When the Supreme Court recently demolished yet another chunk of the nation's campaign finance laws, Dan Backer arguably cheered louder than anyone. It was Backer, a Washington, DC-area attorney active in conservative politics, who had convinced an Alabama businessman named Shaun McCutcheon to challenge the government's limit on the number of candidates, party committees, and political action committees an individual can contribute to in a single election cycle. (The basic limits on how much money that donor can give to each candidate, party, or PAC remain intact.) Backer, who represented McCutcheon, responded to the news of the Supreme Court's decision by tweeting (in apparent reference to William Wallace in Braveheart): "FREEEEDOMMMMM!!!!"
Backer's victory is shining some light on another high-profile cause of his: Convincing Sarah Palin to run for US Senate.
In an email headlined "Palin for Senate" recently blasted out by a PAC called the Tea Party Leadership Fund, Backer writes, "Sarah's the proven leader we need." He goes on, "She has a better grasp on world politics, and she knows what it means to cherish and protect our American freedoms far better than THE MAN WHO IS SUPPOSED TO BE LEADING THE FREE WORLD." Backer slams incumbent Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) for spending "too much time in Washington, DC, begging the Obama administration for favors rather than representing the good people of Alaska." Palin supporters need to act quick, Backer warns: The window for her to get into the race "has almost closed." And so Backer asks recipients to sign a petition and gather enough signatures to "to push Sarah Palin over the top in a critical run for Alaska's Senate seat in 2014."
In an interview, Backer said almost 100,000 people had signed the Palin for Senate petition. If Palin did enter the race,he said the Tea Party Leadership PAC would bolster her candidacy with direct mail and radio ads. "Nobody's going to be a greater agent for change than Sarah Palin from Alaska," Backer told me. "She will bring something to the race and she will disrupt the Senate. And disruption is good."
Read the email:
Backer's plea isn't entirely out of left field. Palin has made noises about running for Senate in Alaska. Last summer, she said on Sean Hannity's radio show that she was considering a run. "I've considered it because people have requested me considering it," she said. "But I'm still waiting to see what the lineup will be and hoping that...there will be some new blood, new energy, not just kind of picking from the same old politicians in the state." But this email comes when it's getting late for a possible Palin campaign. (The filing deadline is six weeks away.) Right now, the much-watched Alaska Senate race pits Begich against Republican Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell. Most polling shows Begich in the lead, but the seat is considered a toss-up Senate race that could determine which party ends up controlling the upper chamber.
Backer's email asks for more than just a signature; it includes a plea to donate $5 or more to the Tea Party Leadership Fund PAC. (Backer is the PAC's treasurer.) A cynical political observer might wonder if this "Palin for Senate" effort could be more of a fundraising ploy than a realistic attempt to get Palin into the race. Campaign records show that the Tea Party Leadership Fund has so far raked in $3.8 million in the 2013-14 election cycle, and most of that money—almost $9 of every $10—has gone to fundraising, legal fees (to Backer's own firm), consulting, and other related expenses.
But Backer says the Tea Party Leadership PAC has spent so much non-electoral money because it was building its donor lists during 2013, an off year. This year, he says, the PAC plans to be a counterweight to the outside money from corporations and trade associations backing establishment Republican candidates. "We knew this was going to be a tough cycle and a tough year," he said. "You need resources you can put on the ground when you need them."
Oil derricks and a "lake" of spilled crude in Santa Barbara, California, in 1935.
Over the past century, the federal government has pumped more than $470 billion into the oil and gas industry in the form of generous, never-expiring tax breaks. How it all got started:
The petroleum industry takes off as Americans' love affair with the automobile begins. A new tax provision allows oil companies to write off dry holes as well as all "intangible drilling costs" in their first year of exploration. Over the next 15 years, oil and gas subsidies will average $1.9 billion a year in today's dollars.
Congress approves the "depletion allowance," which lets oil producers deduct more than a quarter of their gross revenues. Texas Sen. Tom Connally, who sponsored the break, later admits, "We could have taken a 5 or 10 percent figure, but we grabbed 27.5 percent because we were not only hogs but the odd figure made it appear as though it was scientifically arrived at."
Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau calls the depletion allowance "perhaps the most glaring loophole" in the tax code. President Franklin D. Roosevelt urges Congress to close it and other tax-evasion methods "so widespread and so amazing, both in their boldness and their ingenuity, that further action without delay seems imperative."
Natural gas drillers in Kansas first experiment with hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, but the technology won't be widely used until the federal government backs its development in the 1970s.
President Harry S. Truman unsuccessfully prods Congress to end the depletion allowance.
Asked about the depletion allowance, President Dwight Eisenhower replies, "I am not prepared to say it is evil because, while we do find, I assume, that a number of rich men take advantage of it unfairly, there must certainly be an incentive in this country if we are going to continue the exploration for gas and oil that is so important to our economy."
Presidential candidates John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon debate the depletion allowance. Kennedy says he's willing to review and close the "loophole." Nixon counters, "I favor the present depletion allowance. I favor it not because I want to make a lot of oilmen rich, but because I want to make America rich."
Congress cuts the depletion allowance deduction from 27.5 to 23 percent, over the objections of the president of Gulf Oil, who calls it "a cornerstone, a major part of the foundation on which the industry has built its house. To dismantle it in whole or in part could very well jeopardize that whole structure and, to a serious degree, the economy dependent upon it." President Nixon says the tax break is "in the national interest" because Mideast oil supplies could be cut off "in the event of a world conflict."
With the OPEC oil embargo and energy crisis at full tilt, Nixon vows to do "everything in my power to prevent the big oil companies and other major energy producers from making an unconscionable profit out of this crisis."
President Gerald Ford authorizes the creation of the Energy Research and Development Administration to oversee energy R&D. Over the next five years, federal spending on fossil fuel research jumps tenfold to $1.4 billion.
Ford almost vetoes but then signs a tax bill that repeals the depletion allowance for large companies. It remains in place for smaller, independent drillers.
The Department of Energy oversees the first successful applications of large-scale fracking to extract oil and gas.
President Jimmy Carter praises Sen. Russell Long of oil-rich Louisiana for voting "to do away with the oil depletion allowance, which was a very courageous thing to do."
Carter signs a "gas guzzler" tax on new cars that don't meet federal mileage standards.
Carter signs a $228 billion tax on oil companies' windfall profits as well as a tax credit to encourage the development of shale and tar oil, coalbed methane, and other unconventional fossil fuels.
President Reagan takes aim at federal tax breaks. Oil and gas is one of few industries to emerge unscathed from the "showdown at Gucci Gulch." He fails to convince Congress to kill the depletion allowance for most oil wells.
As oil prices sink, Congress repeals the windfall profits tax.
A bill signed by President George H.W. Bush doubles the gas guzzler tax and increases gasoline excise taxes. It also establishes a new tax credit for retrofitting existing oil wells to boost production, expands the tax credit for unconventional oil production, and loosens the depletion allowance.
The Energy Policy Act establishes tax credits for renewable energy production and introduces tax deductions for cars powered by electricity and alternative fuels.
President Bill Clinton signs the Deep Water Royalty Relief Act, letting oil companies drill in federal waters without paying any royalties. More than 1,000 leases omit a promised price trigger, costing billions.
Clinton extends the loosened rules for the depletion allowance.
The American Jobs Creation Act extends a tax break to oil companies for not shipping domestic jobs overseas.
With oil prices on the rise, President George W. Bush states, "With $55 [a barrel] oil, we don't need incentives to oil and gas companies to explore." But a few months later, he signs the Energy Policy Act, which expands the depletion allowance to apply to more drillers. It also lets companies write off exploration costs over two years instead of one.
Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.) introduces the Oil Subsidy Elimination Act, which could end many of Big Oil's most lucrative tax breaks. It never gets out of committee.
Illinois Sen. Barack Obama introduces the Oil sense (Subsidy Elimination for New Strategies on Energy) Act, which would repeal the depletion allowance and suspend royalty-free leases in the Gulf of Mexico. The bill dies in the Democratic-controlled Senate Finance Committee. A House bill that would have expanded tax credits for renewable energy and energy conservation also dies.
Annual tax subsidies for renewable energy shoot past those for oil and gas.
President Obama's stimulus package includes $90 billion for energy efficiency and renewable-energy projects, including wind and solar electricity generation, fuel cells, and electric vehicles.
The Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction plan proposes modifying or eliminating all tax expenditures and raising the gas tax by 15 cents. Former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan likewise suggests that "oil and gas depletion allowances could be restructured" as direct subsidies.
House Speaker John Boehner tells abc News, "I don't think the big oil companies need to have the oil depletion allowances." Asked if oil subsidies should be cut, he answers, "They ought to be paying their fair share." His spokesman clarifies: "The Speaker made clear in the interview that raising taxes was a non-starter, and he's told the president that. He simply wasn't going to take the bait and fall into the trap of defending 'Big Oil' companies."
Executives of the big five oil companies testify before Congress about their tax breaks. In their defense, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) calls the hearing "a dog and pony show" and displays a photograph of a dog sitting on a pony.
A national survey finds that 7 in 10 Americans (including nearly 7 in 10 Republicans) oppose fossil fuel subsidies.
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) introduces the Repeal Big Oil Tax Subsidies Act, which would end $2.4 billion in tax breaks for the big five oil companies. Obama challenges Congress to "eliminate this oil industry giveaway right away." Unable to get filibuster-proof support, it dies.
Mitt Romney says oil subsidies go "largely to small companies, to drilling operators and so forth." He says he'd consider cutting them—if tax rates were slashed first.
The American Petroleum Institute launches a $3 million postelection media blitz, including ads that warn seven Democratic senators up for reelection in 2014 against touching the industry's tax breaks: "American energy—not higher taxes on energy—will create jobs."
Despite talk of everything being "on the table," oil's tax perks survive the fiscal-cliff negotiations.
Congressional Democrats introduce five bills targeting tax giveaways for oil and gas companies. Their death is all but assured, especially in the Republican-controlled House.
In April, Obama introduces his 2014 budget, which includes $23 billion for renewable energy and energy efficiency over 10 years and permanent tax cuts for renewable power generation. It also would end "inefficient fossil fuel subsidies." In contrast, the gop budget proposed by Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan targets "federal intervention and corporate-welfare spending" by cutting subsidies for renewables. Tax breaks for oil are left untouched.
Over the past century, the federal government has pumped more than $470 billion into the oil and gas industry in the form of generous, never-expiring tax breaks. Once intended to jump-start struggling domestic drillers, these incentives have become a tidy bonus for some of the world's most profitable companies.
Taxpayers currently subsidize the oil industry by as much as $4.8 billion a year, with about half of that going to the big five oil companies—ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron, BP, and ConocoPhillips—which get an average tax break of $3.34 on every barrel of domestic crude they produce. With Washington looking under the couch cushions for sources of new revenue, oil prices topping $100 a barrel, and the world feeling the heat from its dependence on fossil fuels, there's been a renewed push to close these decades-old loopholes. But history suggests that Big Oil won't let go of its perks without a brawl.
There Will Be Subsidies
How the oil companies hit a gusher of tax breaks
Writing Off Drilling Expenses: A century ago, drilling for oil was risky business. Start-up costs were high, and prospectors couldn't be sure they'd find crude. To encourage the nascent industry, in 1916 Congress approved the expensing of "intangible drilling costs"—pretty much any equipment used or work done—in the first year of a well's life. Today, prospectors rarely hit dry holes, but the century-old tax break remains a gusher. Oil companies can expense 70 percent of their drilling costs and depreciate the rest. Annual cost to taxpayers: $700 million to $3.5 billion
The Depletion Allowance: When you sunk a well 90 years ago, you didn't know how much it would yield or for how long. That was the idea when oil producers argued that the tax code should account for the "depletion" of their reserves. In 1926, Congress introduced the "excess of percentage over cost depletion deferral," a.k.a. the depletion allowance. Since 1975, only small companies may claim it, but the price tag is still big. Under the allowance, an oil producer may deduct 15 percent (originally 27.5 percent) of any gross income from a well. And unlike normal depreciation, this deduction may be claimed indefinitely. Annual cost to taxpayers: $612 million to $1.1 billion
Domestic Manufacturing Deduction: In 2004, ostensibly to prevent jobs from being shipped overseas, Congress extended a tax break for stateside manufacturers to cover the oil industry. Never mind that most US oil jobs are nearly outsourcing-proof, since a well in Alaska or a refinery in Louisiana can't be sent to China. Annual cost to taxpayers: $574 million
Why Washington won't touch oil subsidies, Part One
Oil and gas companies and their employees have pumped more than $357 million into federal candidates' campaigns since 1990, with $4 out of every $5 going to Republicans. And that's nothing compared to what they've spent on lobbying: more than $1.4 billion in the past 15 years. Last year, the industry employed 796 lobbyists, nearly 60 percent of them ex-members of Congress and staffers who'd come through the revolving door from Capitol Hill.
"It's a pretty damn good investment," says Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who has tried to end the industry's perks. Outside groups, some with oil industry connections, spent $23.5 million to defeat him in 2012. "If you're thinking about taking on oil companies, be ready for that kind of onslaught," he says.
Stepping on Big Oil's toes has always been risky, but in the post-Citizens United era, oil and gas executives can pour unlimited money (sometimes anonymously) into races. In 2012, Chevron gave $2.5 million to the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super-PAC devoted to expanding the Republican majority in the House. And oil-backed dark-money groups like the American Petroleum Institute, the American Energy Alliance, and the Chamber of Commerce spent tens of millions on ads attacking President Obama's energy policies.
This makes many lawmakers wary of crossing Big Oil, explains a senior aide to another Democratic senator. "We have a lot of members who are willing to vote the right way, but they're not out there fighting the fight on this," he says. "Do you really want to stick your neck out and attract enormous amounts of money?"
Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean in Giant Giant Productions/Entertainment Pictures/ZUMAPRESS.com
Facing Marginal tax rates of more than 90 percent, some Hollywood stars of the '40s and '50s sought shelter in oil. A 1959 newspaper article explained their tax scheme:
Jimmy Stewart, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope take their salary and invest it immediately in oil. If oil is hit, cost of drilling is deducted and 27.5 percent depletion is taken off the top with no taxes. If the well is dry, cost of drilling is deducted before taxes. This is called "drilling with tax money."
In the 1956 petro-epic Giant, the depletion allowance is described as "the best thing to hit Texas since we whupped Geronimo," prompting Elizabeth Taylor to quip, "How about an exemption for depreciation of first-class brains, Senator?" Screenwriter Ivan Moffat said that "oil interests" pressured studio head Jack Warner to kill Taylor's line.
Testifying against high tax rates before Congress in 1958, Screen Actors Guild president Ronald Reagan noted the similarity between actors and oil wells: "We feel we are about as short-lived as an oil well and twice as pretty." Yet, he added, "we have no depletion allowance to compensate for the diminishing market value." When Reagan recut the federal tax code three decades later, oil's tax loopholes stayed in the picture.
Gassy Knoll Theory
Did Texas Oilmen kill JFK over oil subsidies?!
John F. Kennedy made noises about ending the depletion allowance during his 1960 presidential campaign, much to the consternation of his running mate, Texas Sen. Lyndon Johnson. When an LBJ staffer handed Bobby Kennedy a neutral-sounding statement on the tax break for his big brother to read, Bobby literally tore it to shreds. Jack Kennedy was assassinated before he could take action, prompting some conspiracy theorists to contend that he was offed to protect Johnson's petroleum constituency. Longtime Republican operative Roger Stone advances this notion in his recent book, The Man Who Killed Kennedy: The Case Against LBJ. "That was the difference between Lyndon and me. I wasn't willing to kill for it," Stone claims his mentor Richard Nixon told him over martinis. (All evidence suggests that President Gerald Ford, who oversaw the end of the depletion allowance for big oil companies in 1975, died from natural causes.)
"Presidents Come and Go"
Why Washington won't touch oil subsidies, Part Two
The oil and gas industry insists that it doesn't receive any government handouts. Technically, it's got a point: Its favorite giveaways are tax expenditures buried in the tax code. So the government isn't actually giving oil companies much money—it's just losing money it otherwise could be collecting from them.
To protect these tax breaks, the oil industry doesn't have to convince lawmakers to do something; it has to convince them to do nothing. As a Republican senatorial aide explains, "Once you get it in the code, it is really, really hard to change." Besides, few politicians want to untangle the wonkiness of decades-old tax loopholes. "When you get into the weeds with it, it's tax policy," says Autumn Hanna, an analyst at Taxpayers for Common Sense. "Who's excited and interested in tax policy?"
Industry officials, environmentalists, and reps from both parties say the best shot at curbing the tax breaks is to tackle the entire tax structure. Within the industry, former Shell head John Hofmeister says, the thinking goes like this: "Let's do comprehensive tax reform, and if these incentives disappear during the course of that discussion, okay." Lowering corporate taxes could easily compensate for the loss of the current tax breaks. And if a tax overhaul never gets off the ground, the oil industry will be content with the status quo. As former Exxon CEO Lee Raymond once said, "Presidents come and go; Exxon doesn't come and go."
Texas Hold 'Em
Seven Lone Star State politicians who gave the oil industry full service
Lyndon Johnson: In 1949, Johnson, then a junior senator, accused Federal Power Commission head Leland Olds of being a communist and torpedoed his reconfirmation. Olds' crime: He'd testified against the deregulation of the oil industry. As president, LBJ held off any discussion of tweaking oil subsidies.
Sam Rayburn: The long-serving Democratic speaker of the House blocked any prospective member of the Ways and Means Committee who wanted to trim or eliminate the depletion allowance. He once convinced oilmen to make a large campaign donation by warning them that congressional Republicans would "tear your depletion allowance and intangible-drilling write-offs to pieces."
George H.W. Bush: After President Nixon signaled that he wanted to end oil import quotas, Bush, then a House freshman, met with industry leaders and Treasury Secretary David Kennedy. Kennedy changed Nixon's mind, prompting Bush to write to the secretary: "I was so appreciative of your telling them [the industry reps] how I bled and died for the oil industry. That might kill me off in the Washington Post but it darn sure helps in Houston."
James A. Baker III: As the Reagan White House shot down tax loopholes during the "showdown at Gucci Gulch," Treasury Secretary James Baker drew fire away from the oil industry. The final cuts, the Wall Street Journal's Jeffrey Birnbaum and Alan Murray wrote, were "a very mild swipe, designed only to enable Baker to say publicly that no special interest was spared the tax-reform knife."
Under the dome: LBJ and Rep. Sam Rayburn Bettmann/Corbis
Lloyd Bentsen: The day after he finished crafting the 1986 tax reform bill, then-Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.) got a call from Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen. Bentsen said he and seven senators would block the massive bill unless Packwood kept a special tax break for oil and gas companies. Packwood relented and the bill sailed through.
Joe Barton: Barton, the climate-change-denying representative who famously apologized to BP after the Deepwater Horizon disaster, defended the tax incentives for big oil companies in 2011, arguing that "they'll go out of business" without them.
As crude prices dipped in 1995, the oil industry cried poverty. A sympathetic President Bill Clinton signed the Deep Water Royalty Relief Act, a five-year deal where companies could drill in US waters without paying any royalties. If oil prices rose, royalties would kick in.
Yet the Interior Department didn't include the price trigger on more than 1,000 leases in the Gulf of Mexico. The bungled deals weren't disclosed until several years later. In a series of testy hearings, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) grilled agency lawyers on what went wrong; clerical error was their best answer. The leases amounted to a de facto subsidy of as much as $14.7 billion. In 2007, a federal court in Louisiana challenged Interior's ability to impose price triggers on any deepwater leases signed under the act, potentially depriving the government of $38 billion in future royalties. The Justice Department has appealed, and the case slogs on.
So What About Solyndra?
Yes, renewable energy now gets more federal money than oil and gas. But don't feel bad for the oilmen just yet.
THE SOLYNDRA SCANDAL was just the most recent flare-up in a growing controversy over subsidies for renewable energy, with fossil fuel fans taking aim at taxpayer help for solar and wind startups. "It is not the role of government to pick winners and losers," Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) griped about the failed solar company that left taxpayers on the hook for a $535 million loan.
It's true that the renewable-energy industry currently snags a bigger chunk of the subsidy pie—$7.3 billion a year, compared to $4.8 billion for oil. (Plus, renewables received another $6.2 billion in direct subsidies, research and development funding, loan guarantees, and other help in 2010; fossil fuels got just 2 percent of that.) The difference is that renewables are at the stage where oil was a century ago: a promising yet not fully developed technology that needs a government boost to come to scale. That's what motivated the original tax giveaways to what would become Big Oil.
Oil subsidies haven't gone away as the industry has matured because they are locked into the tax code. However, the more recent incentives for renewables expire every few years, forcing producers to scramble for support on Capitol Hill and injecting uncertainty into the market. Two of the biggest breaks for renewables expire at the end of 2013 and 2016. An investment credit for advanced energy research is capped at $300 million.
And the renewables industry is still playing catch-up. An analysis by DBL Investors found that the early subsidies for oil and gas development dwarfed those given to renewables in the past two decades. Subsidizing promising new sources of energy, the report's authors write, is as "American as apple pie."
What Else Could $4.8 Billion Buy?
THE $4.8 BILLION in tax breaks that go to oil companies annually are a drop in the barrel for them, but it could go a long way toward spurring the clean-energy economy. Some other things we could do with it:
Guarantee loans for renewable-energy projects that could generate $24 billion in private-sector investment and as much as $475 billion in economic activity.
Increase doe spending on developing solar technology by more than 1,500 percent. Increase spending on fuel cell research by 4,500 percent.
Install between 1,200 and 1,600 two-megawatt wind turbines, enough to power 620,000 homes.
Quintuple the Army Corps of Engineers' budget for flood and storm damage reduction and shore protection—needed to cope with threats from climate change.
Your Taxes Funded the Fracking Boom
A North Dakota oil rig Associated Press
Not all oil subsidies date back to the early years of the 20th century. The industry is also reaping massive benefits from the federal money that set off the explosion of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, the controversial technology used to squeeze gas and oil from shale deposits.
In the 1970s, Presidents Nixon and Ford launched an urgent effort to boost domestic oil and gas production. In 1977, the Department of Energy oversaw the first large-scale demonstration of hydraulic fracturing to produce shale gas; it also funded the development of new drilling techniques for reaching these previously hard-to-tap deposits. According to an investigation by the Breakthrough Institute, over the next two decades the feds spent $137 million on key research that led to the $283-billion-a-year gas boom. Thanks to this taxpayer-backed investment, notes the group, "shale gas went from inaccessible deposits locked in unfamiliar geologic formations to the fastest growing contributor to the nation's energy portfolio."
"As far as shale is concerned, I don't know that industry would ever have taken a look at it without the federal program," Alex Crawley, former associate director for research at the National Petroleum Technology Office, told Breakthrough. It didn't happen overnight, explained Terry Engelder, a Penn State University geosciences professor and an expert on shale gas. "This really took 20 to 30 to 40 years before it really worked. In terms of solar, it's going to be the same."
Capping the Well
What would happen if the oil industry's subsidies dried up?
If tax breaks for oil companies were cut off, the industry and its allies warn, gas prices would soar, domestic oil production would tank, and the entire economy would take a hit. When Democrats targeted the subsidies for oil in 2011, Continental Resources CEO and Mitt Romney megadonor Harold Hamm said it would kill "thousands of American jobs." Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell declared, "Raising taxes on American energy production will increase the price of gas. Oh, and it would also make us even more dependent on foreign sources of oil."
The data suggests otherwise. Research by economist Stephen Brown found that the average American consumer would spend an extra 60 cents a year on petroleum products if Congress eliminated the oil industry's main tax perks. Even an American Petroleum Institute tax expert has said that ending tax breaks "would not affect the global economics underpinning oil supply and demand, which explain today's gasoline prices." Alan Krueger, the Treasury Department's chief economist, told Congress in 2009 that cutting oil and gas subsidies would shrink domestic production by less than 0.5 percent and wouldn't significantly change how much we import. The oil companies' costs would increase 2 percent and some jobs would be lost, but the industry would be more efficient in the long run.
And there's an added benefit from killing aid to oil companies: protecting the planet. According to the International Energy Agency, governments worldwide spent $523 billion subsidizing fossil fuel consumption in 2011. Ending that spending would cut global CO2 emissions nearly 6 percent by 2035. And it would free up money for addressing the environmental costs of fossil fuels, mitigate the effects of climate change, and remove what the IEA calls a "hand brake" slowing the development of clean energy.
When Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-N.Y.) signed his new $140 billion budget into law last week, he hailed it as a "grand slam." For New York State's ethics reformers and good government groups, however, the budget was an epic flop. And now one national pro-reform group is planning to hammer Cuomo on the airwaves for failing to make good on his pledge to overhaul the state's cash-fueled, noxious brand of politics.
The new ad—paid for by the Public Campaign Action Fund, a non-profit funded by individuals, labor unions, and foundations—blasts Cuomo for signing a budget that doesn't include a so-called fair elections system for all statewide races. (The budget instead features a pilot program that half-heartedly applies the fair elections model to only this year's state comptroller race.) The ad also hits Cuomo for eliminating a commission—created by the governor just last year—devoted to rooting out corruption in state government. Public Campaign Action Fund has bought nearly $300,000 worth of airtime to run the ad, starting Saturday, for nine days in the Syracuse and Buffalo media markets.
The ad's narrator says:
When Governor Cuomo introduced his ethics and reform plan, it was going to clean up Albany. But he let the rule limiting campaign contributions get cut. Then the commission that was supposed to investigate corruption in state government got cut. And the promise to reduce the influence of big money in all state races? All cut, except for one office. And now the governor says he’s proud of what’s been achieved? Gov. Cuomo, get back to work and deliver the reform you promised.
Reform groups had pressed especially hard this year for Cuomo and the New York State legislature to overhaul how state elections are funded by implementing so-called fair elections, a campaign funding system that rewards candidates who accept lots of small donations by matching those donations with public money. This type of system is already used in New York City, where it helped progressive Bill de Blasio become mayor.
Last week, Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, hailed the Supreme Court's recent decision in McCutcheon vs. FEC, which eliminated the cap on the number of contributions a donor can make to candidates, parties, and political action committees. Of course he would: The cash-starved parties now stand to rake in bag-loads more cash than they did before the decision.
But Priebus wants to go further. On Hugh Hewitt's radio show Tuesday, Priebus called for eliminatingall limits on campaign contributions. All of 'em. The $2,600 limit on candidate donations, the $5,000 limit on PAC donations, the $32,400 limit on party committee donations, and so on. "I don't think we should have caps at all," he said.
Priebus says he wants the RNC to get behind any effort to demolish those limits, just as it joined Alabama businessman Shaun McCutcheon in his recent legal fight. "Absolutely, I would" look to get the RNC involved in future deregulation lawsuits, Priebus said. "And I would look to cases that allow us to raise soft money, and I would look to cases that allow us to raise money for the conventions, and—but disclose it all. That's kind of where I'm at personally."
If Priebus gets his way—and don't forget, he already has one major ally; Justice Clarence Thomas, in his separate opinion in McCutcheon, called for gutting all donation limits—we're looking at a pure free-for-all when it comes to money in politics. Casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who gave nearly $93 million to outside groups during the 2012 campaign, or movie mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg, who gave and raised more than $30 million to reelect President Obama, wouldn't need outside groups like super-PACs. Hell, they wouldn't need political parties. They could donate $1 million, or $10 million, or $100 million directly to their candidate of choice.
Priebus might even go further. In the wake of Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich's ouster over his $1,000 donation to an anti-marriage equality ballot proposal, the RNC chairman suggested he was losing interest in disclosure laws, too. "Even [campaign finance laws] that I want to agree with are getting to be very difficult," he told Hewitt.
No limits, (maybe) no disclosure: If Priebus gets his way, this is the shadowy, cash-drenched future of American politics.