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Bob Edgar: New report examines radical activists’ drive to dismantle election laws

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. By Sunday, October 24, nonprofit groups backing Republican candidates or opposing their foes had spent $105 million, compared with $61.7 million for those supporting the Democrats. According to the Washington-based Sunlight Foundation, the Democrats made up some of that by doling out $67.9 million, outpacing—this is directly from the Democratic Party committees—outpacing the GOP counterparts by more than $7 million. But one way or the other, since the Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court, multi-millions of dollars is flowing through so-called nonprofits to candidates. Is this changing the shape of American elections? Now joining us to discuss a study they’ve just commissioned is the head of Common Cause. Bob Edgar has been president and CEO of Common Cause since 2007. It’s a national, nonpartisan, nonprofit lobby group. He’s the author of the book Middle Church: Reclaiming the Moral Values of the Faithful Majority from the Religious Right. He’s a former congressman from the suburbs of Philadelphia, from the Democratic Party. Thanks for joining us.

BOB EDGAR, PRESIDENT, COMMON CAUSE: Good to be with you, Paul.

JAY: So tell us a little bit about your study and what you found out.

EDGAR: Well, we did several studies. This particular one focuses on James Bopp, who is a one-person legal wrecking crew for any kind of financial rules, regulations across the country on how money is raised and how it’s spent. He has for 30 years practiced an effort to do away with public financing laws in Arizona and Connecticut and Maine, where we’ve installed public financing and where it’s working. Every time some issue comes up, he wants to see a free flow of money from anywhere, whether it’s foreign money or whether it’s large corporations’ involvement in campaigns. He was behind the Citizens United case that has startled everyone. Prior to Citizens United, unions and corporations could participate, but they had to do it through political action committees where there was full transparency. Now, since the January Citizens United case, the flood of money has just overwhelmed the political system. It’s a corrosive influence. And this James Bopp, he just has singlehandedly, working with the Republican Party, working with special interest groups, working with a narrow set of independent expenditure groups, has simply tried to needle and break any kinds of rules and regulations on money.

JAY: So for people who haven’t followed—I suppose most people have, but just in case—Citizens United was a case heard by the Supreme Court that said, essentially, corporations are like individuals, have the same rights as individuals when it comes to participating in the elections, which more or less took off—the restrictions were already kind of weak, and it took off any kind of restrictions.

EDGAR: My wife is a retired operating room nurse. She’ll believe corporations are persons the day after they have a colonoscopy.

JAY: Well, I think there’s probably a lot of people who would like to volunteer to try that. But—.

EDGAR: The Supreme Court took a question which was very narrowly drawn. It was the Citizens United against the Federal Election Commission. And it had to do with a book that was published that trashed Hillary Clinton, and the people who funded that book didn’t want their names exposed. And so it went all the way up to the Supreme Court. And the Supreme Court could have ruled very narrowly, but by a five to four decision the Supreme Court ruled that corporations are persons, that they should be considered under the First Amendment, under the freedom of speech provisions of the Constitution, and that money is speech. Money can stifle speech, as far as I’m concerned. But we were just shocked in the good government community with that decision. If Sandra Day O’Connor had still been on the court, the decision would have been five to four the other way. But the Roberts court decided that corporations should be able to dip into their corporate treasuries, spend that money on independent expenditures.

JAY: Do you know if this is pre-tax or after-tax money? In other words, is this a write-off for corporations when they spend this money?

EDGAR: I don’t know the answer to that question, but I know that it aids corporations and labor unions. But labor unions, because of their membership, are somewhat limited on how much money they can flood into campaigns. They’ve put a lot of money in.

JAY: And generally it’s transparent. When they do it, it’s [inaudible]

EDGAR: It’s very transparent.

JAY: ‘Cause they have to tell their membership they’re doing it.

EDGAR: Right. But if I’m a large corporation doing business in the United States and I want to influence the outcome of an election, I don’t even have to spend the money. I can just threaten to spend the money. Let me give you that example. Suppose I’m a large corporation in my congressional district, and I vote wrong on health care, and they are interested in going the other direction on health care. They can come into my office and simply say, Bob, we haven’t put forth—.

JAY: Vote wrong in the eyes of the corporation.

EDGAR: Right. We haven’t put any money against you for the last couple elections, but, you know, we’re thinking about investing $4 or 5 million into independent expenditures against you ’cause we didn’t like that vote. Now, we know you want to be in Congress for the rest of your life, so, you know, we’ll watch your votes, but just remember that we’re your friends. Actually, we’re—.

JAY: So tell us more about what you found about this lawyer, Bopp. Who’s paying Bopp to do all this stuff?

EDGAR: There are a whole bunch of groups. The Republican Party paid him large bucks to try to make sure that corporations and individuals could give large amounts of money without being questioned. There’s a whole history of the past 30 years where he’s gotten money from the party. He’s also, inside the party, been part of the ultraconservative right-wing voice of the party, going against people like George Bush. I mean, he thought George Bush was too liberal. He has labeled Obama a socialist and worked with organizations that have pushed that socialist agenda onto the current president. A number of these hidden groups that are putting gazillions of dollars into this midterm election who don’t want their donors to be named are being protected by his legal gifts and skills. And he’s been very successful, given the conservative nature of the Supreme Court and the conservative nature of the courts in general.

JAY: There’s some particular story falling out of this in California, some of the lobbying that’s taking place and money that’s flowing in on some of the legislation that might restrict oil drilling. And can you tell us a bit about that?

EDGAR: Well, I think we’ve seen an uptick in California, in Florida, and a number of places where corporations, under the umbrella of the Citizens United case of the Supreme Court, now are investing money to try to eliminate their opponents in the House and Senate, and also working inside state government as well to make sure that the laws and rules and regulations are watered down so that offshore drilling can take place, so that investments in oil-based energy can continue. Often it’s at the punishment of renewable energy. Why is it that 30 years, 40 years after the first energy bill in the mid ’70s we have no real commitment to alternative energy here in the United States? Well, the investment of the energy companies, the coal and oil, have been deep and big, and this Citizens United case gives even more opportunity for expenditures.

JAY: So what could people do about this? Part of the problem here, I guess, for people that want to get rid of this law or overturn in some way the Supreme Court decision, is that one of the biggest beneficiaries of all this is the politicians themselves. There’s the people that play ball with big corporations are going to do extremely well out of this. And that happens in both parties—I think it’s clear that this isn’t just a Republican issue. There’s quite a few Democrats that got a lot of money from the health-care industry to—some of the Blue Dog Democrats were the biggest beneficiaries of PhRMA and medi-money. So what do you think people should be doing?

EDGAR: Well, I think you’ve got to put it in layers. In the short term we ought to pass a bill that’s before the Senate that lost by 59 votes because of the filibuster. It’s called DISCLOSE, and it would limit the amount of money that foreign corporations can—.

JAY: Didn’t—just—it didn’t lose by 59 votes. It had 59 votes but lost because of filibuster. Right?

EDGAR: Yeah, it lost because it didn’t have 60 votes, okay? And the filibuster is really blocking a lot of important legislation. But in this case, in the short term, in the lame duck session, if DISCLOSE passes, there would be some transparency on the flow of money in future elections and would prevent foreign corporations from investing. It’s a small step, but it’s a step in the right direction. Secondly, Common Cause and a number of other groups are working on something called Fair Elections Now, which is a public financing system, a voter-owned election system. We installed a similar system in Arizona, Maine, and Connecticut. In the ’08 election, 74 percent of the candidates running for the state legislature in Connecticut used our voter-owned system; 81 percent of them got elected, took no money from special interests. It’s a voluntary system where they raise large amounts of money from their district or state but take no special interest money. And we have 165 cosponsors in the House. It’s led in the Senate by Senator Dick Durbin, in the House by Congressman John Larson. It has come out of committee. We would like to see a strong vote in the House, even in the lame duck session. Now let’s talk about the long term. How do we fix Citizens United? There are only two ways to do it, and both of them are very difficult. One is a constitutional amendment, giving the House and Senate the ability to control and organize and regulate the use of money in political campaigns and move away from the thought that money is free speech. I think money can stifle speech, as I said before. Secondly, the change in the texture and the makeup of the Supreme Court. As I said, if the Court had still had Sandra Day O’Connor, they would have gone in a different direction. I think over the last 30 years many people have seen the Court has become more activist, more targeted politically. And on these cases it’s usually a five to four vote, in our opinion, in the wrong direction.

JAY: This new form of free flow of money, it’s a bit of, like, a legalized corruption. The influence, the amount of money a candidate can now negotiate is virtually unlimited. The threat of counter money, as you described earlier, is virtually unlimited. Where does all this lead in terms of American politics?

EDGAR: Well, I think it leads us in a bad direction. It either protects incumbents, who learn very quickly when they get elected to the House and Senate that they’ve got to spend 50, 60 percent of their time raising money for their reelection, or it supports those candidates who are self-funded who could put $100 million into their own campaigns or $50 million or $2 million or $20 million. And it really helps the corporations. Common Cause did a study on health care. From the year 2002 to 2008, corporations put $3 billion into lobbying. On top of that, they put $350 million into the campaigns of incumbent Democrats and Republicans who served on the committees of jurisdiction. By the time we got to the health care debate last year and you thought we were talking publicly about single-payer or public option, all of those issues were off the table because of the money that was flowing in prior to the Citizens United case. We did another study, Legislating Under the Influence, on Oil, and discovered how many congressmen and senators work to loosen and lower the regulations on offshore oil drilling that in part led to the oil spill that we’ve just wandered through and the lack of responsibility that BP will have to abide by, simply because of congressmen who want to support industry positions.

JAY: It’s an excellent time to own a media company that can sell television and radio time to politicians, but particularly to corporations. Thanks very much for joining us.

EDGAR: It’s good to be with you.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network. And don’t forget we don’t sell advertising to corporations or politicians. In fact, we don’t sell advertising at all. So don’t forget the Donate button, which will be somewhere around this window. Thanks very much for joining us.

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In May 2007, Bob Edgar was named president and CEO of Common Cause, a national nonpartisan, non-profit "citizens"" lobby working to make government at all levels more honest