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Campaign Finance Reform

January 30, 2012 12:22 p.m.


Bob Edgar, President, Common Cause

Related Story: Campaign Finance Reform Advocates Face Uphill Battle


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

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CAVANAUGH: The 2012 presidential contest is expected to be the most expensive election in US history. All in this money, and where it's coming from, is a constant concern for election reform advocate, and much of their concern can be focused on 2 words: Citizens united. Joining me to talk about new efforts toward campaign finance reform, bob Edgar, president of common cause. Welcome to the show.

EDGAR: It's great to be with you.

CAVANAUGH: You came to San Diego to meet with local members and strategize about the Supreme Court's 2010 decision in citizens united. Can you tell us what was the issue before the Court at that time?

EDGAR: The Court took up a very narrow issue and broadened it. It was a movie that was created by a group called citizens united that was trashing Hillary Clinton. And they could have come to a conclusion in the session that they had in 2009 -- they did an extraordinary thing. They took that narrow case, and rather than deciding it in June of 2009, it was the only case they took off the docket, carried it over to September, and we worded why they were doing that, and in October, November, January, we waited and waited and finally, two years ago this week, they came down with a decision, 5 to 4, and it was extraordinary. It changed laws that dated back to 1907. Teddy Roosevelt wanted to control money in politics, and particularly corporations. And by this 5-4 decision, it said laborer unions could dip into their independent Treasury. And we asked the question, what was it that was there the day before the decision came down that the justices didn't see that corporations and laborer unions were already involved in politics, that they had to open this Pandora's box? As you said in the question or in the opening, this is in fact going to be the most moneyed election in the history of the United States.

CAVANAUGH: Now, there was, of course, a decent in citizens united, which we'll get to in a minute. But the majority opinion was authored by justice Kennedy. What did he say? Why did the Court come to this decision that basically allowed many more -- opened the flood gates to corporate contributions to political campaigns?

EDGAR: Well, Kennedy was involved in writing the document. I think justice Roberts was the one who has taken it upon himself to think that corporations are people. Also that money is speech. I don't think our founding fathers were sitting around saying money is speech. So I think they wanted to use this very small issue to get at the issue of opening up the flood gates on money. And the Court is a very conservative court now. Many of their decisions that are controversial come down 5-4, and when I was in elementary school, I always thought that the United States Supreme Court was the highest court in the land with the brightest people, regardless of their political affiliation. I think we've seen over the course of the last few years, especially as the government has become more partisan, with conservatives moving to the right of old Jesse Helms, and liberals moving to the left, and the hardness of the partisanship, and by accident with common cause along with being frustrated with citizens united, we've discovered that the United States Supreme Court has no rules of recusal. We think that a couple of these justices may have tainted before they made this decision. And nay exempted themselves from the code of ethics. Here we have a highest court in the land with no real printed ethical standards or refusal provisions, making decisions that seem to be more partisan than simply interpreting the institution.

CAVANAUGH: Getting back to the citizens united decision, this struck down provisions of the McCain/fine gold reform law. And that was a very hard-won law. It took a long time to get that through. What were the reasons that the justices struck down McCain/Feingold?

EDGAR: The justices are of the opinion that money is speech. And they felt that McCain/Feingold was narrow in that speech or controlling it, because there were limits on how much money individuals could put in. They wanted to open up that. And I think they also come from a more corporate background, and see no problem with corporations dipping into their corporate treasuries, with or without permission of the shareholders, and spending them on political campaigns.

CAVANAUGH: Justice Stevens, I believe wrote the dissenting opinion. What did he say?

EDGAR: He is one of our heroes. He said, look, everybody knows that money is a corrosive force and that money is tainting the system of government and that we're moving much more toward a plutocracy, than a democracy, a corporately owned system of government. And he just that the majority opinion was so strong. Sandra day O'Connor would have voted with justice Stevens in the opinion, and she and justice Stevens have made public decisions since this that statements -- that this was the most damaging decision of the sport in probably 100 years.

CAVANAUGH: Now, they've struck down campaign laws before because they restrict free speech. This isn't the first time they've equated speech with money when it comes to giving campaign contributions, what was so wide-ranging about citizens united?

EDGAR: Well, prior to citizens united, if a corporation wanted to get involved, they'd have to form a political action committee, report the people who make contributions to that mill action committee, when they made pay contribution to a candidate, that also would have to be reported. And while there were problems with that system, people who went to the pole, could, if they were curious, find out who was the moneyed sources been their candidates or incumbents. Upon justice Stevens said, hey, the system is already tainted toward that. And corporations are important, we want corporations to exist, but frankly, common cause doesn't believe that they're people. We think that perhaps we need national rules and regulations on what corporations are and how they get registered, and what's their public purpose. But we don't think they should be considered as people. And we don't think that should -- let me give you a specific illustration. I represented a district in suburban Philadelphia that made Chinook helicopters. You see them flying around here in San Diego. The twin helicopters. And the company didn't likely very much because I was supported by the united auto workers in the plant because I was pretty much of the peacenik, I didn't support much of the defense budget.

CAVANAUGH: Had this is when you were a Congressman?

EDGAR: When I served in the United States Congress. And if I had been serving during the period of citizens united, where they could dip into their Treasury, I would then hustle to raise a million dollars to get reelected, I would run against a challenger, and since my district was the most Republican district in the nation to have a democratic Congressman, I won by landslide victories 50.0001% of the vote.

EDGAR: They could walk in, and without writing a check say, bob, you want to be a Congressman, we haven't opposed you, but we didn't like your vote on healthcare, we didn't like your vote on this defense budget, you didn't give us permission to sell Chinook helicopters to a dictatorship in this country or that country, soy if you don't change your opinion, we're going to sink five or ten or $15†million into the race in Delaware county, Pennsylvania to oppose you. We're going to support your opponent not by connecting with your opponent but simply by trashing you and praising him in these independent expenditures. That would defeat almost any house member, whether they were good or bad or indifferent. And that's the danger that we face. It's not just the money which will be enormous. Think about what happened in the last couple weeks. Here Romney and Gingrich are trying to vie for the nomination. Gingrich finds a friend in Las Vegas, that friend doesn't give money to Gingrich, he gives it to an independent expenditure, which was not permitted before citizens united. He gave $5 million. When that wasn't enough, he gave another $5 million. So $10 million into this political action committee to trash Romney. Romney does the same thing. His former staff people are now running a superpack. Those weren't allowed prior to that.

CAVANAUGH: I am speaking with bob Edgar, president of common cause. And just want take a minute, bob, and remind us about your organization.

EDGAR: Common cause was founded 41 years ago by John gardener. John gardener was a moderate Republican, when they existed. He was the cabinet officer for the Johnson administration. And he and several other moderate Republicans had lived through the trauma of the '60s with the war in Vietnam, and with civil rights. He thought that everybody had representation in Washington except average, ordinary people. So we formed common cause as a citizens' lobby, we've been around for a number of years. We mostly have gotten pigeonholed into thinking we're for ethics and lobby reform, and here in California we were responsible for the independent redistricting commission. But when I became its president, I read some of the original language, and John Gardner who taught up at Stanford, he said the first mission of common cause should be to shut down the Vietnam war. The second should be to address the issue of poverty and racism, the third should be to renovate public healthcare, etc. And the reason we've focused on getting the election process right is we want Democrats and Republicans elected and independents who once elected serve the public interest, and not the special interests am so we've energized ourselves. And that's why we're jumping in very quickly to do some uncommon cause kinds of things. We're trying to push back on the Coke brothers, we're trying to expose some of the supreme justices who've done some things like Clarence Thomas, and Scalia, and right now, we're trying to launch I campaign, a citizens' campaign to amend the constitution to push back on the things that the protestor enacted with citizens united.

CAVANAUGH: Talk to us a little bit about this. You're asking your members to support something that's coming up in the senate in April called the fair elections now act. What is that?

EDGAR: Well, first of all, we're asking our people to do one thing, which is to amend the constitution. That's what we're launching now. Secondly, we're working with a number of groups to pass fair elections now which would give house and Senate members the ability to voluntary run for public office without taking any special interest money. Let me just say something about lobbyists. President Obama has gone after lobbyists. I think he's missed one particular important thing. And that is, our problem is not lobbyists. Our problem is the toxic cocktail of lobbyists and money. And I've been trying to urge the administration to focus on that. After all the reforms take place, after we get government to work well, we want lobbyists. If there's a thousand page healthcare bill, and 2†pages deal with dentistry, we want the dentists to come in and lob on their behalf. When the democrats took over from the Republicans in the house, the morning of the takeover, two congressmen hosted an event at the democratic clubs, invited all the freshmen machines, and all the lobbyists in Washington came with stacks of checks to give to those freshmen members that they did not support. So the checks came first, not the talking points. Republicans did the same thing a year ago. They had a dinner the night before, a gala in Washington, invited all of the special interests to come. Again, they brought their checks. When I served in Congress, money was there. But they would come with their talking points, and I was more corrupted by my friends, not my enemies. My enemies were doing fine. They were using legal, political action committee money to go out and find somebody to defeat he because they didn't like the way I voted. My friends would come and say, bob, you're the best thing since sliced bread, we want to help you get reelected, then I got reelected by a very narrow vote, and my friends would come back and say, without our help you would not have been elected. My enemies would come back and say, we tried to defeat you, but here are ten more issues we're interested in. The difference now is the money comes first to get access to those members, and many of the congressmen who want to be there for life don't care much about the issues. They care about staying in office.

CAVANAUGH: And it costs money to stay in office. What about the argument though that there is a connection between free speech and the ability to contribute to a campaign?

EDGAR: Well, let me just give you my prejudiced comments about that. I don't think our founding fathers were sitting around a table saying we're going to put a provision in the constitution for free speech, and that means money. I think they would have recognized that money can stifle speech, that money can drown out speech, that money can give an advantage to someone. If you're a very wealthy person, and we see this in the Senate, money doesn't determine the outcome of the election, but it does often determine whether somebody request actually step forward and run for office. Who can take off a year and campaign for that year without having a salary if they're raising their families? So wealthy people can run, and people who are clever and can use all their oil company interests or healthcare interests or insurance company interests, they can leverage that, that gives them a hundred dollar start. And if they're just good talkers, they get elected. And they can stay elected because -- when I sat in front of the public works committee which I served, the audience was filled with people, they weren't average people. They were the stone interests and paving interests, and airport interests, and the water interests. They were all the groups that were special interest for the issues that came before our committee.

CAVANAUGH: I want to say a word about Steve Colbert. He has been giving his viewers a funny crash course in the impacts of that citizens united decision. Have you been watching that? Do you think it's helpful?

EDGAR: Satire is an important way to communicate important issues. And I really respect Colbert for putting a superpack up to show the awful, gross actions of money. And the fact he ran in Southern California on the her main Cain name, all of those actions are to say this is incredibly stupid, that we have a nation that should be of, and by, and for the people. But a nation because of citizens united is being so tainted. We're hoping that he'll run a two-minute video that we have on our website that we have by bob rice, the chairman of our board, that describes citizens united but draws people's attention to a website that's called amend And at that website, we're going to have a tool chest of opportunities for people to push back on citizens united

The grass-roots level, particularly in this presidential year when people are going to see the amount of money that's flooding into the system. And we hope there'll be a national conversation about money and speech.

CAVANAUGH: Besides going to the common cause website and looking at amend 2012, all that information you have there. What else would you like people to do if they're concerned about this.

EDGAR: We'd like people it go and talk with their elected officials as well as the challengers that are going to run, and see what their positions are on citizens united. We'd like elected officials, when they start would considering future Supreme Court judges, that they ask questions about money and speech, and whether corporations are people. We hope that average, ordinary people will do some letters to the editor and speak up. Our nation is only strong if people speak up. I met doctor Martin Luther King short before his death, and one of the things he said at the meeting I had, he said you and I will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful works and actions of bad people but for the appalling silence of good people. And I join a whole host of people who are afraid that we're so busy trying to raise our families that we don't stand up and speak out for justice. And if we're not careful, this may be a moment where we lose democracy, the tenants that we all hold so dear because we've allowed money to taint the system.

CAVANAUGH: Bob Edgar is president of the citizens lobbying group, common cause. Thanks very much.

EDGAR: Great to be with you.