Archive for September, 2013

McCutcheon v FEC: A New Perspective

Thursday, September 26th, 2013 by Geoffrey Lyons

ORAL ARGUMENTS are set to commence in a mere two weeks for McCutcheon v FEC, a Supreme Court case that could decide the constitutionality of biennial limits on individual donors’ total contributions to candidates, PACs, and parties. LobbyBlog last wrote on the case in March, citing lobbyists’ misgivings towards a future without a contribution ceiling.  One such lobbyist, Tony Podesta, explained how a total contribution cap “is helpful to fend off entreaties from candidates who need more money.”

Now, OpenSecrets is pushing the argument that by abolishing the biennial cap, the Supreme Court would effectively nullify all contribution limits. Bob Biersack, Senior Fellow at the Center for Responsive Politics and contributor to OpenSecrets blog, calls this hypothesis “McCutcheon’s Multiplying Effect.” Currently, donors cannot give more than $74,600 total for each two-year cycle to PACs and parties, and no more than $5,000 each calendar year to a single PAC. Because of the biennial cap, each donor is ultimately limited to the number of PACs to which he or she can contribute. If, therefore, the biennial cap is abolished, so too would this limit.

So how would this negate the force of limits imposed on individual candidate contributions (currently set at $2,600 per election), which aren’t even being considered in the McCutcheon case? Here’s the crux of Biersack’s argument: “One of the first things that would surely happen without overall limits would be a wave of newly created PACs focused on specific candidate’s campaigns…” In other words, candidate X, now limited by the number of income sources from which his campaign depends, would benefit from a potentially infinite number of nominally varied PACs, all of which would transfer some portion of its coffers to him.  Biersack again: “Without [biennial] limits, tens of thousands could become hundreds of thousands and hundreds of thousands could turn into millions….So much for $2,600 per election.”

So while it’s still possible the Supreme Court could reach beyond the scope of biennial limits and question other limits imposed by the FEC, it’s likely, according to Open Secrets, that it could achieve the same result with far less effort.  The biennial cap seems much like a keystone holding the other limits in place.  Pulling it out sends the whole edifice crumbling down.

For Their Eyes Only: CIA Lobbying Disclosures Under Wraps

Friday, September 20th, 2013 by James Cameron

WITH GOVERNMENT TRANSPARENCY very much in the spotlight in recent months, it’s no surprise that agencies’ lobbying disclosure is under scrutiny. As LobbyBlog wrote back in July, six different government agencies, including the NSA, FBI, and CIA, rebuffed requests for lobbying disclosure forms, instead advising POLITICO to file Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, which can sometimes take years to be answered.

Now, POLITICO reports that the CIA is flatly refusing to disclose lobbying reports by its contractors. They do so on the grounds that the reports, the “existence or nonexistence” of which the agency would not confirm, may or may not contain classified information.

In addition to the standard lobbying disclosures that must be filed with the Senate or House, there is a supplemental form that must also be submitted by any company that has received money from the federal government. Despite the fact that this form is filed with the Office of Management and Budget, the OMB claims that it doesn’t collect information from the forms:

OMB does not collect information from the public through the SF-LLL; for details about the use of information collected with a specific form, OMB would refer you to the relevant agency issuing the form…

Of course, as the CIA makes clear, there is little accountability and no transparency for these agencies, and the only way to obtain lobbying disclosure information is through cumbersome and expensive FOIA requests. As Bill Allison of the Sunlight Foundation notes, “this is one of these strange things where the federal government has laws on the books that they don’t follow themselves….”

It would seem the only way to turn government opacity into transparency is through specific legislation prohibiting the loopholes and gray areas that federal agencies are using to hide lobbying disclosures. But even then, it’s likely that agencies will continue to flaunt the law. In other words, if you’re hoping to find out how money changes hands between contractors and the government, don’t hold your breath.

Bitcoin in Politics: 3 Arguments For and Against

Wednesday, September 18th, 2013 by Geoffrey Lyons

IN JUST THE past few years, the degree to which American politics has become awash with cash has well exceeded the absurdity of Monopoly, a game in which large sums of money are thrown about so carelessly that one almost whimsically wishes it were real.  But things haven’t become so farcical that Monopoly money is actually used in the political arena.  Or have they?

The Conservative Action Fund (CAF) has requested that the Federal Election Commission (FEC) accept Bitcoin, an open source “cryptocurrency,” as a legitimate form of political contribution.  The commission has until the end of next month to reply with an advisory opinion.

It’s helpful to know the case for and against potential approval by the FEC. The CAF rests its request on three main arguments:

  1. Bitcoin is a form of money;  it’s exchanged as an imaginary thing of value, similar in concept to any dollar, euro, pound sterling, etc.
  2. Bitcoin’s popularity is soaring, i.e., it’s legitimacy is supported by its growing use.  The total value of all Bitcoins in circulation is currently over $1.3 billion.
  3. There’s an appetite for Bitcoins in the political arena.  Parties and candidates want to accept them and they want to spend them.  In fact, the Libertarian Party already does both.

These are undoubtedly compelling arguments, and will likely receive unyielding approval from libertarians, most of whom disapprove of the FEC’s very existence.  Yet regardless of where the support emanates, there’s force behind these two words: why not?  Why not permit the use of Bitcoin if there’s a case for its legitimacy and clear evidence of its popularity?

The most detailed arguments will potentially come from the advisory opinion itself, but a few have been floating in cyberspace, articulated by such sources as USA Today, Bloomberg, and Fox.  Here are three:

  1. Bitcoin is not accepted as legal tender in any nation.  It’s even banned in some corners of the world.  Why should the FEC recognize an underground currency?
  2. Bitcoin’s value against the U.S. dollar is prone to extreme fluctuation.  The CAF even recognizes this in its proposal, and links to a graph illustrating Bitcoins’ crashes.  The USA Today asks “How should a political committee handle a Bitcoin contribution of $199 that jumps in value to $205 by the time the deposit hits the committee’s campaign account?”
  3. It’s unclear whether a donation of Bitcoins should be treated as an in-kind or monetary contribution.  This dilemma matters immensely, which the CAF admits.  If a Bitcoin donation were treated as an in-kind contribution, its value would be equal to its “usual and normal value on the date it is received.”  If it were treated as a monetary contribution, its value would be “readily apparent.”  Which of these two nearly opposite designations is correct is certainly not readily apparent.

Clearly there is sound logic to support both sides of the argument.  If the FEC is ready to employ nothing but sound logic in its response, then spectators like your humble blogger are in for an interesting and fruitful dialogue.  But one can only hope for such an elevated discussion; the more likely outcome is politics as usual. 

AFL-CIO is Born Anew

Wednesday, September 11th, 2013 by Geoffrey Lyons

EXCITEMENT IS NOT wanting in Los Angeles right now, where thousands have converged on the LA Convention Center to cheer on the AFL-CIO during its quadrennial convention.

Richard Trumka, who has been at the union federation since 1955, was re-elected for a second term as President.  Liz Shuler, who hold’s Trumka’s old position as Secretary-Treasurer, or #2 in the federation, was also re-elected.  And since no opposition was faced by either Trumka, Shuler, or the new #3, Executive Vice President Arlene Holt Baker, the mandate was clear, and the crowd ecstatic.

“It’s time, brothers and sisters, to get off our asses and get on our feet and get out the door and hit the street,” chanted Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) and longtime friend of Trumka.

Yet Harold Meyerson of The Washington Post sees little to inspire.

With just 6.6 percent of the private-sector workforce enrolled in unions in 2012, traditional collective bargaining has all but vanished from the economic landscape — taking raises, benefits, job security and much of the American middle class with it as it goes.

Meyerseon went on to argue that the “chief business” of the convention (which lasts through today), is to redefine labor.  Since labor is ineffectual on its own, the argument goes, it will need to begin cementing the sort of coalitions that have helped win its battles: civil rights, gender equality, etc.–essentially everything under the sun that’s left of center.  Eventually this would require the commitment of “resources to building omnibus organizations where union and environmental (and other) leaders work for a common program.”

So, according to Meyerseon, if the largest federation of unions in the nation wants to accomplish anything in the future, it can no longer do so simply as labor.  That which defines the AFL-CIO would either need to melt into some new left or perish.  This reasoning requires no proof other than that offered by the AFL-CIO itself.  On Monday, the convention unanimously adopted a resolution that would allow non-union members to join the federation.

What is to be made of this “big tent” labor movement?  Surely it’s either a redeeming expansion or a fatal contradiction in terms.  Or, perhaps, it’s nothing more than a shrewd political maneuver.  Whatever the consequences for the AFL-CIO, they’re sure not lose any excitement over it.

AIPAC Chimes in on Syria

Tuesday, September 10th, 2013 by James Cameron

THINGS HAVE HEATED up in Washington as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the powerful pro-Israel lobbying group, has called on Congress to authorize military action against Syria.

In a statement last Tuesday, AIPAC wrote:

AIPAC urges Congress to grant the president the authority he has requested to protect America’s national security interests and dissuade the Syrian regime’s further use of unconventional weapons. The civilized world cannot tolerate the use of these barbaric weapons…

On Thursday, the lobby announced that it would be sending more than 250 leaders and activists to Capitol Hill to lobby as many members of Congress as possible on the issue, and in particular prominent GOP leaders who have yet to commit to action on Syria, such as Sens. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas).  The meetings are scheduled to occur today.

As POLITICO notes, it’s rare for AIPAC to be involved in military matters, and the organization has been very careful to avoid the use of the word “Israel” in its press releases.  This omission is likely because AIPAC and other pro-Israel groups do not want their support for intervention to appear self-serving.  Yet news that Israel itself now strongly advocates a strike against Assad diminishes any need to be circumspect.

It’s still too early to tell how effective these efforts will be, but it’s without question that AIPAC, which prides itself on its incomparable clout in Washington, will have an impact.

U.S. Handbook Appears in Washingtonian

Wednesday, September 4th, 2013 by Geoffrey Lyons

THIS MONTH’S WASHINGTONIAN includes a detailed profile of Washington power player, veteran lobbyist, and Bravo star, Edwina Rogers. The 2,500-word portrait depicts Rogers as someone with an eclectic if paradoxical political philosophy (containing such seemingly irreconcilable beliefs as “nontheism” and staunch support for the Bush administration), with an overall emphasis on her unlikely new gig as the Executive Director for The Secular Coalition for America, an atheist interest group.  Even best-selling author and biologist Richard Dawkins commented on the hire, calling it “shrewd.”

But the central message of the article is quite different for those of us in the offices of Columbia Books, of which Lobbyists.info and its blog are a division. Our eyes tend to focus not on the words themselves, but rather the accompanying picture. In this, Rogers is wielding a choice prop: The Original U.S. Congress Handbook, which has been published annually by Columbia Books since the Ford administration. This small, glossy directory of incumbent Congressmen has long been a fixture of Washington culture, and is a tool that inner beltway superstars and newcomers alike have sworn by.  Apparently Rogers is no exception.

Thanks for the free ad, Washingtonian!