Super PACs, those fundraising behemoths critics say have the potential to sway voters and the 2012 election, recently released the amount of donations they have received since the start of the year. It’s not insignificant: OpenSecrets.org reviewed the filings provided by 313 super PACs and calculated that they have spent a combined $46.2 million in the 2012 election cycle so far.
“Restore Our Future,” the political action group that supports Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, raised more than $30.2 million, a record for the 313 super PACs reporting donations. The Newt Gingrich-backed super PAC “Winning Our Future” took in $2.1 million, and the “American Crossroads” committee, the conservative group linked to GOP strategist Karl Rove, collected $18.7 million since Jan 1. By comparison, “Priorities USA Action,” a super PAC that supports President Obama’s re-election, raised just $4.4 million in all of 2011.
Super PACs came into being after the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favor of Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Commission. Essentially, that sweeping 2010 decision determined that corporations, labor unions and individuals could give unlimited money to political groups to spend on elections. The Supreme Court determined the free speech protections individuals have, courtesy of the Constitution, would now apply to corporations, too. Super PACs cannot directly coordinate with political candidates, but they’re often viewed as “campaign surrogates” that give unfettered advertising dollars to media outlets in support or opposition of a particular candidate.
Many wealthy individuals, from casino mogul Sheldon Adelson to Hollywood producer Jeffrey Katzenberg, have given millions to super PACs. Prior to Citizens United, political action groups were allowed to accept money from corporations, but restrictions were placed on the amount of the largesse and the timing of the donations. Super PACs are required to submit monthly or quarterly filings to the FEC, but are not compelled to disclose the identities of all of their donors.
Super PACs have already shown the tremendous influence they have on elections and candidates. Both Romney and Gingrich have been pilloried by each others’ super PACs this primary season. Super PACs have also been criticized for the personal relationships many of the groups’ officers have with the candidates. For example, Rick Tyler, a longtime Gingrich aide, was hired by the Gingrich-backed “Winning Out Future” super PAC to lead its fundraising efforts.
According to the Wesleyan Media Project, political advertisements from third parties have increased 1,600 percent since 2008. An analysis by the Center for Public Integrity found that the average donation to a super PAC this year has been $35,000 — a marked difference compared with the maximum $2,500 an individual can donate to a presidential campaign.
Two years after Citizens United changed the political landscape, a growing movement has emerged to challenge the decision and ultimately overturn it.
Jeff Clements, a Boston-based lawyer and author of “Corporations Are Not People” co-founded the nonpartisan “Free Speech For People” campaign for one explicit reason — to reverse Citizens United. In an interview with The Daily Ticker’s Aaron Task, Clements explains why in his view Citizens United has become one of the most “terrible and reckless” decisions ever passed by the Supreme Court and talks about the consequences of unfettered corporate spending.
“It’s an old, crony capitalism idea where big corporations and big government work together to advance the interests of a very narrow global set of corporations,” Clements says. “The government is supposed to reflect all of us, not just the wealthy. Americans have far less speech now, far less of a voice in the process.”
Clements argues that Citizens United has caused an imbalance of power between individuals and corporations. The “fair and free election process” that has been preserved for centuries is on the verge of being dismantled, he says. Clements warns that the landmark decision could create an oligarchy system similar to the one in Russia.
Government leaders at the local, state and national level are introducing legislation to overturn Citizens United. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has proposed the “Saving American Democracy Amendment.” More than 201,000 people have signed the electronic petition on Sanders’ web site. Massachusetts Congressman James McGovern introduced the “People’s Rights Amendment” in hopes of repealing the Supreme Court case. According to Clements, there are two ways to overturn a Supreme Court ruling: people can ratify a Constitutional amendment or the Supreme Court can strike down a previous decision.
A decade ago, Jack Abramoff was one of the Washington’s richest and most-successful lobbyists.
Representing Indian tribes, telecom companies, sovereign governments, and dozens of other clients, he played the lobbying game extremely aggressively–so aggressively that he eventually caught the attention of the press and federal investigators.
At first, Abramoff says, he thought he was being unfairly singled out and that the scandal would quickly blow over. Then he began reviewing some of the ~850,000 emails he had written during his lobbying career and realized that, at times, even in a city and profession in which “legal bribery” is business as usual, he had crossed the line.
In early 2006, Abramoff pleaded guilty to three felonies, including conspiracy to bribe public officials, and was sentenced to 6 years in jail. He served three and a half years at a minimum security prison in Cumberland, Maryland, as inmate number 27593-112. He was then released to a Baltimore halfway house in 2010, where he worked at a pizza parlor for about $10 an hour.
Since then, Abramoff has published a book–CAPITOL PUNISHMENT: The Hard Truth About Washington Corruption From America’s Most Notorious Lobbyist–and started giving speeches. He still owes $44 million in “restitution,” so a big chunk of any money he makes will go to the government.
Many Americans view those convicted of crimes as “criminals” who are fundamentally different than everyone else. And although the label is technically true–they have, after all, committed crimes–it often draws a much sharper line between criminals and “good people” than is frequently the case. “Criminals,” in many cases, are good people who have committed crimes. And Jack Abramoff seems an excellent example of that.
In this interview, Abramoff talks about what it was like to fall so hard, what jail was like, and how life has been since his release.
The Republican candidates for president face off tonight in the last debate before the next round of primaries on Tuesday, Feb. 28, in Arizona and Michigan. Ahead of the critical Super Tuesday primaries set for March 6, these two races gained importance, not only in terms of delegates but in terms of momentum, after Rick Santorum swept Mitt Romney in the trifecta of races held earlier this month in Minnesota, Colorado and Missouri. (See: Ralph Nader’s Advice to Gingrich on a Third Party Run: “Go for It!”)
The two candidates are now in a virtual tie in Michigan, but Romney still has a slight edge over Santorum in the Arizona, according to an NBC/Marist poll of likely Republican voters. In Arizona, Romney has 43% of the support and Santorum 27%, followed by Newt Gingrich with 16% and Ron Paul in fourth place with 11%. Meanwhile in Michigan, Romney is favored by 37% of voters versus 35% who are supporting Santorum.
The race has certainly stayed hot, with no clear frontrunner to date. But in light of the poll results and where the candidates stand on the issues, what’s really making the most headlines these days is the amount of money being spent this election and who’s spending it.
The campaigns of the presidential candidates, including all Republican contenders and President Obama, have raised $330 million thus far, according the New York Times’ interactive charts on campaign finance. Obama leads the pack, having raised $151 million since 2008. Romney comes in a distant second having raised around $64 million. In just the month of January, the Republican campaigns raise around $21 million. Romney’s campaign raised $6.5 million and spent nearly three times as much, former House Speaker New Gingrich raised $5.6 million and spent $6 million, while both Rick Santorum and Ron Paul raised $4.5 million, according to the most recent report from the Federal Election Commission.
On the other hand, the “Super PACs” supporting the top Republican candidates raised around $22 million in January and ended the month with $5 million more than the campaigns themselves. The inflow of money to Super PACs resulted from the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which allows individuals and corporation to give unlimited contributions to the candidates of their choice. (See: Super PACs: It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! It’s — Well, It’s complicated)
As a result, the money has not stopped flowing from some of the country’s wealthiest, like Peter Thiel who has given the pro-Ron Paul Super PAC Endorse Liberty $2.6 million. Casino mogul Sheldon Adleson has given the pro-Gingrich Winning Our Future $11 million to date and is considering giving him another $10 million to $100 million. (See: Rise of the Super PACs: U.S. Votes Essentially Bought, Says Reuters’ Felix Salmon)
The candidates have almost come to rely on the Super PAC financing, but the question now is: Can money buy an election?
There is perhaps no better person to weigh in on the subject than former Washington insider and lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who knows all too well what money can buy you in D.C. He spent years building influence with many of our elected officials, bestowing them lavish gifts, dinners and campaign contributions. All that stopped in 2006 when he plead guilty to fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy to bribe public officials. He subsequently served 43 months in jail.
“There is no question money on both sides is going to win this election,” says Abramoff who is also the author of the new book, Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth About Washington Corruption From America’s Most Notorious Lobbyist.
Earlier this month, President Obama reversed his stance on contributions from outside interest groups and pushed big donors to contribute to the Super PAC in his favor, Priorities USA Action. The pro-Obama Super PAC, founded by two of his former aides, raised nearly $60,000 in January.
If money continues to influence the presidential election and the entire political process in the country, isn’t there a case for it to stop? Do we need to get the money out of politics? Abramoff says, no, but with a caveat.
“I think we need to get certain money out. I think we need to get the money out that wants something back … . Because that money is bribery money,” he explains to The Daily Ticker’s Henry Blodget in the accompanying interview. “In terms of the other money, personally, I feel that if somebody wants to give money because they believe in somebody [or] they believe in their candidacy and they are not asking for something, let them give all the money they have as long as we know about it and as long as it is public.”
On the flip side, others would argue that money is not the only answer to getting elected. (See:Money & Politics: Freakonomics Author Gives “Big Fat No” to Idea Money Buys Elections)
Take for example Texas Governor Rick Perry, who amassed a lot of money only to lose it all after flubbing debate after debate. Fast forward to today. Gingrich has lost his allure even with the multimillion-dollar backing of Adelson, and Santorum has surged back with relatively little support.
“I don’t think there is any doubt that money alone won’t do it — an odious character can come forward with tons of money and go nowhere,” says Abramoff. “I think you have to be a substantial candidate who people want to vote for, and unfortunately Governor Perry did not present himself like that.”
The impact of money on politics in the United States is a hotly debated topic these days as tens of millions of dollars flow freely into the presidential election as a result of the Citizen United decision handed down by the Supreme Court. The high court’s ruling allows individuals and corporations to donate unlimited amounts of money to Super PACs that support individual candidates. (See: Super PACs: It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! It’s — Well, It’s complicated)
To date, many millionaires and billionaires have contributed to the candidate of their choice, and companies have done the same. Many Super PAC critics argue that this influx of money will tip the election results in the favor of whoever can raise the most money, essentially buying the election.
But that is not the only issue to be concerned about, says ex-lobbyist Jack Abramoff. The American people should be concerned about what these donors may eventually ask for in return for their financial support, especially those who are registered lobbyists, or people whose job it is to persuade lawmakers to craft legislation to the benefit of their employers.
As a former Washington insider, Abramoff knows all too well the influence money can get you in D.C. He spent years building influence with many of our elected officials, bestowing them lavish gifts, dinners and campaign contributions. All that stopped in 2006 when he plead guilty to fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy to bribe public officials. He subsequently served 43 months in jail.
While Abramoff served his time and repented for his crimes, little has changed in Washington. The legalized bribery that got him into trouble still exists between K Street and our elected officials, which is why he is on a crusade against the very industry and dealings that got him into trouble.
Abramoff, who is also the author of the new book, Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth About Washington Corruption From America’s Most Notorious Lobbyist, joined The Daily Ticker’s Henry Blodget to discuss the current corruption in Washington as it pertains to the multi-billion dollar a year lobbying industry and how to change it.
The problem is rampant when it comes to influencing legislation, he says. “In the same way that every $20 bill or $100 bill in America has cocaine on it at some level, there is some aspect of bribery and some aspect of corruption in every one of the [legislative] dealings just because of the pervasive nature of this system.”
From 2008 to 2011, special interest groups spent nearly $3.5 billion a year to peddle influence, according to OpenSecrets.org. The top spenders from 1998 to 2011 include the U.S. Chamber of Commerce spending a total of $805 million, the American Medical Association spending $265 million and General Electric (GE), which spent $293 million.
What is it that these companies and organizations are buying? They are buying access to make sure they are in the game, Abramoff says.
“The are putting a good defense on the field to make sure nothing happens to them… . They are also on offense [as] a lot of companies use the government to smash their opponents,” he says. “If you cannot talk to the person making the decision, you are going to lose.”
In the accompanying video, Abramoff explains how lobbying really works. And yes, as it turns out, it is all completely legal.
“You can be completely contemptible, frankly, within the system and be completely legal and that is part of the problem of Washington,” he says. “Basically what it comes down to is making a relationship with a senator, Congressman or his staff and then availing oneself of the relationship and going into your friend and seeing if that friend would reasonably agree to the thing you are asking for. And that, by the way, is all fine, except for the money part.”
As Abramoff tells Henry, he is not outright against lobbying because he does believe people have the right to petition the government. However, he feels money should be taken out of the game and that these four rules should be instituted.
1. Institute term limits for members of Congress so it is less likely they can be influenced by special interests.
2. Shut the revolving door between public service and the influence industry, which he explains is much more than just lobbying.
3. Ban all financial contributions from anyone who does business in Washington including meals, fundraisers or campaign contributions.
4. Every law that they make needs to be applied to them.
Abramoff is confident that these rules would completely change the way Washington works, but the most important thing is taking money out of the special interest game. In doing so, “hopefully [Congress] members would have to go out and raise money among people who actually think they are good members of the legislature,” he says. “They wouldn’t be selling their vote, even thought they don’t call it selling their vote to the highest bidder.”