Rules of the Game | Will the Koch Brothers Save Obamacare?
By Eliza Newlin Carney, Prospect Senior Editor, March 9, 2017
Progressives campaigning to defend Barack Obama’s signature health-care law may find their biggest assist comes from the unlikeliest of allies: the billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch and their conservative network. Continue Reading …
Rules of the Game | The FEC’s Open Hostilities, Dysfunction, and Intimidation Foreshadowed the Trump Era
By Eliza Newlin Carney, Prospect Senior Editor, March 2, 2017
Democrat Ann Ravel’s departure from the Federal Election Commission could set the stage for a shakeup that propels the agency away from mere dysfunction into the realm of aggressive campaign-finance deregulation. Continue Reading …
Rules of the Game | Republicans Gear Up to Eviscerate the Campaign Finance Rules
By Eliza Newlin Carney, Prospect Senior Editor, December 1, 2016
Donald Trump’s ethics conflicts and billionaire-heavy cabinet appointments are making news these days, but an even bigger special-interest bonanza is on the horizon, when Republicans make good on their plans to knock down what remains of the campaign-finance laws. Continue Reading …
Rules of the Game | Controversy Versus Corruption
By Eliza Newlin Carney, Prospect Senior Editor, August 25, 2016
This summer’s never-ending Democratic email disclosures have shed an increasingly unflattering light on the privileged relationship that big donors enjoy with Hillary Clinton and with party officials. Continue Reading …
Rules of the Game | Don’t Blame the Voters
By Eliza Newlin Carney, Prospect Senior Editor, June 30, 2016
What ails democracy, and who is to blame? Faced with the disruptive impulses that have given rise to Donald Trump and more recently to Great Britain’s disastrous exit from the European Union, a chorus of commentators has laid the blame not on out-of-touch elites, but on average voters. The real problem, we hear, is not that economic and political systems have concentrated power in the hands of too few, but that voters have too much sway over the process. Continue Reading …
Checks & Balance | Big Money Takes Over
By Eliza Newlin Carney, CQ Roll Call Staff, July 27, 2015
Campaign Finance Data released this month mark a turning point in presidential politics, the moment when unrestricted super PACs and other outside groups replaced candidates as the power center in American politics. Continue Reading …
Rules of the Game | Presidential Hopefuls Skirt FEC Rules
By Eliza Newlin Carney, Roll Call Staff, Feb. 26, 2015
Republican Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s political organization is opening a campaign office for him in Iowa. Ex-Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is meeting with major donors and hosting dozens of fundraisers around the country. Hillary Rodham Clinton, former senator, secretary of State and first lady, is quietly hand-picking a team of high-level advisers to run her anticipated White House bid.
Yet none of these presidential hopefuls has officially declared their candidacy or even announced plans to test the waters of a White House run. Continue Reading …
Rules of the Game | Anti-Disclosure Backlash Carries Risks for GOP
By Eliza Newlin Carney, Roll Call Staff, Jan. 27, 2015
At a private gathering of conservative political donors last year, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell applauded the state of American elections today, which he described as more deregulated than at any point in recent memory.
Rules of the Game | New FCC Disclosures Reveal Underground Election
By Eliza Newlin Carney, Roll Call Staff, July 8, 2014
A trove of new public records recently opened up by the Federal Communications Commission sheds light on the ways undisclosed political ads are creating an underground midterm election that’s increasingly hidden from view.
Rules of the Game | Will the GOP’s Business Wing Pony Up?
By Eliza Newlin Carney, Roll Call Staff, Nov. 19, 2013
For business-minded Republicans fed up with tea-party-led budget standoffs, the past few weeks have offered much to crow about.
A handful of business-backed challengers have taken on tea party incumbents in the House; the National Republican Senatorial Committee has pledged to fight in primaries and has cut ties with a tea-party-linked consulting firm; and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce spent heavily to help a Main Street Republican beat out his conservative opponent in Alabama’s 1st District GOP runoff.
Rules of the Game | Hispanic Caucus Leverages Latino Power
By Eliza Newlin Carney, Roll Call Staff, March 24, 2013
The growing clout of Latino donors and voters has quietly boosted the fortunes of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, which has gained members, political leverage and fundraising power in the 113th Congress.
Through its increasingly lucrative political action committee, known as BOLD PAC, the caucus helped elect nine more Latinos to the House in November, growing the membership of the all-Democratic caucus to 27. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has tapped a pair of caucus members to cultivate Latino candidates and donors and leading caucus members are also in the thick of immigration overhaul negotiations on Capitol Hill.
Rules of the Game | Sequester Spells Bitter K Street Failure
By Eliza Newlin Carney, Roll Call Staff, Feb. 22, 2013, 2013
The seemingly inevitable sequester cuts that will slash $85 billion from the federal budget on Friday reflect not only Washington’s political paralysis but a bitter lobbying failure for K Street interests across the board.
From university professors and scientists to cancer victims, defense contractors and federal workers, hundreds of advocacy, trade and labor groups have lobbied aggressively for months to head off the cuts. They’ve run ads, testified on Capitol Hill, staged demonstrations and hounded lawmakers, all to no avail.
Rules of the Game | Obama’s Ethics Agenda Backfires
By Eliza Newlin Carney, Roll Call Staff, Jan. 20, 2013
Four years after President Barack Obama promised to change the culture of Washington, it’s hard to imagine how his ethics, transparency and campaign finance pledges could have backfired more thoroughly.
Rules of the Game | Lessons Learned Post-Citizens United
By Eliza Newlin Carney, Roll Call Staff, Oct. 31, 2012
With its unrestricted super PACs, wealthy mega-donors, secret money and more than $6 billion projected price tag, this election cycle boasts more unfettered campaign spending than any in recent memory.
Rules of the Game | Bad News for Nation’s Nonprofits
By Eliza Newlin Carney, Roll Call Staff, March 20, 2012
In an election that until lately has been dominated by super PACs, politically active nonprofits are the new bad guys, drawing ethics complaints, letters to the IRS and legislative action.
Rules of the Game | Transparency v. Free Speech
By Eliza Newlin Carney, National Journal, May 22, 2011
It’s become popular in certain circles to assail political transparency as a nefarious threat to free speech.
Once a bipartisan touchstone, campaign finance disclosure rules are now the target of court challenges, lawmakers, and opinion leaders on the right. The Wall Street Journal has accused the White House of using disclosure to attack the First Amendment rights of its political opponents. The Center for Competitive Politics has accused reform advocates of attempting “to strip away the right of citizens to privately associate and support organizations that share their values.”
This pro-secrecy drumbeat takes the ongoing assault on election laws to a new extreme. Not too long ago, Republicans on Capitol Hill championed deregulation coupled with disclosure as the solution to the campaign finance mess. Now they have a new talking point: Anonymity is essential to the First Amendment.
It’s an argument that flies in the face of common sense, public opinion and legal precedent. It’s also profoundly dangerous and self destructive. For corporations, trade associations, and politically active nonprofits, secretive political spending carries significant practical and reputational risks. It runs counter to American values.
Let’s acknowledge that the disclosure rules on the table, from President Obama’s draft executive order to force more reporting on government contractors, to the so-far unsuccessful Disclose Act, might or might not strike the right balance. Let’s also acknowledge that public reporting rules of any kind must respect the First Amendment.
But clumsily written rules or bills do not justify the sweeping culture of secrecy that many self-styled free speech champions now advocate. A basic principle still holds: Transparency is vital to democracy and even free markets. Obscure, undercover corporate dealings helped usher in the financial meltdown that still plagues us today. And flooding the political system with secret money invites corruption and scandal.
The most persuasive case for disclosure these days comes not from good government watchdogs, whose warnings strike many conservatives as alarmist and ideologically motivated. It comes from the American business community, including stockholders, small business owners, and even some corporate executives.
These businessmen and women have grasped what many political players overlook: That trust, transparency and the rule of law are fundamental to our national success. These are quintessential American guideposts, and help explain why, for all our problems, we still enjoy the world’s most robust, resilient political and economic system. One need only look to Iraq and Afghanistan to appreciate how corruption and bribery corrode democracy.
That’s why some corporate titans, such as Merck and Microsoft Corp., to name a couple, have gone out of their way to publicly post not just their political donations but also the money they give to trade associations, which would go otherwise unreported.
Such trade groups dramatically upped their undisclosed political spending in the wake of last year’s landmark Supreme Court ruling to deregulate corporate campaign money. Merck closely monitors and prominently posts not just political contributions, but donations to so-called 527 groups and trade association dues that are used for advocacy or politics. Microsoft has gone further, swearing off both independent campaign expenditures and contributions to 527 groups. Microsoft also publicly posts both its campaign contributions and its trade association dues; tracks what portion of that money trade groups spend on politics or lobbying, and discloses that publicly, too.
“We saw a thought-leadership opportunity there for us; it was consistent with our commitment to transparency,” said Dan Bross, Microsoft’s senior director of corporate citizenship. The notion that full disclosure chills free speech “just doesn’t ring true for me,” said Bross, adding that disclosure is good business practice.
“Our business model depends in part on trust—trust that we are making good products, trust that we are developing the services we’ve promised to deliver,” Bross explained. “And I think a basis to rebuild trust in American corporations is by being more transparent.”
A group of small business leaders sounded a similar note recently when they split with heavy-hitting business groups to actually defend Obama’s plan to impose broader disclosure rules on federal contractors. The government has a nasty habit of doling out federal contracts to the companies that write the fattest checks, they complained.
Main Street does things on the up and up, they argued. As Henry Passapera, a New Jersey aircraft parts manufacturer put it: “As a small business owner, I stand by my word. And when I want to have my voice heard, I sign my name at the bottom.”
In a long string of landmark cases, the Supreme Court has consistently defended the public interest in requiring campaign money to be disclosed. As election lawyer Ciara Torres-Spelliscy has noted, these interests include the right of voters to know who paid for any given political ad; the powerful role public opinion plays in deterring corruption; and the impossibility of enforcing campaign finance rules without some form of reporting and disclosure.
To state the obvious, transparency promotes government accountability; free and fair elections; the rule of law; competition and free markets. It is essential to democracy. And democracy itself is essential to freedom of speech. The greatest First Amendment threat on the horizon, therefore, is not disclosure. It’s secrecy.
Rules of the Game | Chamber of Secrets: High Tech Dirty Tricks
By Eliza Newlin Carney, National Journal, March 6, 2011
It is ironic that a trio of defense contractors who concocted a high-tech plan to discredit liberal critics of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce chose “Team Themis” as their moniker.
The Greek goddess of law and order, Themis personified good governance and justice, depicted by her familiar blindfold and pair of scales. Yet the plan that the contractors proposed last month to the law firm Hunton & Williams, which represents the chamber, was arguably lawless in the extreme. It involved privacy invasions, hacking, and creating fake “insider personas” and false documents to infiltrate and discredit watchdog groups like U.S. Chamber Watch and other liberal activists.
The plan was never carried out, but now 20 House Democrats are calling for a congressional investigation into whether the contractors conspired to commit forgery, wire fraud, or criminal defamation, and whether government-funded intelligence technologies pose a threat to U.S. citizens. The CEO of one of the firms, HBGary Federal, has stepped down. And the controversy has created a public-relations nightmare for the chamber, which has vigorously denied any knowledge of the plan.
“We see a clear possibility that people could be silenced through high tech, subversive means,” said Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., who’s leading the call for hearings by the House Judiciary and Armed Services committees, on which he sits, and by the Intelligence and Oversight and Government Reform panels. “And when these means were actually acquired at taxpayer expense, it makes it even more unsavory.”
The decision to dub the project “Team Themis” is only one of many ironies in a complicated saga that spotlights the intensifying, high-stakes clash between labor and business coalitions, both in statehouses and nationally. For one thing, the dirty tricks plot to undermine chamber critics was uncovered by activist hackers who used dirty tricks to publish some 40,000 HBGary Federal e-mails.
Hunton & Williams, moreover, is the same firm that sued the Yes Men for fraud on the chamber’s behalf last year, after the pranksters impersonated the business association at a press conference. Hunton & Williams officials did not respond to requests for comment. In another ironic twist, the chamber has long championed free speech and citizens’ right to organize anonymously—only to find itself linked with a plot to undermine both.
Note to readers: These two National Journal columns are presented in text form, as the magazine’s electronic archive is no longer available to non-subscribers.