2011's Top 10 Money in Politics Stories

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At protests across the country Occupiers fought back against a political system that too often looks out for their 1% campaign donors, the supercommittee made influencing-peddling easier for special interests, and the Supreme Court once again sided with big money. Those events and more make up our 2011 list of top money-in-politics stories. 

Check out the full list and if you have your own suggestions for items we left off, leave them in the comments below.

1. Occupy’s Message Delivered

They accomplished what many others hadn’t been able to: the Occupy movement focused the country on the connections between the inequality in our economy and the inequality in our democracy. When the Occupy Wall Street movement began to take hold and spread all over the country in October, that message became clear. The system is broken and it no longer works for the 99% of us who are ordinary Americans. These ongoing protests have shown that more and more people recognize that, and want to take action to change it. The 99% deserve a system that put their needs ahead of corporations, their executives, and wealthy special interests that hold far too much sway over our decision-makers.

It’s clear, what began as movement defined by the gross wage gap quickly blossomed into a fight to change our government by reducing the power of the 1% and their big corporate money. And the 1% is noticing: a leaked memo by a lobbying firm representing many of Wall Street’s biggest clients was evidence that those who wield political power through the purse are willing to go the distance to preserve the status quo.

2. Bye-bye Russell Pearce

Now-former Arizona Senate President Russell Pearce was infamous for leading the effort to pass SB 1070, the extremely harsh anti-immigrant law that became a lightening rod all over the country. But his defeat in a recall election in November came in part as a result of his all-too-cozy relationship with special interests, the Fiesta Bowl scandal he was deeply involved in, and his fierce opposition to Clean Elections. He had spearheaded efforts to repeal the popular Arizona reform law. With an effective voter education campaign (singled out by Pearce himself), Public Campaign Action Fund’s Campaign Money Watch made Pearce the poster-child for special interest politics run amok, and his defeat showed that voters are sick and tired of big money-driven politicians.

3. Roberts Court Weighs in, Again, on Money in Politics

In June, the Supreme Court reaffirmed the constitutionality of public financing as a means of fighting political corruption in the case Arizona Free Enterprise v. Bennett (also known as McComish v. Bennett), but struck down an important mechanism used in Arizona’s program (and others). The decision was the latest example of the Roberts Court taking the side of big money in our political process. Yet, it is not, as opponents of Clean Elections would have you believe, a death knell for existing public financing systems. Instead it is an opportunity for states like Arizona, Maine, and Connecticut to strengthen their programs while bringing them into compliance with the new legal environment. Polls in all these states show that voters want to keep and strengthen their systems that have greatly reduced the influence of big donors and special interests since their implementation. Work has already begun to update these systems and the reaffirmation of public financing in general by the Court will allow for these states, and others in the future, to continue to improve programs and potential laws to keep fighting the corrupting influence of big money in our democracy.

4. “Corporations are people, my friends.”

No, that’s not from Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts. It’s a quote from Mitt Romney on the campaign trail in Iowa when pressed by activists with Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement. In response to the danger to our democracy posed by a political system largely funded by an elite set of wealthy donors, a growing movement of groups and activists has emerged to push for a variety of constitutional amendments. More than a dozen different varieties of amendments exist, but the two major thrusts are to allow Congress to regulate political spending and to demand that corporations are no longer considered people. Organizing drives in municipalities and states to pass resolutions calling on Congress to adopt a constitutional amendment are underway, with early victories, including one in Los Angeles. Check out a rundown from United Republic of some of the different amendments being discussed.

5. The rise of the Super PACS

The Citizens United Supreme Court decision in January of 2010 eliminated prohibitions on corporate spending to influence elections. A second decision, SpeechNow v. FEC, eliminated contribution limits for corporations and others to PACs, as long as they don’t coordinate with candidates. Super PACs for presidential candidates have cropped up all over the place, mostly run by people with very close ties to the candidates themselves. In one recent example, longtime Newt Gingrich backer Sheldon Adelson was prepared to make a $20 million donation to a super PAC supporting Gingrich’s presidential bid. The 2010 elections shattered previous campaign spending records, and 2012 promises to be much, much worse.

6. Big money in, voters out?

After the 2010 elections, many statehouses around the country switched party control from Democratic to Republican for the first time in years. This shift had a lot of consequences for working Americans and low-income voters. Efforts to dismantle collective bargaining in Wisconsin and Ohio made the biggest headlines, but another major story to come out of this is the work being done to make it more difficult to participate in our democracy. Under the guise of a crackdown on voter fraud, voter ID laws were passed in many states. Always a solution in search of a problem, these efforts serve no other purpose than making it harder for communities of color, low income Americans, and young voters to get out and vote. The Brennan Center for Justice estimated these efforts would disenfranchise as many at 5 million Americans in 2012. Campaigns to repeal these measures have already met with success. In November, voters in Maine overwhelmingly won a “people’s veto” of a law that passed that eliminated same-day voter registration.

7. Supercommittee = supercorrupt?

The announcement of the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction, the so-called “supercommittee” immediately prompted a “lobbying bonanza.” One lobbyist even said he was preparing for the committee by “writing 12 really large checks.” The creation of the supercommittee essentially made the job of special interests and their lobbyists easier, giving them 12 clear targets for campaign cash and intense lobbying.

Two-dozen groups signed on to a letter calling on the members of the committee to give up fundraising for the duration of their work, as well as show complete transparency in meetings with lobbyists and wealthy donors. Some members did curtail their fundraising, and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) went as far as ceasing fundraising for his campaign altogether. At the end of the day, as many predicted, the supercommittee failed to reach an agreement. The lack of results made winners out of Big Oil, whose unnecessary taxpayer subsidies will continue, corporate tax dodgers, and other wealthy interests and their lobbyists who won the day by getting a stalemate.

8. Wall Street takes on Elizabeth Warren

Consumer advocate Elizabeth Warren wants to be the next U.S. Senator from Massachusetts—and she is already facing a barrage of attacks funded by Wall Street. As Politico noted after she announced her candidacy, “Wall Street is quietly watching Elizabeth Warren, getting ready to pounce.”

The same people that wrecked our economy, and who are fighting tooth and nail to weaken or kill financial regulations passed in response to the economic collapse, don’t want someone like Warren in the Senate. And they are going to spend big bucks to keep her out. So far, though, she’s showing no signs of backing down. After facing criticism for standing with Occupy Wall Street, she said, “Because it’s clear: Washington’s not looking to change on its own. And Wall Street is going to keep pumping money into Washington, pumping it into elections, to make sure that their way is the dominant way in this country. I think that’s wrong."

9. Revolving Prison Door: Abramoff out, Blagojevich in

One corrupt former lobbyist got out of jail earlier this year, and one corrupt politician will be going away for a long time. Former super-lobbyist, Jack Abramoff was released from jail this year, and immediately took to the book-promoting circuit and the airwaves to try to salvage his reputation, and to talk about the system that he took advantage of--a system that, despite minor reforms, remains largely the same. According to Abramoff: “the system hasn’t been cleaned up at all.” He’s right. The pay-to-play culture inside the beltway (and beyond) continues to taint our political process and even one of the most blatant corruption scandals in our history failed to bring real change. Sending former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich to jail for attempting to sell a U.S. Senate seat and other matters for 14 years may be a wake up call. The harsh penalty handed down to Blago should caution elected officials. His successor, Governor Pat Quinn (D-Ill.), has set up a task force to propose reforms. As Abramoff says, the system hasn’t gotten cleaner, and as long as it remains virtually the same, we’ll continue to see politicians and lobbyists doing the perp walk.

10. Not gonna take it anymore

Another trend to emergence from 2011: the willingness of activists to confront the “legalized bribery” as it happens. At a lobbyist-hosted Washington fundraiser for Wisconsin Republicans at the height of the showdown over workers’ rights in Madison, 1,000 activists flooded the atrium of the building where it was held. During the supercommittee deliberations, protesters with community organizing groups shutdown a fundraiser featuring Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), who was serving on the panel. And during a week of actions under the banner of Occupy Congress, more than a dozen high-dollar events were targeted by activists calling attention to the economic squeeze faced by middle class and lower income Americans. Whether these actions proliferate in 2012 or whether they have the desired impact of making fundraising from the 1% uncomfortable, they represent a new heightened activism on money in politics.

Looking ahead to 2012:

All of these stories have illuminated more than ever the huge and growing problem of our big money-driven political system where the voices of ordinary Americans are continually drowned out by powerful corporate and special interest money. As we head into what will likely the most expensive election year in history, the issue of big money influence will be front and center. The Occupy movement, in particular, has brought the issue to the doorsteps of the big banks and the halls of Congress, and in doing so, has tapped into the deep American belief that all of us are supposed to be equal in our democracy.

The next year will present the nation and our leaders with a clear decision – will we begin to fix our ailing democracy or will we allow further erosion of government of, by, and for the people.