The best legislation liberals can buy

February 28, 2013

If George W. Bush had launched such a group, the coverage would be overwhelming and the criticism widespread. Last Friday, a story by Nicholas Confessore of the New York Times revealed that President Obama’s political team is trying to raise $50 million to fund the conversion of his re-election campaign into Organizing for Action, a “powerhouse” new national lobbying group.

The story said that at least half of the organization’s budget will come from a small number of well-connected donors who each raise or contribute more than $500,000. In return, those donors get a spot on a national advisory board, the right to attend quarterly meetings with the president and access to other White House meetings.

“Unlike a presidential campaign, Organizing for Action has been set up as a tax-exempt ‘social welfare group,’ ” Confessore wrote. “That means it is not bound by federal contribution limits, laws that bar White House officials from soliciting contributions or the stringent reporting requirements for campaigns. In their place, the new group will self-regulate.”

In other words, the organization will function as a de facto super PAC with little transparency. As Chris Cillizza pointed out in the Washington Post this week, the creation of Organizing for Action is no surprise. Whatever his public statements have been, Obama has exacerbated the insidious role of money in politics.

In 2008 he became the first major-party nominee to forgo public presidential campaign financing, effectively ending the system created after the Watergate scandal. Obama declared that Republicans were “masters of gaming this broken system,” but his massive advantage in fund-raising during the general election helped cement his victory over John McCain.

In 2010, Obama again decried the role of money in politics. In his State of the Union address, he criticized the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, which legalized the creating of super PACs.

“Last week the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests – including foreign corporations – to spend without limit in our elections,” the president said.

Yet no major White House campaign finance initiative emerged. And in 2012, Obama created his own super PAC during his battle with Mitt Romney. Cillizza — and Obama’s supporters — correctly point out that the president had to respond to hundreds of millions in spending by conservative super PACs such as American Crossroads.

This week, advocates of campaign finance reform angrily criticized the president for creating a group like Organizing for Action. Bob Edgar, the president of Common Cause, called for Obama to shut down the group and work for campaign finance reforms that disempower, not empower, deep-pocketed donors.

“His record for the past five years has been dismal on the issue of reform,” Edgar said in an interview. “It’s another example where the president doesn’t look that different from Karl Rove.”

The White House referred all questions to Organizing for Action. A spokeswoman for the group did not respond to an email requesting comment.

Aides to the president argued to Confessore that they had no choice. They say conservative Republicans rebuffed the president’s first term efforts to strike compromises. They see Organizing for Action as a liberal counterweight to groups like the National Rifle Association, which has used its deep coffers to vanquish political opponents for decades.

Edgar, the head of Common Cause, argued that Obama should make reducing the influence of large donors a priority in his second term. Instead, Organizing for Action elevates their importance and cements the rise of a new type of American politics: fundraising and campaigning on an ever-increasing scale.

Confessore said Organizing for Action will pay for ads, rent, salaries, and the maintenance of vast databases listing the president’s 22 million Twitter followers, 17 million email subscribers and 2 million volunteers. On Friday, thousands of Obama supporters held rallies outside 80 lawmakers’ offices across the country and bombarded them with phone calls and email.

They called for the lawmakers to support Obama’s call for stricter background checks for gun buyers. In the future, they will pressure members of Congress to back the president’s climate change and immigration reform proposals.

Even if Obama’s goals are laudable, his means set a precedent that may hurt his side in the long term. The floodgates  have been opened, and Republicans will not stand idly by.

Some Obama campaign workers questioned the approach at a January Organizing for Action meeting in Washington. In a piece in The Atlantic, Nancy Scola said hoots of disapproval emerged from the audience after Jon Carson, the group’s executive director,  said chapters would have to raise a certain amount of money to get access to the campaign’s voter database.

“We’ll give you each a little grassroots fund-raising page, and if you raise X amount, you can have access to VoteBuilder,” Carson said, referring to the  database. “If you raise a little more, you can have an office.”

In a question-and-answer session, a member of the audience asked Carson if he was joking. Carson said he was serious.

Money and politics, of course, have always been intertwined. And for as long as presidents have held office, they have used every tool at their disposal to pressure lawmakers. But Organizing for Action sets a new standard. The age of the perpetual campaign – where ad buys potentially decide key congressional votes – appears to have begun.

It is naïve to think that honest debate ever decided the fate of legislation. But now it seems clearer than ever that money will buy not only access, but laws as well.

PHOTO: U.S. President Barack Obama delivers remarks at the Business Council in Washington February 27, 2013. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas


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Excellent facts, well stated. Thanks, David.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

yes it’s limited to liberals..unless you want to count Rove, his ilk and the Koch brothers…

Posted by mugsy9m | Report as abusive

Can anyone think of a single important political policy issue where Obama’s actions have been consistent with his rhetoric? I can’t.

Posted by unionwv | Report as abusive

..I though it was more like “the best government money can buy”…

Posted by rikfre | Report as abusive

Liberals didn’t make the rules, SCOTUS did. However, the smart people will use the rules to their advantage at every opportunity.

Posted by sylvan | Report as abusive

Funny, I don’t recall Citizens United being supported by the moderate bloc of the Supreme Court.

Posted by borisjimbo | Report as abusive

……”Une Tragédie Comique Américain”…..

( A Comical American Tragedy)

Posted by EthicsIntl | Report as abusive

This is nothing new–and it is not the exclusive domain of any party or political philosophy.

Americans of all persuasions ignore the fact that money rules, and is at the core of politics. It’s been that way since the beginning. Any one who believes otherwise prefers to bury their head in the sand.

The only exceptions relative to OFA versus the past, is the fact that it (a) overtly orchestrated from the White House, and (b) offers immediate access to the President for a predetermined fee of $500,000.

The most disgusting part, however, is that this same President who held himself above traditional Washington, espousing the elimination of the inherent corruption associated with lobbies and lobbyists in his administration. Another policy position sacrificed for the sake of politics and money. Nice….

Posted by COindependent | Report as abusive

“offers immediate access to the President for a predetermined fee of $500,000″.

It isn’t good. It may have been true for a long time prior to now, obliquely. That is different than acknowledging, accepting, endorsing it.

I just read the About section of the Organizing for Action website. It is on the domain name barackobama dot com. I don’t understand why there is any need for campaigning like this AFTER the election. And I am appalled by this:
““We’ll give you each a little grassroots fund-raising page, and if you raise X amount, you can have access to VoteBuilder,” Carson said, referring to the database. “If you raise a little more, you can have an office.” In a question-and-answer session, a member of the audience asked Carson if he was joking. Carson said he was serious.”

Posted by EllieK | Report as abusive

I blame a conservative Supreme Court for flinging these doors open.

The Republicans don’t like this, I guess because they didn’t think of it first. Ooops.

Posted by JL4 | Report as abusive