Colbert Highlights Super PAC Farce

— by Jonathan Backer

A popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce, or a tragedy, or perhaps both. — James Madison

By exploiting loopholes in campaign finance law, special interests have already succeeded in denying the public of essential information about the sources of money funding political speech. A farcical attempt by one group to keep the public in the dark while also coordinating its message with candidates makes for good political comedy now, but will lead to tragedy if our elected officials begin to feel the full corrupting influence of unlimited, undisclosed, corporate contributions.

In the latest installment of Stephen Colbert’s intrepid quest to expose the absurdities of campaign finance non-regulation in the post-Citizens United era, the comedian recently discussed a new attempt by Super PACs to circumvent the few constraints that remain on their electioneering activities. The Super PAC American Crossroads recently submitted a request to the Federal Election Commission seeking permission for federal candidates to appear in its purportedly “independent” ads. The group acknowledged that ads featuring candidates would be “fully coordinated with incumbent Members of Congress facing re-election in 2012.” After all, a Super PAC would obviously have to share a script and discuss the contents of an ad with a candidate in order for her to appear in it. Nevertheless, American Crossroads would like the FEC to issue an advisory opinion stating that such ads would not qualify as “coordination.”

More after the jump.
As the Brennan Center argued in a comment to the FEC, this position runs afoul of “[c]onstitutional law, federal statutes, and common sense.” Fortunately, common sense was no barrier to Stephen Colbert, who rose to the challenge and submitted a comment to the FEC in support of American Crossroads’ request. As Colbert wrote, “The candidate would merely be appearing as a paid spokesperson, who, coincidentally, is closely aligned with the candidate that he or she also is.” To illustrate the paper-thin separation between supposedly independent Super PACs and the candidates they support, Colbert offered an illuminating metaphor:

For example, an ad in which the Kool Aid man decries our nation-wide childhood thirst problem would not necessarily be an ad for Kool Aid brand juice drink. That being said, would a tall glass of Kool-Aid solve that thirst problem? To quote one expert: “Oh, yeaaahhhh!”

Colbert’s letter far and away outstrips the competition for funniest public comment to a regulatory agency, but even the comedian’s most ardent fans recognize that the consequences of a ruling in favor of American Crossroads are far from amusing. After Colbert emailed his comment to supporters of Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow (Colbert Super PAC), hundreds of individuals emailed the FEC calling for the agency to deny American Crossroads’ request.

As one civically-engaged student, wrote,

As a young citizen of this country, I shudder to think of the ferocity at which campaigns are currently forced to solicit donations-the thought that they will be fighting for an even bigger chunk of shadowy money absolutely terrifies me….I hope we can find ways to avoid exacerbating this problem.

Comedians and middle-school students don’t constitute what one would describe as usual suspects for submitting public comments on advisory opinion requests to the FEC. But the legal gymnastics that groups like American Crossroads are performing to subvert campaign finance regulations touch a nerve with large numbers of Americans. A request as absurd as American Crossroads’ belongs properly in the realm of farce, and the FEC should heed the outpouring of opposition and refuse to further expose our democracy to the tragic consequences of outright corruption in the political process.

Reprinted courtesy of the Brennan Center for Justice.

Four Questions About Our Budget Debate

Why is this year’s budget agreement different from all other budget agreements.

In the spirit of Passover, Mark Pelavin and Jonathan Backer of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism ask “Four Question” on the op/ed pages of the Forward:

  • Why during past budget debates did we succeed in reducing poverty, but this year, proposed cuts would increase poverty?
  • Why during all other budget debates did we discuss revenue and spending, but this year we discuss only spending?
  • Why during all other budget debates were programs that served low-income families exempted from spending cuts, but this year they are not?
  • Why during this budget debate do we discuss only non-defense discretionary spending?

Reform Movement Condemns Ryan 2012 Budget Proposal

— Mark J. Pelavin, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism

Congressman Ryan’s budget resolution prioritizes the wealthy over the needy, and, therefore, does not reflect the values to which we aspire as Reform Jews and as Americans.

The moral impact of a budget is measured by its effect on the person most in need. House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) 2012 budget resolution fails on this count. By ending entitlement status for Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and by privatizing Medicare, Congressman Ryan’s proposal, if adopted, would fundamentally and unjustly restructure our commitment to seniors and low-income families. By extending additional tax breaks to wealthy individuals and corporations, it would undoubtedly expose additional social safety net programs to budget cuts.

More after the jump.
Deuteronomy commands, “Do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman.” On the basis of this precept the Reform Movement has long opposed block granting and privatization of entitlement programs. For, as the Union for Reform Judaism’s 1981 resolution on the federal budget stated, “It is a pernicious idea that somehow the poor, or public assistance to the poor, is the cause of our economic problems and that solutions at their expense are permissible.” For the same reason, the Union for Reform Judaism in 2001 opposed “tax policies that unfairly and inequitably bestow their benefits on the wealthy” and that “restrict the government’s ability to address urgent needs.” Congressman Ryan’s budget resolution prioritizes the wealthy over the needy, and, therefore, does not reflect the values to which we aspire as Reform Jews and as Americans.

Currently, the federal government matches state spending to cover all individuals who are eligible for Medicaid. Congressman Ryan’s proposal would convert Medicaid into a block grant program, eliminating federal requirements for the program and giving states a predetermined amount of money to spend on health care for the poor, disabled, and elderly. The resolution would make similar changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps. Whether or not states maintain their commitment to populations in need of assistance would be a matter subject to shifting political winds and short-term economic considerations.

The Ryan proposal would also end Medicare as we know it, substituting the current single-payer model with a system in which seniors would need to choose from a variety of private health insurance policies. Seniors would be eligible for vouchers to pay for the private insurance based on need. This plan would expose seniors to the iniquities and imperfections of the for-profit health care system, causing more seniors to fall victim to poverty and would drive up the cost of health care.

In addition, the proposal is a microcosm of the misguided priorities that created the budget crisis in the first place, lavishing even more tax breaks on the individuals and corporations whose need is least acute. At a time when the federal government brings in less revenue as a percentage of GDP than at any time since President Truman occupied the Oval Office, Congressman Ryan proposes reducing the top corporate and individual income tax rate from 35 to 25 percent for the highest earners. Giving the well-heeled yet another handout would threaten even more social safety net programs with deep cuts.

We call on Congress to pass a 2012 budget that restores fiscal order in a responsible and moral manner-one that would not force the disadvantaged to shoulder the burden of budget cuts.

Campaign Finance Reform in Arizona

“Take no gift, for the gift blinds the wise, and perverts the words of the righteous” – Exodus 23.

— Mark Pelavin, Associate Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism

Tomorrow, Monday, March 28, the Supreme Court will hear oral argument in the case McComish v. Bennett, which considers the constitutionality of the “matching fund” provisions of Arizona’s public campaign financing program.

The Union for Reform Judaism has submitted an amicus curiae brief in the case McComish v. Bennett, which considers the constitutionality of “matching fund” provisions of Arizona’s public financing program. The Reform Movement has long held that public financing is vital to limit the corrupting and distorting influence of campaign spending in our democracy. Arizona has one of the strongest public financing programs in the country, and we are proud to forcefully defend it in court.

Under Arizona law, candidates for state offices may qualify for full public financing for their campaigns if they voluntarily discontinue all private fundraising. Participating candidates who face privately financed opponents expending large sums of money are eligible for additional matching funds to ensure that they have the resources to compete. In a manner that facilitates additional speech rather than restricting the speech of others, matching funds ensure that candidates do not incur a penalty for participating in a program that promotes an electoral process unfettered by the influence of special interests.

We are inspired to support public financing by our religious texts, which warn of the corrupting influence that gifts can have on public officials.  Talmud explains a prohibition against public officials accepting gifts, saying, “as soon as a man receives a gift from another he becomes so well disposed towards him that he becomes like his own person and no man sees himself in the wrong” (Tractate Ketubot, 105b). As our religious texts recognize, any time something of value changes hands, the potential exists for those in a position of power to see the world in a hue tinted by the gift giver. Public financing forecloses the opportunity for such distortion.

More after the jump.

McComish v. Bennett is the most high-profile case the Supreme Court has heard on campaign finance reform since the landmark 2010 case Citizens United v. FEC. In that case, the Supreme Court overturned 63 years of precedent prohibiting corporations and labor unions from spending unlimited amounts of money on campaign advertisements, a decision that affords wealthy and powerful interests a megaphone to potentially drown out the voices of ordinary citizens. McComish v. Bennett is an opportunity for the Supreme Court to reverse course and rule in favor of a law that protects the ability of all citizens to have an equal voice in our democracy. We hope the Court avails itself of that opportunity.

We are grateful for the work of Andrew Goodman, Esq. and his colleagues at Garvey Schubert Barer for serving as the Counsel of Record for the amicus brief. Their assistance and dedication were invaluable in completing the first amicus brief that the Union for Reform Judaism has ever drafted.  

Reactions to Hunger-Free Kids Act

The Hunger-Free Kids Act has garnered support from the key “red furry monster demographic” but the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism had a mixed reaction.

— Mark J. Pelavin,  Associate Director, Religious Action Center

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (S. 3307) addresses a key need for struggling low-income families. In reauthorizing Child Nutrition Programs with $4.5 billion in new funding over ten years, this critical, albeit flawed, legislation ensures that thousands of low-income children will not go hungry during the worst economic conditions in a generation. Moreover, Congress greatly enhanced the nutritional content of these supplemental food programs, which is an important step in the ongoing effort to confront the growing problem of child obesity. We urge the President to quickly sign this essential piece of legislation into law.

Unfortunately, despite its admirable accomplishments, the legislation contains insufficient funds to ensure access to these essential programs. Additionally, Congress chose to fund the bill through a cut to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamp) benefits-the second such cut this year. By imposing what amounts to a $60 per month cut in SNAP benefits for a family of four, Congress hurts the very families that this legislation is designed to help. Cutting SNAP benefits during the third consecutive year of rising poverty rates negates the positive impact of a strong Child Nutrition Reauthorization.

We call on Congress to act immediately to restore SNAP benefits to the level of funding that recipients were told they could rely upon until 2018. We also call on the U.S. Department of Agriculture to take any and all administrative steps to increase access to child nutrition programs. Food security is the foundation upon which our nation’s future prosperity is built; in a nation of plenty, no American should ever go hungry.