Lawrence Lessig's Curious Candidacy for Campaign-Finance Reform

Last night, The New York Times reported that prominent campaign-finance reformer Lawrence Lessig is considering a Democratic run for president.

His civic-minded platform is simple, and his plan is rather curious. If he can raise $1 million in small donations by Labor Day, Lessig will run for president with the sole purpose of passing legislation—the Citizen Equality Act of 2017—that would make Election Day a national holiday, end gerrymandering, and institute a robust public campaign-finance system based on vouchers and matching funds. If elected, Lessig says he will resign after passing the act.

Lessig is comparing his candidacy to that of Eugene McCarthy in 1968, who ran a single-issue campaign against the Vietnam War because he feared the Democratic Party wasn’t making it a prominent part of its platform.

The most prominent Democratic contenders—Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Martin O’Malley—have all pledged their support of overturning the Citizens United decision. Last week, Sanders took it a step further and introduced legislation that would expand the public campaign-finance system to all federal elections.

Clinton and O’Malley have both voiced support for public campaign finance but have not come out with any sort of particular policy or plan.

Lessig is the former head of the Mayday PAC, a super PAC to end super PACs that support candidates who are committed to reforming campaign finance. The group’s efforts in 2014 were largely unsuccessful. A couple weeks ago, I spoke to Lessig’s replacement, Zephyr Teachout, about the presidential race and she made it clear that paying lip service on finance reform isn’t enough.

“[I]f you are silent on private financing in elections and aren’t actively supporting some model of public financing, that’s a problem—you’re a pro-corruption candidate,” Teachout said.

It’s interesting to note that Lessig has already targeted his most pointed critiques to Sanders’s candidacy, whose policies and supporters are most comparable to Lessig’s.

In an interview with Bloomberg’s Emily Greenhouse, Lessig articulated exactly why he thinks he is a better candidate than the Vermont senator:

“Bernie is pushing a different equality. Bernie is talking about wealth equality, economic equality. And while personally I agree with much of what he says about the incredible harm that’s been done by the incredible inequality that’s been produced, the reality is: America is not united around the idea of wealth equality the way America is united around the idea of equality among citizens. So what I’m pushing is a big idea that I think could actually unite America—and what Bernie is pushing is a big idea that, while many of us in the progressive part of the Democratic Party love it, all of America does not love.”

That’s a bold assertion to make, and he places a lot of faith in the saliency of such wonky, unsexy issues like public campaign finance and gerrymandering. But if he ends up running, it will be worth seeing what kind of impact Lessig has on Sanders’s surging momentum—and whether Hillary Clinton’s campaign will even acknowledge his existence. 

The CEO Lobby Is Mad About the SEC's Pay Ratio Rule

When Congress passed Dodd-Frank in 2010, the most substantial piece of Wall Street reform in years, it included a provision that required most publicly traded companies to disclose the compensation ratio between its CEO and its average worker—a symbolic measure that Democrats included as a way to shine light on income inequality. 

Last week (more than five years later), the SEC finally approved, along party lines, a rule that requires such disclosure. As a way increasing transparency over exorbitant executive compensation and allowing for more informed, socially-responsible investment, most publicly traded companies will now be forced to show in simple terms how many hundreds of times more its top executive is paid than its employees.

As research from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) has shown, it will likely not be a favorable number for most corporations. In 1965, the average CEO-worker pay ratio was 20 to 1. In 2014, it was 303 to 1. The average compensation for a CEO in 2014 was $16.3 million.

The SEC rule’s passage is being lauded as a big win for financial reform advocates like Elizabeth Warren, who consistently berated the commission for taking so long to pass the mandated rule. But Republicans and the CEO lobby are feeling a little victimized and upset. A Republican SEC Commissioner, Daniel Gallagher, quipped, “To steal a line from Justice Scalia: This is pure applesauce.”

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has dubbed it a “name-and-shame tactic,” saying in a statement: “Congress added this disclosure to Dodd-Frank as a favor to union lobbyists who misguidedly think it will help their organizing efforts. When disclosure is used to advance special interest agendas rather than provide investors with better information, it is a step in the wrong direction.”

While the SEC has said it will cost companies a measly $73 million to comply, the Chamber of Commerce contends that the costs will be an “egregious” $700 million a year.

“It’s cost without a purpose,” John Engler, president of the Business Roundtable, a Washington association of CEOs, told The Los Angeles Times.

No doubt, the powerful business lobby will continue to sound the hyperbolic alarms, claiming what seems like some pretty basic arithmetic amounts to a costly and burdensome government regulation that will stoke the class-warfare fire and force CEOs to spend their hard-earned income on anti-pitchfork insurance.

But maybe it’s a good thing that big business is a little uneasy about making public just how large its pay disparities are. While transparency doesn’t always lead to change, there are those who are optimistic that the new rule will have a real impact.

“I used to think this was symbolic,” Larry Mishel, president of the EPI, told The Los Angeles Times. “But the fact is, the pay of people in publicly held companies drives the executive pay market—for people in privately held firms, for universities, for hospitals.” 

Bernie Knows Repealing Citizens United Isn’t Enough. Does Anyone Else?

Earlier this week, Vermont Senator and Democratic presidential contender Bernie Sanders announced that he will introduce legislation that will create a robust public campaign-finance system in an attempt to beat back the unhinged influence of big money in the U.S. electoral system.

“The need for real campaign finance reform is not a progressive issue. It is not a conservative issue. It is an American issue,” Sanders said on the Senate floor. “Let us be frank, let us be honest, the current political campaign finance system is corrupt and amounts to legalized bribery.”

The announcement comes in light of a New York Times blockbuster report that as of June, roughly 130 families and their businesses are responsible for more than half of all money raised for Republican candidates and their respective super PACs.

“We are talking about a rapid movement in this country toward oligarchy, toward a government owned and controlled by a handful of extremely wealthy families,” Sanders said. 

This new bill will come on top of Sanders’s marquee policy position that calls for a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. He also recently pledged that, if elected president, he would only appoint Supreme Court justices who are committed to overturning the decision.

Still, despite grassroots support for a constitutional amendment, such a route remains more of a political pipedream than reality. Sanders’s new call for a public campaign-finance system is reflective of a shifting strategy within reform circles—one that emphasizes not only a repeal of Citizens United, but also gives imperative to changing the funding mechanisms of elections.

“What that means in terms of electoral races is that we’re not going to let any candidates get away with saying that they’re pro-reform unless they’re talking about public financing,” campaign-finance reform advocate Zephyr Teachout told me in an interview last week. “They cannot, like Hillary Clinton, talk about a constitutional amendment and not talk about the most obvious and easiest thing to do, which is switch to a public-financing model. You’re not an anti-corruption candidate if you’re not talking about public financing.”

The thinking is that even if Citizens is repealed, it would only be going back to the campaign-finance world of 2009—hardly a democratic utopia. By instituting a robust public-finance system, small donors’ concerns would be amplified through matching funds and the reliance on mega-donors would be minimized.

So while Sanders makes it clear he understands that campaign finance reform isn’t one-dimensional problem, has anyone else?

Most Republicans have remained mute on the subject of campaign-finance reform and it’s rather unthinkable to imagine a conservative supporting the use of public money to fund campaigns—Mitch McConnell has likened it to “welfare for politicians.”

And while the current Democratic frontrunner, Hillary Clinton, supports the overturning of Citizens United, she’s refrained from articulating a position on public campaign finance. 

Former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley is in favor of overturning Citizens United, and has voiced support of public campaign finance—though he’s yet to come forward with a formal proposal. “I think a lot of cities are moving to publically financed campaigns and as more cities successfully do that, it’d be nice to see that kind of bubble up,” O’Malley said at a New Hampshire campaign visit in March. “I haven’t advanced a proposal on this; I’d certainly be open to it.”

Other public campaign-finance bills have been recently introduced in the House, but so far to no avail. So while the feasibility of Sanders’s getting any kind of similar bill pushed through a Republican Senate is unlikely, he is bolstering his surprising campaign surge by acknowledging what most in the campaign-finance-reform world have been saying for some time now: Repeal doesn’t mean much if there’s no public financing that goes with it.

A Toast to John Kasich, the GOP Debate's Token "Moderate"

Tonight, 17 Republican presidential candidates will take the stage in Cleveland in an attempt to differentiate themselves from the competition, or, if all else fails, offer entertainment during a highly anticipated primetime event. Public health officials are even warning viewers of the danger of playing drinking games while watching such predictably unpredictable candidates as front-runner (!) Donald Trump.

The decision to host the GOP debates and convention in the blue, working-class, and majority–African American city may be jarring to some liberals, though the swing-state location makes perfect sense. So goes Ohio, so goes the nation, as the saying goes. But as noted in a well-timed report released Wednesday by the Center for American Progress, so goes the state’s middle class.

According to the CAP report, titled “Ohio’s Struggling Middle Class,” the state’s median household income in 2013 is lower than it was in 1984, and below the national average. At the same time, income inequality has widened between the top 20 percent of earners and the bottom 20 percent.

I doubt bringing up the report will be one of the “doozies” moderator Chris Wallace has planned for tonight, though it would be a particularly good question for Ohio Governor John Kasich, who was recently excused from the 5 p.m. debate and offered a place at the big-kids’ 9 p.m. table with the other nine highest-polling candidates (replacing Rick Perry).

While Kasich has a sort-of home-field advantage at this debate, he’ll have his work cut out for him in increasing his name recognition and convincing primary voters that he’s not as moderate as everyone says. He supports Common Core, oversaw the state’s acceptance of Medicaid expansion under Obamacare, and once said, quite radically, that he believed that helping the poor was a Christian virtue.

Of course, most of those stories about his moderate policies generously leave out Kasich’s devastating support for anti-abortion legislation, from 20-week abortion bans to restrictions on providers. And as the CAP report lays out, the governor’s recent budget slashes, including cuts to education, earn his moderate label the modifier of “relatively.” The Ohio tax system under Kasich has seen a decrease in income tax and increase in sales tax, which effectively means that low-income residents pay a higher share of their income in taxes than the wealthy. And in 2011, Kasich championed a restrictive law that curtailed public-sector workers’ collective-bargaining rights. Later that year, Ohioans overwhelmingly voted to repeal the law, but the decline in union membership in Ohio mirrors the decline in middle-class household income, as it does in the rest of the country.

But with nine other candidates, and one of them being the scene-stealing Donald Trump, it’s unlikely Kasich will have much time to justify those policy decisions at length. Still, get out the whiskey and pour yourself a shot every time he proudly says the word “budget,” “abortion,” or “Ohio.” Just be careful.

NLRB Rules Teach for America Members Have a Right to Unionize

In another interesting development for the movement to unionize charter schools, the National Labor Relations Board ruled last week that Teach for America corps members should have been allowed to vote in a Detroit charter union election earlier this year.

Detroit 90/90, a charter management organization for the University Prep charter network, said that Teach for America teachers shouldn’t be permitted to vote because they are not professional employees. Instead, they argued, TFA members should be viewed as long-term substitute teachers.

Patrick Sheehan, a Detroit TFA-er told MLive that he and his fellow corps members are really pleased with the NLRB’s decision. “U-Prep hired us to teach just like other teachers. Making the legal argument that we are not professionals means one of two things: Either Detroit 90/90 doesn't respect the work we do with students or they lied to prevent us from organizing a union.”

Shaun Richman, the AFT’s deputy director of organizing told The Prospect that University Prep’s argument was an insult to all TFA corps members and alumni around the country. “Nobody would have dared to say that TFA corps members are not really teachers even a year ago,” said Richman. “But now that they want a union, suddenly those kinds of insults are apparently on the table.”

While Teach for America does not officially take a stance on unionization efforts, Takirra Winfield, TFA’s head of national communications, praised the NLRB’s decision. "We’re pleased that the National Labor Relations Board acknowledged that our teachers are professional, qualified educators who are deeply invested in their school communities and are able to make individual choices about their union membership,” she said. “As a TFA network, we know there is tremendous strength in the diversity of perspectives among our talented corps members and alumni as they work to help make certain that every child has access to an excellent education.”

There are roughly 11,000 current TFA teachers and more than 37,000 alumni around the country. About 60 percent of Detroit Teach for America corps members work in charter schools. Nate Walker, AFT-Michigan’s K-12 organizer and policy analyst, was a former Detroit TFA-er himself.

It’s likely that we’ll continue to see more union campaigns launched at charter schools, and more Teach for America members among them. Many TFA-ers are progressive and young, and national surveys find that young Americans are among the country’s most ardent union supporters. According to Pew, fully 55 percent of Americans aged 18 to 29 held a favorable view of unions, while just 29 percent held unfavorable ones.

On Its 50th Anniversary, the Case for Restoring the Voting Rights Act

It’s been 50 years since Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law, guaranteeing blacks the right to vote after decades of disenfranchisement. The landmark legislation came at a crucial time in American history; the civil rights movement was in full swing and progress was slowly being made. But in 2015, voting rights are again under an unprecedented assault.

In 2013, the Supreme Court ruled that the section of the VRA requiring that certain states with a history of voter discrimination seek preclearance with the federal government before making changes to their voting laws, is no longer necessary.

Tomorrow is the 50th anniversary of the law and Democrats are commemorating it by advocating for its renewal. The Obama administration is trying to make progress on voting rights and has been discussing strategies on how to move forward with legislators. On Thursday, the president will participate in a video teleconference with citizens to speak about the importance of restoring the law. Congressman John Lewis, who marched for voting rights in his youth and was present at the signing of the law, will join Obama, Attorney General Loretta Lynch and other voting rights advocates in calling for a restoration of the VRA in the wake of an unparalleled assault on the right to vote in recent years.

Since 2010, 22 states have made it harder to vote. In 2015, 113 bills that would restrict voting access have been introduced or carried over from last legislative session in 33 states. Next year, the presidential election will take place with 15 states enforcing stricter rules than they did during the 2012 election.

In Texas, strict laws about IDs—accepting concealed carry permits but not state-issued college IDs—have made it harder for college students (who vote for Democrats in droves) to vote. Reducing the amount of early voting days and a ban on same-day registration effectively disenfranchised thousands of North Carolinians in 2014.

Democrats have been saying that the onslaught of new voting laws is designed to make it harder for their base—racial minorities, the elderly, and young people—to vote. But Republicans claim that the new laws are intended to fight voter fraud—even though it’s nearly nonexistent.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is considered a turning point in the civil rights movement, signifying change in a country that had long discriminated against blacks. Now, with the 2016 presidential election season under way, Republicans want to erode that hard-won progress.

Will We See More Suburban Opposition to Fair-Housing Rules?

According to a Fair Housing complaint filed last month by the Department of Justice, Palmdale and Lancaster in the northern section of Los Angeles County are the latest satellite cities to be found discriminating against African American Section 8 voucher holders. This comes as disturbing but not unsurprising news as communities of color, particularly in coastal and rust-belt cities, are pushed out of gentrifying urban centers and into increasingly more-affordable suburbs.

Since 2004, according to the DoJ, the Los Angeles County Housing Authority (HACoLA) and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department have colluded on a variety of tactics intended to scare African Americans out of the two Antelope Valley cities, including conducting random armed investigations of African American Section 8 residents, discouraging landlords from accepting Section-8 vouchers, and making statements that fuel local opposition to the influx of African Americans. (There was an “I hate Section 8” Facebook group, which has been taken down.) Los Angeles County’s actions indicate that the days of discriminatory housing practices are far from over.

On July 20, HACoLA agreed to pay $2 million to the hundreds of families who have been harmed by the discriminatory enforcement of the Section-8 voucher program; five families will be reinstated into the voucher program. The settlement also requires reforms to the county’s voucher enforcement patrol procedures, and that the illegal practice of sharing voucher holders’ information with outside parties, such as the sheriff’s department, is discontinued.

While $2 million is a big win for the victims, it’s doubtful that this settlement means the end of discriminatory housing practices in Lancaster and Palmdale. Recent Fair Housing Act cases show that the terms of settlements are hardly ever met or enforced, especially in communities where discrimination denial is prevalent and public officials like Lancaster’s mayor voice opposition to enforcing fair-housing laws.

The coming years will likely see more cases of suburban opposition to fair-housing practices, and not just because of the rising real-estate prices that push low-income residents out of cities. Last month, the Obama administration announced some changes to the “affirmatively further fair housing” rule, which requires jurisdictions to actively work toward dismantling segregated housing patterns. In efforts to provide Section-8 residents with greater opportunity for social mobility, the revamped rule includes a set of new tools for housing-rights activists to lobby for Section 8 housing in high-income and largely white suburbs.

No doubt this announcement is in many ways a big win for fair housing activists. But instances of law enforcement corrupted by white suburban fear and racism may still be a regular occurrence. 

The Gray Lady Agrees: Southern Workers Are Cheaper Than China's

Today’s New York Times features a front-page story on Chinese textile firms opening new factories not in China but in the American South. With the steep rise in the wages of Chinese workers and the stagnation (at best) of the wages of American workers—Southern workers most particularly—and with the higher levels of productivity and lower energy costs that U.S. factories enjoy, it actually is cheaper to manufacture in Dixie than it is in Guandong.

The Times article echoes my piece in the current issue of the Prospect, in which German union leaders on the boards of that nation’s auto and aerospace manufacturers stated that it was cheaper for their companies to operate low-wage assembly plants in the South than it was in China. What the Times piece doesn’t echo is the thesis of my article: that low Southern wages have had the effect of bringing down wage levels across the nation, both in manufacturing and in retail (for which Walmart’s move north, while maintaining Southern wage levels, is largely responsible).

There’s nothing wrong in the Times piece not looking at the macroeconomic consequences of the story it documents; that would entail writing and editing an entirely different article. Where the Times piece fails on its own terms, however, is in omitting any reporting on the wages paid to the workers in the Chinese-owned factory in South Carolina that is the subject of the article. The piece does report that local residents are “desperate for work, even at depressed wages,” but it neglects to specify with a dollar figure just how depressed those wages are. It does cite the national average for manufacturing wages, but that’s an average that runs from, say, skilled operators of sophisticated machinery at Boeing’s plant in Seattle to, it’s probably safe to assume, workers like the employees at the South Carolina textile factory that is the subject of the Times piece.

The article further omits the fact that South Carolina is one of five states never to have passed a minimum-wage statute, or that the rate of unionization there is 2.2 percent—the second-lowest in the nation. It omits the nationwide effects of low Southern manufacturing wages—one of a number of factors that contributed to the 4.4 percent decline in the median U.S. manufacturing wage between 2003 and 2013, and a leading factor in the decline of the hourly wage differential between all Midwestern and Southern workers (not just those in manufacturing) from $7 to $3.34 between 2008 and 2011, according to Moody’s Analytics.

Still, missing the broader implications of its own story is one thing. Missing the key fact of what the workers’ pay is in the very factory the piece reports on is something else—particularly at a moment when the Times is increasingly running stories on the stagnant or declining wage levels of the vast majority of American workers. Don’t the reporter and editors who worked on this otherwise commendable story ever read the Times? 

The Guardian US Will Unionize. Can We Call This a Trend Now?

Staffers at the Guardian US unanimously voted yesterday to unionize with the News Media Guild, The Huffington Post reported. The vote is just the latest in a surge of recent union drives in the digital media world.

Guardian US management voluntarily recognized the union effort, therefore negating the need to go through the formal channels of the NLRB. “We are happy to voluntarily recognize the News Media Guild and look forward to working constructively, in best Guardian tradition, with the Guardian US editorial staff who have voted in favor of collective representation,” a Guardian US spokesperson said in a statement.

A similar agreement was struck between Gawker Media’s editorial staff and management a couple months ago, which was the first of a growing number of organizing drives in digital media in 2015. The progressive website Truthout was the first digital media outlet to unionize back in 2009.  

Earlier this month, Salon’s editorial staff unanimously voted to form a union and asked management to voluntarily recognize its vote—there is still with no word from management, and there’s growing discontent among Salon staffers and its union, Writers Guild of America, East (which also represents Gawker).

Guardian US staffers will join News Media Guild’s 2,000 other digital workers from The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Associated Press, and the Daily Beast.

Labor reporter Mike Elk, who’s been working to spark an organizing drive at his employer, Politico, has also reportedly been working with the News Media Guild. Politico has about 200 editorial staffers and is rapidly expanding its operations.

Yesterday at a union event in Washington, D.C., Elk asked Democratic presidential contender Senator Bernie Sanders if he thought that media owners, including Politico, should agree to card-check neutrality. Sanders answered affirmatively, saying, “I think all workers in whatever area—it’s not just the media—do have a right to form a union without harassment on the part of their employers.”

Other union-drive announcements are likely to crop up in the near future. The WGAE director, Lowell Peterson, has previously told me that a number of digital media outlets are in the organizing pipeline with the union. 

Dems Are Divided on Minimum Wage. But That's Not Bad News

Last week, Bernie Sanders and other leaders of the Congressional Progressive Caucus introduced legislation that would raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2020. The bill is not only the most ambitious wage hike legislation to come from the left, but it’s also indicative of the growing influence that the national Fight for $15 movement exerts over Washington’s political discourse.

Not all Democrats support such a big increase to the nation’s minimum wage. The $15 proposal notably abandons the mainstream party line that was established a couple of months ago when Senator Patty Murray and Representative Robert Scott introduced a bill to raise the federal minimum wage to $12 an hour. Democratic Senate leaders Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer, along with a number of other prominent Democrats, came out in strong support of the hike.

As late as last week, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi had also voiced support for the party line on minimum wage: “With this one act, we could give a raise to more than 25 million working people, lift up to 4.5 million Americans out of poverty and generate some $22 billion in increased economic activity.”

But just yesterday, The Hill reports, Pelosi announced that though it’s not politically possible now, she supports raising the minimum wage to $15. “Twelve dollars may be what can pass, but I’m for $15 per hour,” Pelosi told reporters. Her unexpected move signals the growing populist influence of both the progressive caucus in Congress and the rhetoric surrounding the Fight for $15.

According to The Hill, an economic adviser to Obama said that his current support for a $12 minimum wage is unaltered—though it’s worth noting that throughout his tenure, his minimum wage platform has ballooned from $9, to $10.10, and most recently to $12. As I wrote last week, progressive labor advocates are now pushing Obama to build on his 2014 executive order that raised the minimum wage to $10.10 for federal contract workers and sign a new order that pushes that up to $15.

Hillary Clinton has so far declined to endorse of a national $15 minimum wage, indicating that while she supports such a wage in cities with higher costs of living she doesn’t believe that it can work everywhere. “I support the local efforts that are going on that are making it possible for people working in certain localities to actually earn $15,” Clinton told Buzzfeed News a couple weeks ago.

As former White House economist Jared Bernstein told the New York Times, “There could be quite large shares of workers affected, and research doesn’t have a lot to say about that… [W]e have to be less certain about the outcome.”

Still, there’s a strong body of economic research that shows the economy can sustain modest wage increases—to $12 an hour for instance—spread out over multiple years would create little to no job loss. The thinking behind the $12 minimum wage proposal is that it fully restores the purchasing power of the wage floor back to its peak in the 1960s. The bill also indexes the wage, once raised, to cost-of-living increases, and it would phase out the minimum wage for tipped workers.

And many economists believe we could go further. Last week, a group of 200 economists came out in support of the $15 an hour minimum wage legislation, stating: “We recognize that raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour as of 2020 would entail an increase that is significantly above the typical pattern with federal minimum wage increases. Nevertheless, through a well-designed four-year phase-in process, businesses will be able to absorb the cost increases through modest increases in prices and productivity as well as enabling low-wage workers to receive a slightly larger share of businesses’ total revenues.”

Raising the minimum wage at least somewhat is a wildly popular idea for most Americans. According to a January 2014 Pew poll, 73 percent of Americans—including 53 percent of Republicans—supported raising the minimum wage from its current level of $7.25 to $10.10 an hour. 

While the political pathway for a $15 national minimum wage is blocked for now, the proposal gives the $12 minimum wage push greater momentum. “It’s certainly pushing the envelope but it also broadens the terrain of what’s possible. Pushing for $15 makes $12 easier to pass,” says Amy Traub, as senior policy analyst for Demos.