Thursday, August 28, 2014

We Need a 28th Amendment--NOW!!!!!!

To save what little semblance of democracy we still have left, we absolutely need to overturn Citizens United and McCutcheon v. FEC. According to Public Citizen News, 83 percent of Americans favor limiting the amount of money that corporations and other organizations can spend on elections. By its calculations, about $7 billion was spent on the 2012 federal elections--most of it due to Citizens United, which permits corporations and the wealthy to spend unlimited amounts of money on ads and other campaign activities. The elimination of the old $123,000 limit in  McCutcheon enabled the 600 individuals who exceeded that amount to funnel up to $5.9 million into the political process. What can we do about, while we still have the machinery---even if not much of the substance of---the democratic process?

One of the most effective strategies is for progressives everywhere to throw their support behind S.J. Res.19, which has been in the works for four years. It was introduced by U.S. Senator Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and it would overturn not only Citizens United and McCutcheon, but also Buckley v. Valeo,  a 1976 Supreme Court decision that established the doctrine popularly called "money equals people." On June 3, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the proposed amendment, which would give Congress and the states the authority to regulate and limit campaign spending, including expenditures by, in support of, or to oppose candidates in federal elections. Before the hearing even began, a number of progressive organizations delivered a petition in support of the amendment signed by more than two million people from throughout the country. It pledged the support of sixty progressive organizations including Public Citizen, USAction, Common Cause, the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, the NAACP, and the Communication Workers of America. Speaking for them, Public Citizen President Robert Weissman proclaimed that "this is an historic moment.This amendment will help restore the most basic meaning of democracy--rule by the people."

 In a prepared statement, Senator Harry Reid (D-Nev), the Senate Majority Leader, testified that "American families cannot compete with billionaires, Our involvement in government should not be dependent on our bank account balances." On June 18, the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights Subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee approved a revised version that simplified and shortened  the amendment's language. This version contains slightly more than 100 words stipulating that "to protect the integrity of government and the electoral process, Congress and the States may regulate and set reasonable limits on the raising and spending of money by candidates and others to influence elections." In addition, it empowers Congress and the states to "distinguish between natural persons and corporations or other artificial entities created by law, including by prohibiting such entities from spending money to influence elections." On July 10, the full committee voted to send the revised version to the Senate floor, where it is scheduled for a vote this fall. So far, 47 Senators have signed on in support.

In urging support for the amendment, Weissman proclaims that "the American people know that the current system is failing them. They desperately want action. They believe passionately in ensuring that their speech--not that of any one select group, but the speech of We the People--matters. They are clamoring for the 28th Amendment."

In his brilliant treatise Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change The Constitution, retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens makes a compelling case for a "Campaign Finance" amendment. (the others are the "Anti-Commandeering Rule, Sovereign Immunity, Political Gerrymandering, the Death Penalty, and Gun Control.)  In this succinct 177 page treatise, Justice Stevens argues that the first four "would nullify judge-made rules, the fifth would expedite the demise of the death penalty, and the sixth would confine the coverage of the Second Amendment to the area intended by its authors." Over time, he contends that the "soundness of each of my proposals will become more and more evident, and that ultimately each will be adopted." The purpose of this book, he states flatly is "to expedite that process and to avoid future crises before they occur." In support of the amendment regarding campaign finance, Justice Stevens quotes from President Theodore Roosevelt 1905 annual message to Congress:
                 All contributions by corporations to any political committee for any
                political purpose should be forbidden by law; directors should not be
               permitted to use stockholders' money for such purposes; and, moreover,
              a prohibition of this kind would be, as far as it went, an effective method
              of stopping the evils aimed at in corrupt practices acts.   

Two years later, Justice Stevens argues, " Congress passed a statute banning all corporate contributions to political candidates. For decades thereafter, Congress, most state legislators, and members of the Supreme Court apparently agreed that it was both wise and constitutional to impose greater restrictions on corporate participation in elections than on individuals." That consensus maintained until 1990, when Justices Anton Scalia and Anthony Kennedy wrote a dissenting opinion in Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce. The majority upheld the constitutionality of a Michigan statute prohibiting corporations from making any expenditure in connection with an election campaign for state office. The dissenting opinion written by Scalia, who argued that "corporate speech, like other expressive activities by groups of persons, was entitled to the same First Amendment protection as speech by an individual." Fast forward to 2011 and Citizens United v. FEC, in which the Scalia-Kennedy interpretation became the majority opinion (5-4), and "the rest is history," at least until the present.

Stevens does not "fast forward," but traces the devolution of campaign finance regulation from Austin  to Citizens United, step-by-step. He also points out that campaign contributions by labor unions have been seriously restricted since the Court upheld that limitation as part of the infamous Taft-Hartley Act of 1947. Stevens also pointedly argues that most members of the TV viewing public "share my opinion that at least 75 percent--perhaps even 90 percent--of the campaign commercials could be omitted without depriving viewers of any useful data." He goes on to say that the decision in Citizens United took a giant step in the wrong direction by "giving corporations an unlimited right to spend their shareholders money in election campaigns." < Isn't it odd that corporations that always insist that their primary (only?) responsibility is to their shareholders, as opposed to labor, consumers or the general public, feel empowered to spend their shareholders money on political action without having to get their permission?>  A constitutional amendment allowing Congress and the states to place "reasonable" limits on campaign expenditures "would allow corporations to make public announcements of their views but would prohibit them from engaging in "the kind of repetitive and excessive advocacy that the candidates typically employ." 

In conclusion, Justice Stevens even provides the exact language that such an amendment should take: Neither the First Amendment nor any other provision of this constitution shall be construed to prohibit Congress or any state from opposing reasonable limits on the amount of money that candidates for public office, or their supporters may spend in election campaigns. Of course. there will be intense disagreements over the definition of "reasonable." That is what is normally called POLITICS!!!     


Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The "Do-Even-Less-Than-Nothing" Congress

Way back in 1948 President Harry Truman immortalized the 80th Congress as the "Do-Nothing Congress." By hammering away at that theme, HST was able to pull victory from what almost all Pols and Pundits predicted would certainly be the "jaws of defeat." The Chicago Tribune was so certain that it made "Dewey Wins" the gigantic front-page headline of an edition that they were quickly forced to retract. Whether or not Truman's assessment was categorically true, he pulled off what is still almost universally regarded as the greatest upset in the history of presidential elections, and used it as a goad to press the 81st Congress to enact several parts of his Fair Deal platform.  (I actually held a copy of the Trib in my hot little hand when one of the parish priests at St. Pats interrupted our touch football game to teach us a couple of lessons about hubris in real world politics.)

Memories of that "do-nothing 80th Congress came flooding back to me when I read two articles in the opinion section of the New York Times. One was headed "The Do-Even-Less Congress" and written by Charles W. Blow. the other was "What the Republicans Failed to Accomplish" by David Firestone. As of the end of July, Blow asserted, "the current Congress had enacted 142 laws, the fewest of any Congress in the past two decades over the equivalent time span," and only 108 of those were substantial pieces of legislation. Most of the rest involved the renaming of post offices, anniversary commemorations, and other purely ceremonial acts. President Obama has found it necessary to veto only two bills, fewer than and president since James Garfield in 1881--and his term lasted only 200 days before he was assassinated. (Now that paucity of vetoes might signify a high level of agreement between the executive and the legislature, but anybody with a breath in her or his body knows how ridiculous that conclusion would be.) Perhaps we should be grateful that the House is scheduled to be in session 135 days, which works out to 942 hours, an average of about 28 hours per week. Even the most low-paid member of the House scores $174,00 a year, plus a benefit package to die for. That is about the only thing that Democrats and Republicans agree upon, besides the conviction that it should be more. (Don't even attempt to calculate pay per hour. It would only drive you crazy, suicidal, or better yet, homicidal). The average full-time worker logs in more than 1,700 hours per year, for a comparative pittance.

Mr. Blow cites a June report by the Pew Foundation that found "Republicans and Democrats are more divided along ideological lines.....and partisan antipathy is deeper and more extensive than at any point in the last two decades." In my view, this is more about "partisan antipathy" than ideology.
Neither party wants to tackle the real "hot button" issues, such as immigration, inversion, inequality, and "too big to fail." The more liberal Democrats and right-wing Republicans are obviously poles apart on these issues, but the leadership and majority in both parties does not want to touch any of these because of their potential for real ideological disputation. Better to ignore them and rest comfortably in the status quo. Better to sling vitriol back and forth than engage in serious negotiations on any of these "elephants in the room." Republicans blame Obama and Democrats blame Republican intransigence. As Mr. Blow concludes: "Legislation is only a hobby for members of this Congress. their full time job is raising hell, raising money and lowering the bar on acceptable behavior."

Mr. Firestone elaborates upon the same theme: "The failure of this Congress (principally the House) to perform the most basic tasks of governing is breathtakingly broad." To prove his point, he appends "a catalog of the vital tasks the House was unable to accomplish before taking an unnecessary recess."
1. Failure to pass a full set of appropriations bills for the 2015 fiscal year of a continuing resolution to keep the government open past Sept. 30. Haven't we seen this movie before? It should be a real bloodbath!
2. Failure to enact a long-term transportation bill. The current one expires in ten months and is full of gimmicks necessitated by the failure to raise the gasoline tax
3. Failure to enact comprehensive immigration reform
4. Failure to renew the Import/Export Bank and terrorism risk insurance
5. Failure to raise the minimum wage
6. Failure to extend unemployment compensation
7. Failure to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act
8. Failure to enact the Paycheck Fairness Act
9. Failure to fix the Voting Rights Act after it was gutted by the Supreme Court
10. Failure to pass any measure imposing background checks on gun buyers
11. Failure to enact any long-term legislation to stimulate the economy and create jobs

"But there is one thing House Republicans did enthusiastically before pack their bags. They voted to sue the president for taking executive actions they disliked ---actions that were necessary because Republicans failed to do their jobs.

What is a voter to do? One good suggestion comes from Ann McFeatters of the McClatchy-Tribune News  Service:
Voters, return to your senses. Do not elect or reelect anyone who wants to refuse to pay debts America has already incurred. Do not pull any lever for someone who proudly promises never to compromise (without it politics is meaningless). Do not send to Washington anyone who tells you how much he/she hates government. Do not give your precious vote to anyone who labels the other side evil, treasonous, demonic, or stupid. (Well, stupid is OK.)   

Keep on keeping on.