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Archive for May 2012

Mann and Ornstein, tilting at a strawman

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After causing a stir with an op-ed called “Let’s just say it: The Republicans are the problem”, longtime purveyors of centrist Beltway conventional wisdom Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute and Thomas Mann, of the Brookings Institution, followed up with another called “Want to end partisan politics? Here’s what won’t work — and what will”.

In it, they trot out five reforms they say won’t fix Washington and four they say can. However, especially for a column co-written by a campaign finance expert like Ornstein, the segment criticizing public financing of elections displayed a surprising lack of apparent familiarity with the motivations for campaign finance reform.

Here is their segment on why public financing like a Fair Elections system “won’t work”:

4) Public financing of elections will restrain special interests

Certainly, in the post-Citizens United world, the financing of political campaigns is a nightmare — a Wild West of secret big money and a new Gilded Age of influence peddling by special interests.

But full public financing of campaigns is not the answer. We understand the appeal, but short of an unlikely constitutional amendment or a reconstituted Supreme Court placing limits on private money in political campaigns, public funding simply cannot provide candidates enough resources to overcome hugely expensive “independent” campaigns against them by super PACs. Even then, the influence of organizations such as the National Rifle Association, AARP, the Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO is not defined simply by the money they spend on campaigns. They also mobilize powerful collections of single-minded members and followers to pressure lawmakers; and they hire former lawmakers or congressional staff members to gain access to power and boost policy expertise on key issues. Campaign donations are a relatively small part of the resources they invest in influencing government.

Whether or not campaign money is the key, restricting the flow of private money in politics has proven devilishly difficult, and the actions of the Roberts Supreme Court and the feckless Federal Election Commission have made it virtually impossible.

This really doesn’t get it. First, here’s a primer on Fair Elections, a form of public financing they are de facto criticizing, so that you can orient yourself. I would love to do a systematic deconstruction of all the problems in these three paragraphs, but time is limited, so here are a few:

1)      Missing the Appeal of Public Financing — Mann and Ornstein say they “understand the appeal” of public financing, but then offer no evidence that they actually do understand what is beneficial about Fair Elections. From this segment, it appears that the only possible reason to enact Fair Elections is to “provide candidates enough resources to overcome hugely expensive ‘independent’ campaigns against them by super PACs”.

So, preventing campaign contributions from buying access to lawmakers? Allowing candidates without connections to the wealthy or big corporations (a.k.a. normal people) to run viable campaigns? Raising the voices of small donors so that they actually matter? Freeing legislators from spending all their time fundraising so that they can, oh I don’t know, legislate? Nope. All unimportant.

2)      Interest Group Influence Is Not a Prima Facie Problem — Interest groups having influence is not an inherent problem. What’s important is whether that influence is pro-democratic or anti-democratic.

Mann and Ornstein say that groups like the NRA problematically “mobilize powerful collections of single-minded members and followers to pressure lawmakers”. Hmm… Large groups of citizens who care about an issue urging their elected representative to vote a certain way and letting them know that this will factor into their choice on Election Day? Sounds a lot like democracy to me. Decisions are supposed to be based on the will of “We, the People”. The problem is when interests have undue influence that is not based on “one person, one vote,” but on the size of the bank accounts backing those interests.

3)      Limits ≠ Public Financing — Despite claiming to be talking about public financing, virtually all that Mann and Ornstein talk about is restrictions on private money in elections. First off, there are three broad categories of campaign finance: disclosure, limits, and public financing. Talking only about limiting the powerful is missing half of the picture. Restoring some semblance of democratic equality requires both preventing a few voices from drowning out everyone else, as well as raising up those whose voices are lost in the current system.

4)      The January 20, 2010 Delusion — Perhaps worst of all is the implication in this piece that American elections were perfectly fine until the Roberts Court came in and mucked everything up with their Citizens United ruling. Don’t get me wrong, Citizens United is an utterly clueless ruling, exhibiting a perverted interpretation of the First Amendment and naivety about how elections actually work. But on January 20, 2010, the day before that decision, American politics was already broken, with big money already dominating and buying results in a big way.

-Kurt Walters


Written by rethoughtblog

May 21, 2012 at 11:40 pm

How Politico bungled its Elizabeth Warren story

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(Okay, the headline’s a little extreme, but it was just too perfect)

In a story that stands out as poorly written even for political tabloid Politico, writers Manu Raju (@mkraju), David Catanese (@davecatanese), and contributor Maggie Haberman (@maggiepolitico) failed one of the primary rules of journalism: disclose the connections your sources have to the subjects of the story and to the media outlet itself. This is why, for example, every Washington Post article about Kaplan Co. will cite that it is the parent company of the Washington Post.

The story, “How Warren Bungled First Controversy”, was about Elizabeth Warren apparently listing herself as a minority law professor because of her 1/32 Native American heritage, an admittedly strange move, and her reaction to the ensuing hubbub.

The entire article feels like an attempt to stoke the coals of controversy, with a lot of misleading question-raising that places ideas in people’s heads under the guise of a genuine question (“he says he doesn’t torture puppies in his spare time, but how can we really be sure?”). See the following:

She said she listed her Native American heritage as a way to meet others who are “like” her, but law school directories listed her vaguely as a “minority” teacher for nearly a decade — not specifically as someone with tribal roots.

She said that she’s long been “proud” of her heritage, but that assertion seems to be undermined by her decision to delist herself as a minority teacher in the law directories and the fact that there is virtually no mention of her lineage over the past decade-and-half, including as she climbed the ranks in the Obama White House.

She said that listing her ethnicity was not part of her efforts to seek a job, yet she scrubbed that listing as she received tenure at Harvard.

While Warren insists she was hired solely on merit, the campaign has no plans to release records detailing whether she cited her minority status as she sought law jobs in the early part of her career.

But that’s not really what irked me. The segment that stood out to me as violating journalistic ethics was when they cited William Jacobson, the author of a conservative legal-focused blog Legal Insurrection, and law professor at Cornell Law. Even Cornell itself described it as “the conservative blog Legal Insurrection” in a story about Jacobson’s defense of the Tea Party.

Jacobson also is a fairly widely published conservative pundit, including at outlets like the Wall Street Journal, CBS Evening News, and Fox … oh and at Politico Arena. The reporters seem to feel no need to disclose this. Here’s the segment:

“If she is 1/32nd Native American … is it really appropriate to list yourself that way and knowing you will therefore be listed as a minority law professor?” asked William Jacobson, associate clinical professor of Cornell Law School, the author of a blog read in the legal community. “Why in the world would you list yourself when it is such a tenuous and distant relationship?”

“Why would she have done it, and why would she have stopped when she was at Harvard?” Jacobson said. “The whole thing makes no sense.”

In a normal question of law school tenures or something reasonably neutral, perhaps it would be okay to neglect to note Jacobson’s conservative background. But in a Senate race where Warren is the Democratic nominee? And when Jacobson has been regularly attacking Warren? Might be relevant.

In fact, Jacobson has been pushing the Warren Native American story HARD. He’s written no less than nine articles in the past week on the subject (more than one a day, for those watching at home), including favorites like “Elizabeth Warren’s claim of being 1/32 Cherokee in doubt” and Elizabeth Warren claims listed herself as minority to meet people, but story doesn’t hold up (Update: High cheekbones?). Check out the whole list here.

To be clear, I don’t have any issue with the content of what Jacobson said, and there wasn’t any wrongdoing by him. It’s also true that Warren’s move seems rather stupid. But, if we’re supposed to take Politico as a legitimate news organization, its writers owe us, the readers, context about speakers’ backgrounds and affiliations so that we can better evaluate their  motives and messages.

Hopefully, Politico will quickly update the story to disclose Jacobson’s conservative background, opposition to Warren, and his ties to Politico. And I hope they avoid similar issues in the future.

Edit: It came to my attention that my About page was not displaying on the right sidebar. Recognizing the obvious irony of a post urging disclosure without any easily accessible info about me on my (very new) blog, here goes: Kurt Walters, works at Public Campaign Action Fund, usual disclaimer about nothing I write speaking for anyone but myself.

Other edit: made a few small edits for clarity and to include the actual title of their piece (which has since changed). Otherwise this post’s title doesn’t make too much sense.

Written by rethoughtblog

May 4, 2012 at 11:44 am

Free speech and political spending: A return to the town meeting metaphor (part one)

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April 30, 2012 — Washington, D.C.

A few weeks back, I went to a fantastic forum on the state of money in politics hosted by the House Democrats. (Here’s a blog post I wrote about the event for my job).

There were a few interesting comments by the House members in attendance, like Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi calling for the passage of the DISCLOSE Act and a constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United and campaign finance champion Rep. Chris Van Hollen rightly panning Anthony Kennedy for his notoriously clueless decision in the same case. Citizens United, said Van Hollen, “could only be made by people that had no clue how the American political system works in the 20th and 21st centuries”.

The intellectual interest for me, though, came when the experts testified: Norm Ornstein from the (conservative) American Enterprise Institute; Paul Ryan of the Campaign Legal Center; Zephyr Teachout, a law professor from Fordham University (disclosure: Teachout is on the board of directors for my employer, Public Campaign Action Fund); and Monica Youn of the Brennan Center for Justice. There was far too much thought-provoking testimony to document here, but I’ll lay out a few choice tidbits and talk about the classic town meeting free speech metaphor that struck me as a desperately needed addition to discourse around the First Amendment.


The gist of the testimony was that our current method of financing campaigns is already highly corrupting and will almost certainly get much worse without significant reform as corporations, wealthy individuals, and others adjust to the new legal possibilities provided by the Supreme Court in recent years in cases like Citizens United v. FEC and v. FEC.

At the forum, Teachout cited a colleague as saying that the Court’s conservative majority “went and got drunk on the First Amendment”. The Court’s current jurisprudence is an outgrowth of its landmark ruling in 1976, Buckley v. Valeo, which held that “money is speech”, or, more precisely, that political spending and donations are afforded First Amendment protection.

As the American Prospect wrote, “Four decades of decisions have allowed the rich and powerful to transform free speech—our most important tool of bottom-up self-government—into a means of top-down social control.” In a way this isn’t terribly surprising, as Teachout noted that well-functioning representative democracy is far from the default state of human society. Throughout history, something more akin to oligarchy is far more common as elites with [large amounts of money] or other sources of power are able to translate this into an outsize political influence. Viewed in this light, perhaps the slow degradation of the integrity of American elections since post-Watergate reforms should be seen more as a regression to the mean that takes continued energy to prevent.

Norm Ornstein issued one prediction that showed how self-defeating or simply clueless the Court’s view of the First Amendment is. With the rise of super PACs, to which campaigns are effectively outsourcing their attacks, he predicted that in the weeks before the election, TV viewers at home in swing states will see virtually nothing but “vicious attack ads”. Not only is this a miserable state of affairs, it also highlights how “speech” is in many regards a zero-sum affair. Ornstein suggested that many of the highest funded super PACs might engage in “roadblocking” — monopolizing the best ad space and making it impossible for others to speak in that time.

Ryan also brought out a way in which the Court’s conception of the value of speech doesn’t accord with reality. He noted that corporations and super PACs “can dissolve at the drop of a hat”. This produces a true breakdown of the money is speech argument. The impermanence of incorporated entities means that people will not have the benefit of knowledge about a “speaker” to provide context for what is said. The name “Americans for a Strong Tomorrow” doesn’t give us much information. What’s worse, with corporations free to dissolve and reform under a different name with virtually no downside, they can engage in untrue attacks without any fear of reputational damage. A true speaker will be held to account if she slanders someone or repeatedly makes baseless allegations. A human speaker obviously cannot dissolve herself and reform under a new name to block  anyone from using her past lies to form their interpretation of her current claims.

Tomorrow, I’ll follow up on these comments and write about the town meeting as a model for free speech and how this can improve our discourse.


Written by rethoughtblog

May 1, 2012 at 12:21 am