Nick Baumann

Nick Baumann

Senior Editor

Nick is based in our DC bureau, where he covers national politics and civil liberties issues. Nick has also written for The Economist, The Atlantic, the Washington Monthly, and Commonweal. Email tips and insights to nbaumann [at] motherjones [dot] com. You can also follow him on Facebook.

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ACLU Sues for Torture Memos Report

| Fri Jan. 22, 2010 4:25 PM EST

Remember in June, when I told you the Justice Department Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) report on the authors of the "torture memos" was due out soon? It was going to be released in "a matter of weeks," Attorney General Eric Holder told a Senate committee. Then, in November, Holder told another Senate panel that the report would come out "by the end of the month." While, it's January now, and the OPR report is nowhere to be found. The American Civil Liberties Union is tired of waiting, so today it filed a lawsuit seeking to compel the release of the report. Maybe that will finally get the Justice Department to keep its promises. Don't count on it, though.

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Blame Bush for Citizens United

| Fri Jan. 22, 2010 3:44 PM EST

Mark McKinnon | Flickr/Tulane Public Relations (Creative Commons).Mark McKinnon | Flickr/Tulane Public Relations (Creative Commons).Many independent voters and some Republicans seem to agree with most liberals that the Supreme Court's decision to flood elections with corporate money was, quite simply, insane. One of those Republicans is Mark McKinnon, the political operative who did media strategy for George W. Bush and John McCain. McKinnon is on the board of Change Congress, law professor Larry Lessig's aggressive campaign finance reform organization, and he clearly buys Lessig's argument that campaign finance restrictions are good for small-government conservatives. (Short version: Lessig and McKinnon argue that big corporations and interest groups use campaign donations to expand government to benefit themselves.)

The problem, however, is that the Supreme Court's conservatives wouldn't have had the majority they needed to push through this decision if it weren't for Samuel Alito and John Roberts. George W. Bush appointed them, and Mark McKinnon, of course, worked to elect George W. Bush. So I asked McKinnon if he felt partially responsible for the decision he calls "outrageous." The answer: not really. "I didn't agree with President Bush on a lot of things but I supported him for President, did so without reservation, and have no regrets about that," McKinnon said. "I disagree with this decision, I disagree with the notion that corporations need a first amendment vote, and I've always expressed my disagreements with my Republican community and that's why I'm doing so today."

When I asked McKinnon whether he would have preferred for Bush to appoint justices who would have made a different decision on this case, he said that he would have "preferred a different outcome," but that he "didn't get to make those decisions, the president did."

That's all well and good, and it's nice that McKinnon is supporting Change Congress. But it's worth remembering (especially if you're an independent voter disgusted by the decision) that this ruling is the result of Republican rule and conservative Supreme Court appointments.

With very few exceptions, the modern GOP has always been opposed to campaign finance restrictions. That's despite the obvious fact that regulations and the tax code would be simpler, and handouts to government favorites rarer, if members of Congress weren't so dependent on campaign donations.

One of the precedents the Supreme Court gutted (well, contradicted the spirit of) on Thursday was McConnell v. FEC, brought by the current Republican leader in the Senate. Mitch McConnell sued the Federal Election Commission in 2002 claiming that campaign finance laws were, in the words of our own Stephanie Mencimer, "a violation of his First Amendment right to take gobs of corporate money to get elected." McConnell was at the Court again on Thursday to celebrate his ultimate victory.

SCOTUS: Foreign Corporations Have Rights, Too!

| Fri Jan. 22, 2010 1:51 PM EST

Politico's Josh Gerstein has a great story today pointing out that, in the wake of yesterday's Supreme Court decision allowing corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money on elections, there's really nothing to stop foreign companies from supporting or opposing US candidates. It would be as easy as setting up a US subsidiary and having the subsidiary spend the money. Some of Gerstein's sources argue that foreign corporations would be reluctant to interfere in US politics because it could bring bad press. But that doesn't seem like much of a deterrent to the worst corporations. Do foreign corporations like Gazprom that are largely state-owned really care what the US press writes about them? Law professor Mark Kleiman has more

One aspect of the ruling that hasn’t gathered much attention: as far as I can tell, the analysis doesn’t distinguish between domestic and foreign corporations.  Not that it would matter much, since a foreign corporation can always establish a domestic subsidiary, or buy an American company:   Cities Service, for example, is a unit of PDVSA, the Venezuelan state oil company.  So the ruling allows Hugo Chavez to spend as much money as he wants to helping and harming American politicians.   If the Russian, Saudi, and Chinese governments don’t currently have appropriate vehicles for doing so, you can count on it:  they soon will.

Nor is this a problem that can be handled by "disclosure."  The ad on TV praising the opponent of the congressman who did something to annoy Hugo Chavez won’t say "Paid for by Hugo Chavez."  It will say "Paid for by Citizens for Truth, Justice, and the American Way," which in turn will have gotten a contribution from "Americans for Niceness," which in turn will have gotten a contribution from a lobbyist for a subsidiary of Cities Service that no one has ever heard of.

This week just keeps getting better.

What If You Were Indefinitely Detained?

| Fri Jan. 22, 2010 1:50 PM EST

Flickr/localsurfer (Creative Commons).Flickr/localsurfer (Creative Commons).The Obama administration has officially decided that it will continue to detain around 50 terrorist suspects without trial. And if the administration is taking this position with respect to people who have already been held for as long as eight years, "they will almost certainly take the same position with respect to people picked up in the future," says Jameel Jaffer, the director of the ACLU's National Security Project.

Pretty much everyone agrees with the idea that real terrorists should be in jail. The problem is that the government sometimes makes mistakes about who is a terrorist, or who committed terrorist acts. It's made them before, and it will make them again. The Obama administration is just as capable as the Bush administration was of mistakenly imprisoning an Afghani goatherder or two dope-smoking tourists.

Thanks to the Supreme Court, these folks can now challenge their detention by filing a habeas corpus petition in federal court. But as Glenn Greenwald explains, "mere habeas corpus review does not come close to a real trial, which the Bill of Rights guarantees to all "persons" (not only 'Americans') before the State can keep them locked in a cage." Shouldn't the government have to have evidence before it can imprison someone forever? So the problem the Obama administration now faces is, as Jaffer says, "wanting to close Guantanamo without ending the policies"—namely indefinite detention without trial—"that Gitmo represents." That's a "purely cosmetic change," Jaffer says. And as Spencer Ackerman demonstrates in his excellent one-act play, "Indefinite Detention Of The Soul," there's simply no reason for Democratic senators to support moving Gitmo if the change is purely cosmetic.

Grayson: Court's Campaign Finance Decision "Worst Since Dred Scott"

| Fri Jan. 22, 2010 8:00 AM EST

Alan Grayson, the first-term Democratic congressman from central Florida, really didn't like Thursday's Supreme Court decision legalizing unlimited corporate spending in election campaigns. "It's the worst Supreme Court decision since the Dred Scott case," he told me last night. In Dred Scott, Grayson explained, the Supreme Court decided that neither slaves nor the children of slaves could ever be US citizens. In Citizens United v. FEC, decided Thursday, the Supreme Court ruled "that only huge corporations have any constitutional rights," Grayson said. "They have the right to bribe, the right to buy elections, the right to reward their elected toadies, and the right to punish the elected representatives who take a stab at doing what's right."

I wrote a profile of Grayson for the most recent issue of Mother Jones. You can read the whole thing here.

Like independent campaign finance reform groups, Grayson saw this decision coming. Last week, he filed five bills that he hopes will help counteract the effects of the Court's decision. On Wednesday night, he launched a website, savedemocracy.net, to rally support for these measures. On Thursday morning, he delivered over 10,000 signatures from a web-based petition to the Supreme Court. After the court issued its decision, he introduced a sixth campaign finance reform bill.

The Court's decision creates serious problems for the Fair Elections Now Act (FENA), a bill that Grayson co-sponsored that would institute publicly financed elections. "The funding from FENA is a drop in the bucket compared to what the oil companies might spend to defeat representatives who don't want to drill everywhere," Grayson warned. "It's a drop in the bucket compared to what Wall Street's prepared to spend to reward those who vote for bailouts and punish those who won't." The Supreme Court has "created a whole new problem.... that really isn't addressed by that bill," Grayson said, while emphasizing that he still supported FENA because it is "a step in the right direction, but not sufficient."

Via Grayson's website, here are the six bills "and what they aim to accomplish,":

  1. The Business Should Mind Its Own Business Act (H.R. 4431): Implements a 500% excise tax on corporate contributions to political committees, and on corporate expenditures on political advocacy campaigns.
  2. The Public Company Responsibility Act (H.R. 4435): Prevents companies making political contributions and expenditures from trading their stock on national exchanges.
  3. The End Political Kickbacks Act (H.R. 4434): Prevents for-profit corporations that receive money from the government from making political contributions, and limits the amount that employees of those companies can contribute.
  4. The Corporate Propaganda Sunshine Act (H.R. 4432): Requires publicly-traded companies to disclose in SEC filings money used for the purpose of influencing public opinion, rather than to promoting their products and services.
  5. The Ending Corporate Collusion Act (H.R. 4433): Applies antitrust law to industry PACs.
  6. The End the Hijacking of Shareholder Funds Act (H.R. 4487): This bill requires the approval of a majority of a public company’s shareholders for any expenditure by that company to influence public opinion on matters not related to the company’s products or services.

The fifth measure has already gained the support of Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), the chair of the House Judiciary committee, Grayson said. Grayson hopes the committee might hold a hearing on that bill sometime in the next 30 days. Grayson circulated his proposals among his colleagues on Thursday.  He has a decent record with winning support for populist ideas— last year he signed up over 100 cosponsors for Texas Republican Ron Paul's bill to audit the Federal Reserve.

Still, what Grayson could really use is the support of President Barack Obama, who has slammed the Supreme Court decision and promised a "forceful" legislative response. Grayson's bills would certainly qualify. The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder has reported that the White House and other Hill Democrats are seriously considering three options for responding to the decision, including one that bears a resemblance to Grayson's sixth bill—requiring shareholders to approve of independent political expenditures. When we spoke, Grayson also voiced support to another idea Ambinder says is under consideration—a "Stand by Your Ad" requirement. As Ambinder describes it, "The head of an insurance company would be forced to say, 'I'm Honus Wagner, the CEO of Acme, and I stand by this ad.'" Grayson emphasized that such a move would be consistent with the Supreme Court's decision today, which explicitly allowed Congress to pass tough disclosure requirements.

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