Andy Kroll

Andy Kroll

Senior Reporter

Andy Kroll is Mother Jones' Dark Money reporter. He is based in the DC bureau. His work has also appeared at the Wall Street Journal, the Detroit News, the Guardian, the American Prospect, and TomDispatch.com, where he's an associate editor. Email him at akroll (at) motherjones (dot) com. He tweets at @AndrewKroll.

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The Senate Avoids the Nuclear Option—and Saves the Filibuster

| Tue Jul. 16, 2013 9:21 AM PDT

The US Senate doesn't appear to be going "nuclear," after all.

On Tuesday morning, senators were close to a deal, brokered in part by Republican John McCain of Arizona, to prevent Majority Leader Harry Reid from changing the rules of the Senate with a simple majority vote—a tactic called the nuclear option. For years, Reid has been frustrated by Senate Republicans, who have used filibusters to block votes on 16 of President Barack Obama's nominees for executive-branch positions. (Only 20 executive-branch nominees were filibustered under all previous presidents combined.) Unless Republicans allowed votes on Tuesday on a handful of key nominees, Reid threatened to use the nuclear option to change Senate rules so that nominees could be approved with just 51 votes instead a filibuster-proof 60.

But it looks like there will be no nuclear option. Instead, Senate Republicans say they'll drop their opposition and allow votes on five nominees, including Richard Cordray to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), Tom Perez to the Department of Labor, Gina McCarthy to the Environmental Protection Agency, Fred Hochberg to the Export-Import Bank, and current National Labor Relations Board chairman Mark Gaston Pearce. In exchange, Obama will toss out two other NLRB nominees, Richard Griffin and Sharon Block, and replace them with two new people. Labor unions will reportedly get a say on who Obama nominates.

On the status of deal, Reid said at noon on Tuesday: "We have a few little Is to dot and Ts to cross. Everything's doing well."

The Senate's compromise comes after days of brinkmanship, nasty rhetoric, and intense talks between Democrats and Republicans. On Monday night, all 100 members of the Senate met in the Old Senate Chamber to hash out some sort of deal to avoid using the nuclear option. No specific deal was reached then, but those talks appeared to have laid the groundwork for Tuesday's compromise. "I hope that everyone learned the lesson last night: that it sure helps to sit down and talk to each other," Reid said on Tuesday.

This is not the first time senators have threatened to go nuclear. In 2005, a group of 14 senators cut a deal to vote on several of President George W. Bush's judicial nominees after the GOP leadership threatened to use the nuclear option.

In an appearance at the left-leaning Center for American Progress think tank Monday, Reid chalked up the GOP obstruction to wanting to gum up the government while also undercutting agencies like the NLRB and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. "We have a situation where Republicans have created gridlock, gridlock, gridlock," he said. "And it has consequences. It's not only bad for President Obama; it's bad for the country. The status quo won't work."

With a compromise in the works, the Senate moved ahead to vote on the Obama administration's nominees. The Senate voted 71 to 29 to allow a full vote to confirm Richard Cordray, whom Obama nominated to run the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau during a recess period two years ago. That's a good sign that Cordray's nomination will be approved. It's also a tough vote for Senate Republicans, 43 of whom pledged to block any nomination—including Cordray's—to run the CFPB because they oppose how the CPFB functions.

So where does this leave the Senate? Reid may have backed down from using the nuclear option this time, but there's nothing stopping him from threatening to use it again. And if—really, when—Republicans retake control of the Senate, they can threaten to use it, too. As Ezra Klein at the Washington Post explains, "This will be the new normal."

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Alison Lundergan Grimes: I Need $26-30 Million to Beat Mitch McConnell

| Mon Jul. 15, 2013 8:58 AM PDT
Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes announces she will seek the Democratic nomination to challenge Sen. Mitch McConnell in 2014, during an afternoon news conference in Frankfort, Kentucky, July 1, 2013.

Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Kentucky Democrat who is challenging Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in next year's election, is wasting no time beating the bushes for campaign cash. On Saturday, she "wowed" attendees at a Democratic Party private fundraising retreat on Martha's Vineyard. She'll need to wow a lot more donors, and fast: McConnell is a master fundraiser, and Grimes will need a whole lot of cash to defeat one of the most powerful Republicans in Congress.

But how much? Between $26 million and $30 million, according to a Democratic strategist who recently spoke with Grimes. Even with Election Day still 17 months away, Grimes has been busy courting DC politicos to raise funds, name-dropping the Clintons in her conversations. Grimes' father, Jerry, a former director of the Kentucky Democratic Party, is friends with Bill Clinton, who reportedly urged Grimes to run against McConnell. (Grimes spokesman Jonathan Hurst did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)

Even by the standards of today's big-money politics, Grimes' $26-30 million target is a staggering sum of money. It's almost three times more than the average winning Senate race in 2012. Only four Senate candidates—Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, David Dewhurst of Texas, and Linda McMahon of Connecticut—raised more than $26 million during the 2012 election season. And Grimes' fundraising goal does not include outside groups—super-PACs, dark-money nonprofits, etc. Depending on how competitive the Kentucky race is, tens of millions more in outside money could pour in. 

Grimes' impressive showing at the Martha's Vineyard event could help donors and party loyalists forget her campaign's rocky start. Her kick-off event started half an hour late, with no banner or signs even mentioning the US Senate. Instead, an "Alison Lundergan Grimes: Secretary of State" banner hung behind her. A roll of toilet paper propped up one of the microphones she used make her announcement. At the time of her campaign launch, she had no website, no Facebook page, and nowhere for people to donate money.

McConnell, meanwhile, has been in campaign mode since literally the day after the 2012 elections, when he held his first 2014 fundraiser. In the second quarter of 2013, McConnell raised $2.2 million, more than any other Republican running for reelection. His campaign currently has $9.6 million in the bank.

"Super-PACs May Be Bad for America, But They're Very Good for CBS"

| Mon Jul. 8, 2013 7:27 AM PDT
A screenshot of the Priorities USA Action ad "Donnie."

Ask the average American about super-PACs and I'd venture to guess he or she thinks of: those incessant negative political ads during the evening news, something about the Obama-Romney race, or the sheer amount of spending ($7 billion!) during the last election season. (That is, if they even know what a super-PAC is.) For the broadcasting business, though, super-PACs have come to stand for something altogether different: a big, fat payday.

The title of this post refers to something Les Moonves, the CEO of CBS Corporation, said at an entertainment law conference last year. Moonves was understandably over the moon about the rise of super-PACs: In 2012, he explained, the network's profits were expected to soar by $180 million thanks to political ads.

And it's not just CBS that's riding high thanks to political ad spending. TV stations in battleground states are magnets for ad spending, and they're driving a new wave of consolidation in the broadcast industry, leaving a handful of big media companies well-positioned to reap hundreds of millions during the 2014 midterm elections and, especially, the 2016 presidential race. Just in the past month, the Gannett company bought 20 TV stations for $1.5 billion, and the Tribune Company inked a $2.7 billion deal for 19 stations. Those deals included stations in battleground states.

Washington, DC's WJLA, owned by the Allbritton media company, the New York Times notes, which serves both the DC and the northern Virginia markets, banked $33 million in ad spending on campaigns and issues last year. Columbus' WBNS, owned by the Dispatch Broadcast Group, booked $20 million in campaign ad spending out of $50 million in total ad buys. Ad spending was also up at TV stations in Wisconsin and Colorado. Wherever there was a political fight, campaigns and consultants were gobbling up ads. According to the Times, WJLA could by bring in $300 million if the Allbritton media company decided to sell it (which, earlier this year, Allbritton said it planned to do).

So all this political ad spending is making the owners of these stations mighty happy. But someone's getting the shaft, right? Yep: local viewers and businesses. From the Times:

Analysts say the surge in station consolidation this year has also been driven by low interest rates and by an enormous rise in retransmission fees for stations, which are the equivalent of per-subscriber fees for cable channels like ESPN and MTV. Some stations now earn 40 to 50 cents a month from each cable and satellite subscriber.

But those fees currently account for about 10 percent of station revenue, and even if they double in the next five years, as the research firm SNL Kagan predicts, advertising revenue will remain the most important part of the station business. Thus, political advertising is a lifeline, even if the sheer volume of ads sometimes makes viewers want to hurl the remotes at their sets.

"We get complaints from viewers," Michael J. Fiorile, the chief executive of WBNS's owner, the Dispatch Broadcast Group, acknowledged. "The bigger complaints are from regular advertisers who really get pushed off the air."

"Don't get me wrong," he added with a chuckle. "It's a good problem for us to have."

There are a number of worries with the escalation of the TV political ad wars and the broadcast industry's consolidation. For starters, it's far less likely that TV stations will fact-check super-PAC ads, let alone yank misleading ads off the air, which political analyst Kathleen Hall Jamieson is trying to do with her FlackCheck.org project. (By law, TV stations can't censor candidates' ads, but they can vet and reject those of outside groups.) After all, super-PACs and dark-money nonprofits are a cash cow for broadcasters. Why bite the hand that feeds? When the public interest group Free Press analyzed political ads and newscast stories in six TV markets in battleground states, it found "a near-complete station blackout on local reporting about the political ads they aired."

The consolidation of the TV industry, meanwhile, can result in less local reporting and more shared content between various stations. And the decline in original, local reporting could worsen with more consolidation expected this year. "With the consolidation of ownership there's generally a decline in the quality in local news," Free Press' Tim Karr told the Columbia Journalism Review in May. "It is directly related to the staffing of local newsrooms."

Even Republicans Admit It: Politics Did Not Drive the IRS Tea Party "Scandal"

| Fri Jul. 5, 2013 9:20 AM PDT
Tea party members protest in front of the John Weld Peck Federal Building in Cincinnati, Ohio, during a nationwide protest at IRS offices on May 21, 2013.

With each passing week, the Internal Revenue Service's supposed targeting of tea party groups looks less like a scandal and more like a case of IRS staffers doing their jobs, albeit in an overzealous, at times clumsy, and narrow-minded way.

From the New York Times we now learn that IRS employees who vetted applications for tax-exempt status heavily scrutinized a Palestinian rights group, open-source software developers, and an organization trying to help musicians make money online. This comes on top of the news, as Mother Jones previously reported, that the agency also singled out for extra vetting groups with "progressive, "occupy," and "Israel" in their name.

That sound you hear is the last gasp of the tea party targeting "scandal," which some Republicans have tried mightily to hype into a Watergate-esque controversy. Make no mistake: As the agency subjected tea partiers and other conservative groups to an intense amount of scrutiny, it made those same groups wait for months, if not years, to learn whether they'd earned tax-exempt status. This is a big deal. Waiting around that long crimps the flow of donations that a nonprofit needs to survive. Tea partiers are right to be mad about that. But what the drip-drip of revelations in the IRS mess has shown is that it's not fair to say just tea partiers were singled out. Other nonprofits, partisan and nonpartisan, left- and right-leaning, politically inclined and not, got a grilling by the IRS, too. They also endured long wait times.

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