaign. Across the conference room is the Black Rock Group, whose co-founder — a top Romney campaign official in 2008 — now helps run both Restore Our Future and American Crossroads, another independent group that spoke up in defense of Mr. Romney’s candidacy in January. Finally, there is Crossroads Media, a media placement firm that works for American Crossroads and other Republican groups.

The overlapping roles and relationships of the consultants in Suite 555 at 66 Canal Center Plaza offer a case study in the fluidity and ineffectual enforcement of rules intended to prevent candidates from coordinating their activities with outside groups. And there has been a rising debate over the ascendancy of super PACs, which operate free of the contribution limits imposed on the candidates but are supposed to remain independent of them.

In practice, super PACs have become a way for candidates to bypass the limits by steering rich donors to these ostensibly independent groups, which function almost as adjuncts of the campaigns.

While insisting that the tangle of connections does not violate any laws, Alexander Gage, TargetPoint’s founder, said he understood how it could look “ridiculous.” His own firm had taken steps, he said, to prevent improprieties, including erecting “a fire wall” separating employees who work for the Romney campaign and the super PAC.

“We go to great lengths to make sure that we meet all legal requirements,” he said. “I have removed myself personally from working on either Restore Our Future or Romney stuff because of this sort of potential conflict of interest.”

The prohibition against candidates working in concert with independent political committees has its roots in Watergate-era reforms intended to prevent large donors from gaining improper influence over elected officials. But it has taken on added significance in the wake of recent court decisions that opened the spigot for unlimited contributions to the independent groups.

Super PACs have collected more than $100 million so far, much of it from a relatively small collection of well-heeled individuals or companies who are free to give millions to these outside groups but no more than a few thousand dollars to a candidate’s own committees. Those unlimited contributions are fueling a barrage of negative advertising in the Republican primaries.

But while the Federal Election Commission has established elaborate, though narrow, guidelines for determining whether the creation of a specific campaign advertisement violates the coordination ban, it has not focused on other kinds of activities between all PACs and candidates. Rules the commission adopted in 2003, still on the books, allow for regulation of this gray area, but they have been largely ignored.

“Most of the focus so far has been on the ads, but there may be a lot of other activity that is being coordinated between the campaigns and the super PACs that could be seen as resulting in a benefit to the campaign,” said Lawrence M. Noble, a campaign-finance lawyer at Skadden, Arps and a former general counsel for the election commission.

The regulations on coordination include a general prohibition on expenditures “made in cooperation, consultation or concert with, or at the request or suggestion” of candidates and their representatives. The commission’s records show that when devising this rule, it turned aside pleas from political groups to limit enforcement only to ads, saying such a narrow focus was not what Congress intended.

Nine years later, however, there is little evidence that the commission has followed through on this intent.

The commission, made up of three Republicans and three Democrats, has long been divided along partisan lines on how far to go in enforcing rules on coordinated expenditures, often resulting in paralysis.

Last fall, the commission was asked by American Crossroads if it could broadcast certain ads, “fully coordinated” with a candidate, who would be consulted about the script and appear in the advertisement. The group argued that it would not be improper as long as the ad ran outside of a time window established by the commission for “electioneering communications.”

The commission deadlocked and could reach no conclusion.

“The campaigns know the F.E.C. isn’t going to enforce the law, and so they’ve decided to do whatever they want,” said Fred Wertheimer, whose watchdog group, Democracy 21, has complained to the Justice Department about the lack of enforcement. “What is going on is just absurd.”

The commission declined to comment for this article.

From the start, there has been no doubt that the super PACs are closely entwined with the candidates they support.

Priorities USA Action, which supports President Obama, was formed by two former White House aides, and Obama administration officials are helping it raise money. A former top aide to Newt Gingrich helps run a pro-Gingrich super PAC, Winning Our Future. And Foster S. Friess, a major donor to Rick Santorum’s super PAC, often travels with the candidate.Mr. Romney has often blurred the distinction between his campaign and Restore Our Future. Last summer, discussing a large donation to the super PAC by one of his former business partners, Mr. Romney characterized it as a donation to himself. He appeared at a fund-raiser for Restore Our Future and has publicly encouraged people to donate to it.

Campaign spending reports filed by both the super PAC and the Romney campaign shed additional light on just how closely interconnected the two entities are.

Restore Our Future, for example, has paid TargetPoint Consulting nearly $350,000 for survey research. Meanwhile, the Romney campaign has paid TargetPoint nearly $200,000 for direct mail consulting. In one instance, the campaign and the super PAC paid TargetPoint on the same day.

Mr. Gage, a senior strategist in Mr. Romney’s 2008 campaign, is married to Katie Packer Gage, a deputy campaign manager of the current Romney campaign. The campaign has paid her firm, WWP Strategies, nearly $250,000 for strategy consulting.

Both of their companies share an office suite with the Black Rock Group, a political consulting firm co-founded by Carl Forti, who worked as political director for Mr. Romney’s 2008 campaign and helps direct Restore Our Future. The super PAC has paid Black Rock about $21,000 for communications consulting.

Mr. Forti declined to comment. Mr. Gage said that his firm had a separate work space from Black Rock, divided by a conference room. “It’s not like we’re a commingled office,” he said.

His wife’s office for WWP Strategies is in the same area as TargetPoint’s, he said, but she has been working out of the Romney headquarters in Boston for the most part. Mr. Gage said they do not discuss the campaign.

Gail Gitcho, a spokeswoman for the Romney campaign, said the campaign followed both the letter and the spirit of the law on coordination.

“We know the law,” she said, “and we abide by it scrupulously.”

The spending reports suggest that the Romney campaign and the super PAC, if not coordinating, have been closely following each other’s fund-raising events, though Ms. Gitcho emphasized that no joint fund-raisers had been held.

Last summer, the super PAC and the Romney campaign employed Creative Edge Parties, a New York catering company, and each sent it a payment on the same day: the super PAC gave a check for $1,676 for a “fund-raising event,” while the Romney campaign sent $1,584 for “facility rental/catering services.”

On another occasion, Restore Our Future paid $1,500 as a fund-raising expense to the Waldorf Astoria in New York, where the Romney campaign held a fund-raiser in December. Around the same time, the Romney campaign paid the Waldorf $19,000 for “facility rental/catering services” and lodging.

And in mid-July, Restore Our Future wrote two checks to Sandie Tillotson, a cosmetics executive and a friend of Mr. Romney, reimbursing her for “event costs,” which appear to be associated with a fund-raiser held in her apartment on the top floor of the north tower of the Time Warner Center in Manhattan. Several weeks later, the Romney campaign also sent a check to the residential board of Ms. Tillotson’s building, which is home as well to the Mandarin Oriental hotel, for “facility rental/catering services.” (The campaign had a fund-raiser at the hotel on July 19.)

The overlapping connections of American Crossroads, the independent group tied to Karl Rove, with the Alexandria office suite are likely to draw more scrutiny in the general election, should Mr. Romney win the nomination. Mr. Forti is the group’s political director, and Crossroads is expected to be a big player in November.

While American Crossroads has not officially endorsed a candidate, it has been seen by some as tacitly supporting Mr. Romney. It issued a memorandum last month defending his electability in the face of attacks by the Obama campaign. That was soon followed by another, saying its earlier note “probably should have been clearer” that the group remained neutral in the Republican primaries.

Sunlight Foundation: Almost 400 former House staffers registered to lobby in last two years

Friday, February 24th, 2012

The revolving door is alive and well in Washington. In less than three years, at least 377 House staffers employed in personal and committee offices have left Capitol Hill to become registered lobbyists, a Sunlight Foundation analysis of U.S. House disbursement data and federal lobbying records finds.

More than two in five former House staffers who registered as lobbyists went to one of Washington’s many lobbying firms. One in five went to lobby for a for-profit corporation, and another one in five went to lobby for a business or trade association. In other words, corporate America is capturing the lion’s share of former Hill staffers’ expertise. A large number also represent state and local governments and universities in their work for lobbying firms.

Sunlight Foundation

These lobbyists come from all rungs of the House hierarchy. The 377 staffers who left to lobby included 50 legislative assistants, 32 chiefs of staff, 26 legislative directors, and 22 staff assistants.

Many lobbyists came from committees as well. The Committee with the clearest path to K Street was the Financial Services Committee, where nine of 71 staffers (12.7%) went off to lobby within two years, followed closely by Judiciary (9.0%) and Oversight and Government Reform (8.7%).

Congress’s loss is the private sector’s gain. When House offices lose staffers who have built up experience and relationships in Congress, private interests gain both their policy knowhow and their political networks. Meanwhile, the House offices often find themselves relying on the expertise of their former staffers who are now in the employ of private interests.

Recently, we noted that the average House office had a retention rate of 64.2% over a two-year period. Although the majority of departing staff do not move to K Street, 377 staffers is still a significant number.

For a complete list of all the staffers who registered to lobby, what office they worked in, and where they went to lobby, click here.

WHERE STAFFERS GO ON K STREET

More than 80% of former Hill staffers who leave to lobby take jobs at Washington lobbying firms (41.5%), individual corporations (21.3%) and business and trade associations (19.1%).

By comparison, fewer than one in ten go to work for a non-profit advocacy group. Only a single former House staffer went to work for a labor union, though a few do represent unions as part of their work with Washington lobbying firms. Some (5.1%) went to work for occupational associations, such as the American Dental Association or the International Association of Fire Chiefs; another nine went to work for institutions, mostly universities.

It’s important to emphasize that this analysis is limited to registered lobbying. If former House staffers joined advocacy organizations but did not register as lobbyists, they will not show up in these tabulations.

Figure 1. Where staffers who become lobbyists go to lobby

graphic by Ali Felski

If we look at the employment destinations by position in the House, we can see some different career paths. While 56.2% of chiefs of staff who became lobbyists joined Washington lobbying firms, only 30.8% of legislative directors and 23.1% of legislative assistants who registered as lobbyists did so for a lobbying firms

Legislative directors who go downtown are about equally likely to wind up in a lobbying firm, a corporation, or a business or trade association. Legislative assistants are most likely to wind up in a business or trade association.

Non-profit advocacy, meanwhile, did not attract a single chief of staff, but it did attract two of the 26 legislative directors going to lobby and five of the 52 legislative assistants.

Generally, work in a lobbying firm offers individuals the opportunity to make the most money, though it also generally requires the most work. Some individuals prefer the stability or predictability of a corporation or a trade association, where one does not have to shift between multiple clients and does not have to hustle for new business.

 

Figure 2. Where staffers who become lobbyists go to lobby, by position

graphic by Ali Felski

 

REPRESENTATION BY SECTOR

What types of interests do these former staffers represent? In order to answer this question, we added up the number of lobbying contracts that mentioned these staffers.  State and local governments top the list, with 295 contracts, followed closely by pharmaceutical companies at 263, education (mostly universities) at 261, computers/internet at 226, and electric utilities at 192.

Table 1. Sectors former House staffers represent

Certainly, there are different ways to cut these numbers. Telephone utilities, for example spent $253 million on contracts that included these lobbyists, as compared to state and local governments, which spent $38 million, although there were many more contracts involving state and local governments.

A LOOK AT WHO GOES TO BECOME A LOBBYIST

Among the staffers who left, about two-thirds (243) previously worked in member personal offices. Of these individuals, 60.5% (147) came from Democratic offices, as compared to 39.5% (96) from Republicans. Much of this disparity, however, has to do with the fact that the Democrats lost 63 seats in the 2010 mid-term elections, putting hundreds of Democratic staffers out of work.

Among the 147 Democratic staffers who left to become lobbyists, 63 (43%) worked for members who were defeated or retired in 2010.Of member staffers-turned-lobbyists, 32% (77) came from offices where members were defeated or retired; the remaining 68% (166) worked for members who are still in office.

Table 2. Partisanship and member status of staffers turned lobbyists

three members of Congress sent at least four staffer to the ranks of registered lobbyists since 2009: Michael A. Arcuri (D-NY, 5), Adam Putnam (R-FL, 4), and Laura Richardson (D-CA, 4). Arcuri and Putnam are no longer in Congress. Both Arcuri and Richardson were on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Putnam was on the Financial Services Committee.  Table 3 shows the members at least three staff  who became lobbyists.Almost 40% (177) of the House offices in 2009 had at least one staffer become a lobbyist by 2011, and 11% (49) sent at least two individuals to become lobbyists. 

Table 3. Members with highest rates of staff going to lobby

COMMITTEES

Some committees are more likely to generate future lobbyists than others. Perhaps not surprisingly, the House committee with the highest percentage of former staffers going to lobby was the Financial Services Committee, where nine of 71 staffers (12.7%) went off to lobby. The Financial Services Committee handled the Dodd-Frank bill, which will continue to generate major lobbying activity for years as financial regulatory agencies work their way through the approximately 400 rulemaking the bill calls for. The Judiciary (9.0%) and Oversight and Government Reform (8.7%) had the next highest rates. Appropriations sent the most individuals to lobby (11, out of 145 staffers)

Table 4. Rate of staffers becoming lobbyists, by committee/leadership offices

POSITIONS

Certain positions were more likely to lead to future work as a lobbyist than others. The 377staffers employed in the House in 2009 who left to lobby included 50 legislative assistants, 32 chiefs of staff, 26 legislative directors, and 22 staff assistants.Of the 25 most common staff titles, the titles most likely to lead to staffers becoming lobbyists within the 2-year period were “Counsel” (11.2% became lobbyists), “Legislative Director” (8.9% became lobbyists), and “Legislative Counsel” (8.8% became lobbyists). Eight percent of both the chiefs of staff and the deputy chiefs of staff employed in mid-2009 became lobbyists. Interestingly, as we noted in our recent analysis of House operating budget cuts, salaries for “Counsel” positions had suffered the most between 2009 and 2011, down 5.8%. There is probably some connection.

Table 5. Rate of staffers becoming lobbyists, by selected positions

CONCLUSIONS

The revolving door continues to spin. Since July 2009, almost 400 individuals employed as House staffers at the time have left to become registered lobbyists, primarily working for lobbying firms, corporations, and business associations.In many respects, Congress continues to operate as a farm team for future lobbyists. Staff build up contacts and policy and political expertise. Then they often go “downtown” and cash in, taking their expertise and networks with them.

Though a certain flow of personnel from Congress to K Street is inevitable, Congress ought to do more to hold onto experienced staff. Recently, we explored retention rates among House staff, and we found that offices that paid their staff more had slightly higher retention rates, though Hill salaries lag behind private sector comparisons.When staff leave to lobby, their former offices must find somebody new and usually less experienced. And offices who lack staff with policy expertise and political relationships often must rely more on outside lobbyists, who are only too happy to fill the gap.For a complete list of all 378 staffers, what office they worked in, and where they went to lobby, click here.

METHODOLOGY AND DATA

These results are based on a comparison of House disbursement data from the third quarter of 2009 with public lobbying records. One challenge in conducting this analysis is that we are matching on names, and sometimes individuals register as lobbyists under different name permutations than they were listed on the Hill. We do our best to correct for this, but there are limitations. We also note that because certain names are more common than others, there is always the possibility of false positive matches.

Additionally, since our data on staff come from the Office of the Chief Administrative Officer of the U.S. House of Representatives, we are dependent on what the House reports. We must in good faith disclose that the underlying data are messy. At best, the data are approximate, and higher levels of confidence in it can only come when the House of Representatives makes a better effort with respect to how it normalizes and releases the data to the public. To dig through the data yourself, visit our House Expenditure Reports Database.

Special thanks to Daniel Schuman and Alison Rowland for their help on this analysis.

UPDATE: Jennifer Taylor, a legislative assistant in Rep. Pingree’s office, shares a name with Jennifer Taylor, a lobbyist at Van Scoyoc & Associates, resulting in a false positive. The text of this post has been corrected to reflect this. As noted above, our analysis is limited by the quality of the data published by the House disbursement reports and the Senate Office of Public Records. We regret the error and encourage anyone with clarifying information to contact us.