|Former Senator Russ Feingold, D -WI.|
On a last minute whim (an almost unheard of for me!), I decided to see former Senator Russ Feingold talk at Hinsdale Central High School as a fundraiser for Rock The Vote. It was a surprisingly small crowd for such a big name, but as another patron pointed out, we were in Hinsdale.
Feingold is perhaps best known for the McCain Feingold Act, a piece of legislation that he wrote with Senator John McCain that addressed campaign finance. The two goals of the Act were to address the increased role of “soft-money” and “issue advocacy” ads. The Citizens United ruling of 2010 so reduced the scope of the McCain Feingold Act, that Mr. Feingold said, “the McCain –Feingold Act was a brick in the wall of campaign finance laws. The Citizens United decision completely tore down the wall and left the McCain-Feingold brick standing”, effectively rendering it useless.
Perhaps the most shocking part of the talk was learning more about "soft money". I remember wondering why Donald Trump donated to Rahm Emanuels' mayoral campaign. Now I get it. It's oh so gross.
I was, however, comforted by the fact that Mr. Feingold had nice things to say about Illinois' own Senator Dick Durbin, praising him as someone who is focused on reform, and holding him up as an example of someone who is "carrying the torch" in the Senate.
All in all, an informative talk. And, with the final Presidential debate following it, a night filled with politics for me.
a. Impressed by the Young Progressives Club at Hinsdale Central – they were the first high school group to get in contact with him and make his appearance happen.
b. Will keep it short enough that we can leave in time for the Presidential debate.
i. “I’ll spend my drive back to Wisconsin figuring out how to defend the President in interviews tomorrow.”
c. From Janesville, WI, now lives outside of Madison
d. Practiced law in Madison before going into politics. Urges all people interested in a career in politics to have a skillset they can fall back on. You don’t always win.
e. His primary motivation for getting into politics was John F. Kennedy.
i. Robert Kennedy said, “Politics is an honorable profession”
f. Served in the WI state Senate for 10 years before moving on to the United States Senate where he represented Wisconsin for 18 years.
g. Thinks Stephen Colbert did a “terrific job raising awareness” of the Citizens United decision.
h. We have to choose between two separate types of government; one with unlimited corporate donations, and one where individual people actually have a say.
2. Citizens United
a. The ruling was issued in January, 2010 by a 5-4 vote
b. Justice John Paul Stevens wrote the dissent
i. He made it 90-pages long because he was so outraged
ii. In reading his dissent, he made the others listen to him for 25 minutes
c. Court issued a lawless decision
i. Completely disregarded the moors and traditions of the Supreme Court (which is supposed to be a stabilizing influence on our democracy. Rulings should be narrow and should not rock the boat.)
ii. This was an activist decision and recklessly so.
d. McCain-Feingold didn’t cover the Hillary Clinton video that the Citizens United case was brought for (“I know because I wrote it!”)
e. The Supreme Court, with this ruling, created a whole new system of corporate domination that was banned in McCain-Feingold.
f. It was a rejection of the common sense of the American people
g. Leading us back to the Gilded Age – where a few industries dominated both the economy and our government.
i. Progressives responded to the Gilded Age with controls (like the FDA)
h. Tillman Act of 1907, signed by Teddy Roosevelt prohibited campaign donations from corporations.
i. “Corporations can’t use their treasuries for political gain”
ii. in 1947, they prohibited unions from using their dues on political campaigns.
iii. With this ruling, the Supreme Court overturned both of those laws.
iv. Feingold had never heard anyone say the above laws weren’t valid. Corporations are important to our society – they play a vital role. But shouldn’t play a vital role in our politics.
i. The decision goes way beyond anything in our political system going back 100 years.
j. Feingold was invited on the Colbert Report to discuss Citizens United, “I don’t get nervous about going on Meet the Press – but Colbert is scary. He’s smart, sharp, and funny.”
k. “People might get frustrated with the outcry over Citizens United, saying “this is just politics!” – but no. This is different.”
3. Soft Money
a. Donations that are given to legislators in both parties in order to secure enough votes to pass favorable legislation.
b. Unlimited contributions led to:
iii. Most Favored Nation status to China
c. Worst example of how soft money corrupts: the 2008 economic collapse. One can argue the economic collapse came from inadequate regulation. The Senate repealed the Glass-Steagall Act (main legislation regulating banking industry – preventing it from becoming an investment house) by a vote of 90-8. It was almost completely bipartisan. Why? Because the banking industry had donated so much money to the Senators. “Soft money bought off both parties”. Without regulation, the banks participated in the risky behavior that lead to the financial collapse.
4. McCain Feingold Act
a. Was a brick in the all of campaign finance legislation. The Citizens United ruling tore down the wall, but left the McCain-Feingold brick standing (but rendering it almost completely ineffective).
5. The 2008 Election
a. First time the internet was really used to help generate support for campaigns.
b. There was a sense that people felt invested in the process and outcome
c. Students donated $10 – hadn’t seen that before
d. It wasn’t just about raising money – it made people feel welcome to participate in their democracy.
6. Impact on Corporations
a. Target was one of the first companies to donate after the Citizens United ruling
i. They donated money to an organization that was backing a candidate who was anti-gay rights.
ii. Lady Gaga found out about it (MN has disclosure laws that the federal government doesn’t have) and there was a huge backlash
b. How is this going to work if companies can take the money from your purchases and give politically?
c. “We’re going to need Republican and Democratic toothpaste – because I don’t want to buy toothpaste from a company that’s going to support Republicans.”
7. Where We’re Headed
a. We need to overturn this
i. Constitutional amendment – exceedingly difficult to do
ii. Can be overturned by the Supreme Court
b. The most important thing you can vote about – the Supreme Court nominations.
i. It will have the greatest long term affect
c. There is a scandal – we just need to find it.
d. The impact on corporations:
i. Feingold has sympathy for the corporations. He and John McCain got phone calls from CEOs supporting their bill because they don’t like being asked to donate money over and over and over again. “It’s extortion”
ii. What does it mean for a business leader? What if their competitor is donating? Do they have a fiduciary duty to also donate rather than hire more people or invest in R&D?
e. What happens with all of this money?
ii. The media
iii. Consultants in DC getting filthy rich off of this
iv. Sieve from our economy. “Useless uses of the money”
f. The money is a corrupting influence
g. What’s the end result?
i. Let’s assume it evens out – Democrats and Republicans get the same amount. After the election, it doesn’t matter who wins because of soft money. They’re donating to both sides and capturing our democracy.
h. “This is an exceptional attack on our democracy and it needs to be reversed.”
8. Audience Questions:
a. What’s your stance on term limits?
i. I oppose them. People always equate campaign finance with term limits, but I think it’s important to have varying levels of experience in any institution. You need to have people there who remember the mistakes that were made. The state of Michigan has experimented with term limits – unsuccessfully.
b. How do you get the Supreme Court to reverse the Citizens United ruling?
i. States can bring cases against it. The state of Montana tried and failed. But in that case, Justice Ginsburg wrote, “it’s getting harder and harder for this Court to pretend there’s no corruption.”
ii. Overturning it can take time.
iii. Feingold thinks cases are already germinating
c. If the Supreme Court overturns it, won’t it just be a 9-person legislative body?
i. No. If they overturn it soon, it can be regarded as a mistake.
d. How do you inspire young people to go into public service?
i. Need to make people not feel crushed by the system
ii. Young people know what’s going on – and want to run anyway – incredibly encouraged by that.
e. Can you amend the constitution without legislators?
i. No – you have to use either federal or state legislators to get it done.
ii. Interestingly enough, the only part of the constitution that can’t be changed is how many Senators come from each state (2). This really underlines the view the founding fathers had of bringing together sovereign states.
f. What has happened to John McCain in the last four years?
i. 2008 was not a good year for him
ii. Ashamed that he pulled away from his long-held beliefs to win the nomination (discredited climate change, renounced his own McCain-Feingold bill, resisted taxes on the wealthy, etc.)
iii. He really is an independent
g. What can we do about “secret holds” and filibusters?
i. Secret holds are, in theory, being eliminated. The original idea was to use them to ask for more time to review a bill. Now it’s being taken advantage of.
ii. The Filibuster should be allowed. It is being abused for partisan politics (the founding fathers feared partisan factions)
iii. Don’t make the Senate the same as the house (simple majority)
1. The House passes the “dumbest” ideas and expect the Senate to take care of it. Keep the supermajority in place.
h. What do you want to see Obama focus on in his next term?
i. Hopes people will continue to focus on money in politics
1. Wants to see Obama address that in his next State of the Union address
ii. Try again to resolve the issue between Israel and the Palestinians. It’s a really important issue for global peace.
iii. Thinks Obama will win a second term and thinks he is going to end up being one of our great Presidents.