Last night, The New York Timesreported that prominent campaign-finance reformer Lawrence Lessig is considering a Democratic run for president.
His civic-minded platform is simple, and his plan is rather curious. If he can raise $1 million in small donations by Labor Day, Lessig will run for president with the sole purpose of passing legislation—the Citizen Equality Act of 2017—that would make Election Day a national holiday, end gerrymandering, and institute a robust public campaign-finance system based on vouchers and matching funds. If elected, Lessig says he will resign after passing the act.
Lessig is comparing his candidacy to that of Eugene McCarthy in 1968, who ran a single-issue campaign against the Vietnam War because he feared the Democratic Party wasn’t making it a prominent part of its platform.
The most prominent Democratic contenders—Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Martin O’Malley—have all pledged their support of overturning the Citizens United decision. Last week, Sanders took it a step further and introduced legislation that would expand the public campaign-finance system to all federal elections.
Clinton and O’Malley have both voiced support for public campaign finance but have not come out with any sort of particular policy or plan.
Lessig is the former head of the Mayday PAC, a super PAC to end super PACs that support candidates who are committed to reforming campaign finance. The group’s efforts in 2014 were largely unsuccessful. A couple weeks ago, I spoke to Lessig’s replacement, Zephyr Teachout, about the presidential race and she made it clear that paying lip service on finance reform isn’t enough.
“[I]f you are silent on private financing in elections and aren’t actively supporting some model of public financing, that’s a problem—you’re a pro-corruption candidate,” Teachout said.
It’s interesting to note that Lessig has already targeted his most pointed critiques to Sanders’s candidacy, whose policies and supporters are most comparable to Lessig’s.
In an interview with Bloomberg’s Emily Greenhouse, Lessig articulated exactly why he thinks he is a better candidate than the Vermont senator:
“Bernie is pushing a different equality. Bernie is talking about wealth equality, economic equality. And while personally I agree with much of what he says about the incredible harm that’s been done by the incredible inequality that’s been produced, the reality is: America is not united around the idea of wealth equality the way America is united around the idea of equality among citizens. So what I’m pushing is a big idea that I think could actually unite America—and what Bernie is pushing is a big idea that, while many of us in the progressive part of the Democratic Party love it, all of America does not love.”
That’s a bold assertion to make, and he places a lot of faith in the saliency of such wonky, unsexy issues like public campaign finance and gerrymandering. But if he ends up running, it will be worth seeing what kind of impact Lessig has on Sanders’s surging momentum—and whether Hillary Clinton’s campaign will even acknowledge his existence.
When Congress passed Dodd-Frank in 2010, the most substantial piece of Wall Street reform in years, it included a provision that required most publicly traded companies to disclose the compensation ratio between its CEO and its average worker—a symbolic measure that Democrats included as a way to shine light on income inequality.
Last week (more than five years later), the SEC finally approved, along party lines, a rule that requires such disclosure. As a way increasing transparency over exorbitant executive compensation and allowing for more informed, socially-responsible investment, most publicly traded companies will now be forced to show in simple terms how many hundreds of times more its top executive is paid than its employees.
As research from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) has shown, it will likely not be a favorable number for most corporations. In 1965, the average CEO-worker pay ratio was 20 to 1. In 2014, it was 303 to 1. The average compensation for a CEO in 2014 was $16.3 million.
The SEC rule’s passage is being lauded as a big win for financial reform advocates like Elizabeth Warren, who consistently berated the commission for taking so long to pass the mandated rule. But Republicans and the CEO lobby are feeling a little victimized and upset. A Republican SEC Commissioner, Daniel Gallagher, quipped, “To steal a line from Justice Scalia: This is pure applesauce.”
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has dubbed it a “name-and-shame tactic,” saying in a statement: “Congress added this disclosure to Dodd-Frank as a favor to union lobbyists who misguidedly think it will help their organizing efforts. When disclosure is used to advance special interest agendas rather than provide investors with better information, it is a step in the wrong direction.”
While the SEC has said it will cost companies a measly $73 million to comply, the Chamber of Commerce contends that the costs will be an “egregious” $700 million a year.
“It’s cost without a purpose,” John Engler, president of the Business Roundtable, a Washington association of CEOs, told The Los Angeles Times.
No doubt, the powerful business lobby will continue to sound the hyperbolic alarms, claiming what seems like some pretty basic arithmetic amounts to a costly and burdensome government regulation that will stoke the class-warfare fire and force CEOs to spend their hard-earned income on anti-pitchfork insurance.
But maybe it’s a good thing that big business is a little uneasy about making public just how large its pay disparities are. While transparency doesn’t always lead to change, there are those who are optimistic that the new rule will have a real impact.
“I used to think this was symbolic,” Larry Mishel, president of the EPI, told The Los Angeles Times. “But the fact is, the pay of people in publicly held companies drives the executive pay market—for people in privately held firms, for universities, for hospitals.”
Earlier this week, Vermont Senator and Democratic presidential contender Bernie Sanders announced that he will introduce legislation that will create a robust public campaign-finance system in an attempt to beat back the unhinged influence of big money in the U.S. electoral system.
“The need for real campaign finance reform is not a progressive issue. It is not a conservative issue. It is an American issue,” Sanders said on the Senate floor. “Let us be frank, let us be honest, the current political campaign finance system is corrupt and amounts to legalized bribery.”
The announcement comes in light of a New York Times blockbuster report that as of June, roughly 130 families and their businesses are responsible for more than half of all money raised for Republican candidates and their respective super PACs.
“We are talking about a rapid movement in this country toward oligarchy, toward a government owned and controlled by a handful of extremely wealthy families,” Sanders said.
This new bill will come on top of Sanders’s marquee policy position that calls for a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. He also recently pledged that, if elected president, he would only appoint Supreme Court justices who are committed to overturning the decision.
Still, despite grassroots support for a constitutional amendment, such a route remains more of a political pipedream than reality. Sanders’s new call for a public campaign-finance system is reflective of a shifting strategy within reform circles—one that emphasizes not only a repeal of Citizens United, but also gives imperative to changing the funding mechanisms of elections.
“What that means in terms of electoral races is that we’re not going to let any candidates get away with saying that they’re pro-reform unless they’re talking about public financing,” campaign-finance reform advocate Zephyr Teachout told me in an interview last week. “They cannot, like Hillary Clinton, talk about a constitutional amendment and not talk about the most obvious and easiest thing to do, which is switch to a public-financing model. You’re not an anti-corruption candidate if you’re not talking about public financing.”
The thinking is that even if Citizens is repealed, it would only be going back to the campaign-finance world of 2009—hardly a democratic utopia. By instituting a robust public-finance system, small donors’ concerns would be amplified through matching funds and the reliance on mega-donors would be minimized.
So while Sanders makes it clear he understands that campaign finance reform isn’t one-dimensional problem, has anyone else?
Most Republicans have remained mute on the subject of campaign-finance reform and it’s rather unthinkable to imagine a conservative supporting the use of public money to fund campaigns—Mitch McConnell has likened it to “welfare for politicians.”
And while the current Democratic frontrunner, Hillary Clinton, supports the overturning of Citizens United, she’s refrained from articulating a position on public campaign finance.
Former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley is in favor of overturning Citizens United, and has voiced support of public campaign finance—though he’s yet to come forward with a formal proposal. “I think a lot of cities are moving to publically financed campaigns and as more cities successfully do that, it’d be nice to see that kind of bubble up,” O’Malley said at a New Hampshire campaign visit in March. “I haven’t advanced a proposal on this; I’d certainly be open to it.”
Other public campaign-finance bills have been recently introduced in the House, but so far to no avail. So while the feasibility of Sanders’s getting any kind of similar bill pushed through a Republican Senate is unlikely, he is bolstering his surprising campaign surge by acknowledging what most in the campaign-finance-reform world have been saying for some time now: Repeal doesn’t mean much if there’s no public financing that goes with it.
(Photo: Office of Tammy Baldwin) Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland and Senator Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin announce the introduction of the Financial Services Conflict of Interest Act on July 15. F ive years to the day after the Senate passed the Dodd-Frank Act, Senator Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Congressman Elijah Cummings of Maryland gathered for a press conference in the Capitol to announce legislation that would strengthen ethics in the executive branch and work to reduce Wall Street influence in Washington, D.C. “We can’t afford to have a revolving door working to stack the deck in favor of Wall Street and against hard working Americans who are struggling to get ahead,” Baldwin proclaimed as she introduced the Financial Services Conflict of Interest Act on July 15. “The American people deserve to have trust in the fact that government is working for them and that the system is not being rigged against them.” Soon after entering office in 2009, President Obama ordered...
Staffers at the Guardian US unanimously voted yesterday to unionize with the News Media Guild, The Huffington Post reported. The vote is just the latest in a surge of recent union drives in the digital media world.
Guardian US management voluntarily recognized the union effort, therefore negating the need to go through the formal channels of the NLRB. “We are happy to voluntarily recognize the News Media Guild and look forward to working constructively, in best Guardian tradition, with the Guardian US editorial staff who have voted in favor of collective representation,” a Guardian US spokesperson said in a statement.
A similar agreement was struck between Gawker Media’s editorial staff and management a couple months ago, which was the first of a growing number of organizing drives in digital media in 2015. The progressive website Truthout was the first digital media outlet to unionize back in 2009.
Earlier this month, Salon’s editorial staff unanimously voted to form a union and asked management to voluntarily recognize its vote—there is still with no word from management, and there’s growing discontent among Salon staffers and its union, Writers Guild of America, East (which also represents Gawker).
Guardian US staffers will join News Media Guild’s 2,000 other digital workers from The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Associated Press, and the Daily Beast.
Labor reporter Mike Elk, who’s been working to spark an organizing drive at his employer, Politico, has also reportedly been working with the News Media Guild. Politico has about 200 editorial staffers and is rapidly expanding its operations.
Yesterday at a union event in Washington, D.C., Elk asked Democratic presidential contender Senator Bernie Sanders if he thought that media owners, including Politico, should agree to card-check neutrality. Sanders answered affirmatively, saying, “I think all workers in whatever area—it’s not just the media—do have a right to form a union without harassment on the part of their employers.”
Other union-drive announcements are likely to crop up in the near future. The WGAE director, Lowell Peterson, has previously told me that a number of digital media outlets are in the organizing pipeline with the union.