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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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.

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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.

Who is Obama?

| Thu Jan. 21, 2010 4:27 PM EST

White House photo/Pete Souza (Government Work).White House photo/Pete Souza (Government Work).Liberals are as depressed right now as they've ever been. A Republican will fill out the remainder of Ted Kennedy's term in the Senate. Health care reform is on the brink of collapse. The Supreme Court has decided to allow corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money on election advertising. And President Obama is on the verge of losing Paul Krugman, who is disappointed that the White House isn't pushing Congress to forge ahead on health care reform:

I’m pretty close to giving up on Mr. Obama, who seems determined to confirm every doubt I and others ever had about whether he was ready to fight for what his supporters believed in.

Andrew Sullivan disagrees:

Let this process play out. Let Obama use SOTU to argue that nothing is not an option and if the Republicans prove they really do want nothing, then the argument for passing the Senate [health care] bill gets stronger. But doing this now, greeting public anxiety with contempt, would be dreadful politics.

It would destroy Obama's commitment to open dialogue and respect for the process, which has already been battered by some of the necessary sausage making to get a final deal. It would make Obama look like a brutally partisan president. That would break Obama's presidency.

Kevin says that's wrong:

Obama is already a brutally partisan president. He just doesn't seem to know it. But it only takes one side to make politics into a partisan slugfest, and at this point the only credible response is to slug back.... We either pass [health care reform] now or else wait another 15 years. It's time for Obama to buck up and show us what he's made of.

While a week seems like a lifetime in politics, it's really only a week. The State of the Union is on Wednesday. Obama will have the stage to himself. What he says will set the tone for the rest of this Congress—and what happens during the rest of this Congress will set the tone for the November elections, which will determine how the rest of Obama's first (and perhaps only) term plays out.

It's been a year since the inauguration, and Obama remains an enigma. No one really knows what to expect from him next week. What will he say? Will he break type and take the fight to the Republicans—perhaps by tying them to Bush in a way he has so far refused to do? Will he continue to reach out a hand to the GOP, even though his overtures have been slapped down time and time again? How will he lead his own party? What will he say about health care reform?

It definitely seems that big strategy changes are afoot in the White House—today's embrace of tougher bank regulations—pushed by Paul Volcker, the former fed chair and current Economic Recovery Advisory Board chief—is one signal of that.

But perhaps even more interesting was the White House's response to the Supreme Court's decision Thursday morning to strike down legal barriers on corporate spending in elections. Obama's statement was unusually direct, promising to "get to work immediately with Congress on this issue" to develop a "forceful" response. The standard political assumption, of course, is that voters don't care about "process issues" like campaign finance. But in the wake of the bank bailouts, with Congress appearing more beholden to big business than ever, that assumption might be wrong.

Congress is incredibly unpopular, and reforming election laws could be spun as taking on Congress—and Washington's "culture of corruption." The White House has so far avoided blaming Congress for much because they were trying to pass health care. "Politically, that's been like having Bernie Madoff in the cabinet," one White House aide told Time. Pushing for tougher disclosure laws, or even publicly funded elections, could be a smart bet for the White House right now. John McCain animated independent voters with his "straight talk" about campaign finance issues during his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000. If anyone could get people to care about those issues again, it's Barack Obama. But if he doesn't have the stomach to fight for the health care bill, how will he push for election reform?

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