Big-Money Politics Gains Ground

The Right’s “war on government” or perhaps put more accurately, its “war for unbridled corporate power” continues to rack up victories, routing reformers who have tried to block big-money dominance of democracy, writes Michael Winship.

By Michael Winship

I’m speculating here, but as we approach year’s end, I assume that Grover Norquist hasn’t been visited by Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future and found spiritual redemption. Nonetheless, I’m betting that Grover Norquist feels pretty good. Just not in a Santa Claus kind of way; more like one of those evil geniuses in bad movies who rubs his hands together and cackles, “At last, my plan is working!”

Norquist, president of the conservative Americans for Tax Reform, is infamous for his expressed desire to shrink government “down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.” And even though the new budget deal takes a feeble swipe at sequestration and the indiscriminate slashing of government funds, his wish may be coming true.

Anti-government crusader Grover Norquist.

Anti-government crusader Grover Norquist.

This thought springs from recent indications that what little power the government still has to regulate campaign finance donations already whittled to a minimum by Citizens United and other court decisions is being steadily eroded by funding cutbacks, intimidation, bureaucracy and an inability or refusal to enforce the few rules we have left.

In 2012, the Federal Communications Commission announced that commercial TV stations in the top 50 U.S. media markets had to make available on line data about who was paying for political advertising and how much was being paid, with the idea that this would become a requirement across the country in 2014.

Up to last year, the records had only been available if you went to your local station and demanded to see them and were prepared to pay for the costs of copying anything you wanted to take away for closer study. So when the announcement of the new online rules was made, all of us who care about full disclosure of campaign contributions were delighted. This was a major step in the right direction

But the problem, according to a new study by the non-partisan Sunlight Foundation, is that even among the records newly available online, “TV stations often fail to report even the most basic information about the political ads that outside groups buy on their airwaves. …

“There’s no way to total reliably how much is being spent for or against a candidate, or, in some cases, who is doing the spending. A systematic review of 200 randomly-selected ad buys made by outside groups found that fewer than 1 in 6 ads targeting federal candidates disclosed the name of the candidate or election mentioned.

“Such omissions deprive the voting public of important information. TV ad files have become an increasingly important tool for tracking otherwise undisclosed political spending by groups that run the gamut from well-known trade associations and unions to lesser-known operations whose anodyne names offer little information about the financial or political interests behind them: ‘Americans for Job Security,’ for instance, or ‘Checks and Balances for Economic Growth.’

“In the wake of court decisions making it easier to route big money through outside groups, broadcast political TV ads jumped to an estimated $5.6 billion in 2012, up 30% from 2008. Yet in spite of this massive payday, stations still find it hard to fill out paperwork about their benefactors.”

The rules for filing are complicated, unclear and often ignored. Omissions in the required documents abound both Democrats and Republicans, organizations affiliated with them, and other special interests fail to provide complete information. Penalties for not doing so remain largely unenforced. There’s not even a standardized FCC form many stations use one provided by the National Association of Broadcasters, the TV industry’s main lobbyist, or make up their own.

Why the foot dragging? According to journalist and former FCC adviser Steve Waldman, “When it comes to political stuff, there’s extra sensitivity at the commission because it’s the one area where Congress jumps up and down and says, ‘If you do that we’re going to come and slap you in the head.’”

The Sunlight Foundation report also reminds us that the nomination of Tom Wheeler as the new FCC chair was momentarily held up by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, until, Cruz said, Wheeler agreed to make political ad disclosure “not a priority.” Here’s hoping that behind his back Wheeler had his fingers crossed.

But far more egregious is the state of the Federal Election Commission created after the mortal sins of Watergate even though it is finally back to its full slate of six commissioners after months of vacancies and rancorous deadlock. A comprehensive, six-month study by the non-profit Center for Public Integrity reports that, “As the nation heads into what will undoubtedly be the most expensive midterm election in history and a 2016 presidential election that, in no small way, has already begun, the FEC is rotting from the inside out.

“Bitter ideological warfare among commissioners and congressional and White House indifference have yielded an agency less able to fulfill its stated mission: to ‘prevent corruption in the federal campaign process by administering, enforcing and formulating policy.’”

Among the center’s findings:

— “The commission over the past year has reached a paralyzing all-time low in its ability to reach consensus, stalling action on dozens of rulemaking, audit and enforcement matters, some of which are years old.

— “Despite an explosion in political spending hastened by key Supreme Court decisions, the agency’s funding has remained flat for five years and staffing levels have fallen to a 15-year low.

— “Analysts charged with scouring disclosure reports to ensure candidates and political committees are complying with laws have a nearly quarter-million-page backlog. Commissioners themselves are grappling with nearly 270 unresolved enforcement cases.

— “Staff morale has plummeted as key employees have fled and others question whether their work remains relevant. Among top FEC jobs currently unfilled or filled on an ‘acting’ basis: general counsel, associate general counsel for policy, associate general counsel for litigation, chief financial officer and accounting director. The staff director doubles as IT director.”

The FEC has yet to issue any rules interpreting the Citizens United decision of nearly four years ago, nor is the White House or Congress inclined to help with any regulatory assistance or increased funding for the agency.

No wonder that, as Eliza Newlin Carney writes in the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call, “Perhaps invariably, elections continue to march toward less transparency and more deregulation, and lawmakers and federal agencies remain too paralyzed by discord to respond. If 2013 is any indication, the next wave of big money will draw plenty of headlines but little regulatory response.”

Such dysfunction is crippling us across the board. Morale is bad not only at the FEC but throughout the government. This year’s edition of an annual survey of federal employees, conducted by the Office of Personnel Management, finds job satisfaction at the lowest it’s been in the ten years they’ve been compiling statistics. And that was before the government shutdown in October.

“The survey results serve as an important warning about the long-term consequences of the sequestration and budget uncertainty,” OPM Director Katherine Arculeta wrote. “Without a more predictable and responsible budget situation, we risk losing our most talented employees, as well as hurting our ability to recruit top talent for the future.”

That ain’t the half of it. If the steady erosion of government’s regulatory function continues, expect more and more stories about failing bridges and highways, weakened enforcement of environmental safety measures, severe industrial accidents and outbreaks of illness linked to untested drugs and chemicals or contaminated food.

But I’m guessing it’s all smiles at Grover Norquist’s house. Government’s drowning and he does not even have to hold its head underwater. Politicians, their appointees and deep-pocketed special interests are doing the dirty work for him. Was there ever such a Christmas?

Michael Winship is the Emmy Award-winning senior writer of Moyers & Company and, and a senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos.

2 comments for “Big-Money Politics Gains Ground

  1. jim carter
    January 1, 2014 at 19:28



    Congress has passed a Federal budget that includes annual deficit spending of over a trillion dollars annually. Who benefits ??

    ANSWER: Every dollar of deficit spending is a dollar of profit for Wall Street bankers that is concealed from Congress and the people by the FRBNY’s exclusive handling of auction accounts for Treasury securities.

    HOW IS IT DONE ? Every dollar of deficit spending requires the Treasury to send a Treasury security to the FRBNY. The FRBNY will then credit a government account for the value of the security. Voila !!! The book entry money will be spent by the Treasury. New money has been added to circulation and inflation has been assured. (NOTICE: The Fed merely created the book entry money—it did not “print” the money. Treasury prints the money and sells it to the Fed { 4.807 cents for G. Washington; 11.798 cents for B. Franklin—2010 costs}).

    The Treasury can now pay for billion dollar aircraft that cannot fly and social programs for food stamps and welfare recipients that cannot work. But what happens to the Treasury security that was sent to the Fed ??    Obviously, they can not accumulate in the FRBNY.   It becomes another security mingled with the $8 trillion that are annually auctioned to roll-over prior debt..

    Funds from the auctioned securities flow to the FRBNY for their exclusive handling. If the funds were credited to the government (as are the funds for securities auctioned for rolling over prior debt as purchased from Primary Dealers.) there would be no increase in the national debt nor would there be an increase in the money in circulation (inflation). The funds from deficit spending securities cannot be expensed to the government—but then where do they go ?? The only alternate destination is to the owners of the Federal Reserve system or to the owners of the Board of Governors (unknown owners included in the Primary Dealers).

    This money to the owners does not show up in any report to Congress or any public record. The BOG establishes the guidelines for audits that are submitted annually to Congress. Records of auctioned securities are not included in the audit.

    Profit of the Fed legally belongs to the government. Hiding money that belongs to the government is a crime.

    Why does Congress not audit the auction accounts of the Fed ?  (Title 31, section 714 does not prohibit it.)  Because Wall Street owned entities, including all major businesses, are the largest contributors and source of perks for political candidates. They buy their way out.

    What does Wall Street do with the embezzled trillion dollars?   They can pay themselves $10 to $100 million annual remunerations and fund the New World Order.

    The future of the United States, when Wall Street collects on the $17 trillion debt as they are now collecting in Europe, will leave us living as in Haiti.


  2. F. G. Sanford
    December 25, 2013 at 00:24

    It seems there’s always a comment somewhere asking for folks to come up with a meme or a slogan or a suggestion about how to send a message to the mainstream media. I find it hard to believe people actually watch Bill O’Reilly, but maybe they do. The belief that he really has a viewership keeps him in business.

    So here’s what I suggest. Everybody in America that is fed up with mainstream drivel should place their TV in a front window, facing outward toward the street. Turn it on with the sound clear down. (There’s no reason to suffer needlessly.) Tune in FOX News. Leave it on all the time. The consumption is very low, probably less than a 40 watt light bulb.

    If people complain, you can remind them that McGruff, the “Crime Dog”, says leaving a television on discourages burglars. You can insist that it’s a public service, as the street lights are inadequate. You can point out that Bill O’Reilly frightens away children, vagrants, homeless people, stray dogs and migrant workers. As a last resort, you can lament that you don’t have time to put your own a**hole on display.

    For you radio listeners, I suggest calling the talk shows and saying, “I’m old, I don’t remember where I live, and Bill O’Reilly said you would help me”. Or, how about, “I’ve been abducted by aliens, and they want me to contact Bill O’Reilly”. (Michael Savage will love that.)

    If everybody does their part, this could accomplish more than “Occupy”. Bill O’Reilly could be off the air by New Year’s eve.

    Merry Christmas!

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