Why It Will Take Another Watergate to Pass Campaign Finance Reform

Back in January, Congressman John Sarbanes introduced the Government By the People Act. It’s an ambitious bill that would bring a sea change to our much-maligned campaign finance system.

The bill has three main tenets aimed at amplifying the power of small donors. It would create a $25 tax credit for political donations up to $50; establish a six-to-one matching system for donations up to $150 to House and Senate candidates; give enhanced matching funds to candidates who are combating significant outside spending. Small donors would also be able to bundle contributions into something of a People’s PAC.

Essentially, by increasing the monetary footprint of small donors, this would give incentive to politicians to talk more with everyday constituents about things that impact them rather than jet-setting across the country going to fundraisers and only hearing about the importance of keeping the carried-interest loophole in place. And yes, it is sad that it takes a piece of legislation to make politicians campaign to the people they actually represent.

The legislation is based on past campaign finance reform legislation, just modernized to deal with the post-Citizens United world we live in. It also borrows from some of the most effective policies that states and cities have successfully implemented. Critically, the legislation follows the one pathway the courts have left to even the playing field: adding more, not less, money to politics.

“If this bill became law, it would greatly change the priorities of Congress, making them more responsive to the priorities of everyday Americans,” says Aaron Scherb, the legislative affairs director for Common Cause.

Along with Sarbanes, 149 Democrats and (surprisingly) one Republican have co-sponsored the legislation. There’s also a similar companion bill in the Senate sponsored by Senator Dick Durbin. The law stems from the Fair Elections Now Act of 2008, which nearly passed when Democrats had control of Congress. But with a Republican-controlled Congress that has shown less than no interest in considering campaign finance reform, things look bleak. It failed to gain traction when introduced in the 112th and 113th Congress. This time around, GovTrack gives it a full 0 percent chance of being enacted.

Scherb puts it a little more clearly: “We’ll probably have to wait for a scandal or a crisis to occur for it to pass.”

Still, Sarbanes remains adamant that it can pass—and he appears to be going on something of media campaign to get the word out. Last month he did an interview with The Washington Post and Washington Monthly. And this week, Jon Schwarz of The Intercept published an interesting two-part interview with the Congressman.  

“It’s like with that Verizon ad: ‘Can you hear me now?’ Right now candidates can only hear the $1000 donor, the PAC donor. But if you have those people sitting in that living room with that match, all of a sudden you can hear them,” Sarbanes tells The Intercept.

The second installation of the interview gets into how Sarbanes goes about marketing an issue with a lot of populist support but next to no political feasibility: “Somebody’s going to own your government. It’s not going to just sit there unattended. It’s either going to be owned by special interests and big money, in which case when it comes to making policy that’s who we’ll work for. Or it’s going to be owned by you. And in America, if you want to own something, you’ve got to pay for it.”

The point being: democracy will come with a price tag. But first, somebody is probably going to have to get caught with their hand in the industry cookie jar in a very big way.

One GOP Step Forward, Four GOP Steps Back

Republican strategists surely breathed a sigh of relief Thursday when the South Carolina legislature voted to remove the Confederate battle flag from the State Capitol. But it wasn’t long before Republican lawmakers began stepping on the story of the new GOP racial sensitivity not once, not twice, not even thrice, but four (4) times. 

Just as Palmetto State solons were recognizing that continuing to identify themselves with the cause of slavery 150 years after the end of the Civil War was probably a bad idea, their federal counterparts—white Southern Republican members of the U.S. House of Representatives—were vociferously seeking to undo an amendment that had earlier passed the House by voice vote. The amendment forbade the National Park Service from buying merchandise from merchants who sell Confederate paraphernalia, and banned national military cemeteries from providing Confederate gravesite flags to slavery nostalgiacs. 

The Confederacy finally surrenders in South Carolina but reflexively rises again, like Dr. Strangelove's arm, in the Republican congressional delegation. 

Elsewhere this week, clearly trying to change the subject, GOP sort-of-frontrunner Jeb Bush proclaimed that, "Americans need to work longer hours." In fairness, he was talking about those Americans involuntarily relegated to part-time jobs, so the sentiment he voiced was one that the left could readily share. Nonetheless, when a non-trivial number of Americans look at Jeb Bush, they already discern the next Mitt Romney. Bush's Whoops Moment merely confirmed their view.

Meanwhile, in remarks NOT taken out of context, Tennessee Republican Senator Lamar Alexander authored a Wall Street Journal op-ed column earlier this week contending—not as a passing apercu but as the thesis of the piece—that college is actually affordable. 

You can't make this stuff up.

And to close out the week's GOP outreach campaign, a PPP poll released Thursday showed that the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination among North Carolina Republicans is—you guessed it—the Donald. 

Just keep saying, the problem with Republicans is Republicans, and you won't go wrong. 

When Families Face Housing Discrimination, Too

This week HUD unveiled new rules for the Fair Housing Act—a law passed in 1968 that was meant to both protect selected groups from discrimination and also “affirmatively further” fair housing. The new resources and regulations, HUD officials hope, will enable more Americans to access affordable housing in high-opportunity areas.

The new HUD rules come on the heels of a major Supreme Court decision affirming that unintentional housing discrimination still amounts to housing discrimination. (For more on this case read Richard Rothstein’s comprehensive Prospect report.)

While most media outlets have rightly focused on how these new developments can impact racially segregated communities, the SCOTUS ruling will also help another protected class under the Fair Housing Act—families.

Though it’s not very well known, it’s illegal under the law to discriminate against someone for his or her familial status. This means that if you’re living in an apartment building, or a condominium, or a house—there generally cannot be specific rules that apply to families with children, children, or even single individuals.

Unsurprisingly, many landlords and homeowner groups still do discriminate regularly based on familial status, and many residents are unaware that this is against the law.

But some residents, like John Jordan, who lives in a D.C. co-op with his wife and nine-year-old daughter, do know their rights and are fed up with being subjected to rules that violate Fair Housing Act protections. Their daughter was riding a scooter around their co-op’s plaza recently when a security guard told her she had to stop because of rules that govern what children can and can’t do there. After several unsuccessful attempts to raise their concerns with the co-op board, John and his wife filed a formal complaint with HUD.

“I don’t appreciate that my daughter can’t do something that other people can do, and frankly the enforcement of this co-op rule is against the law,” he told me.

John Jordan

Tiber Island Co-op Plaza, where John Jordan’s daughter was told she couldn’t scooter.

HUD spokesman Brian Sullivan said he couldn’t comment on John Jordan’s complaint because the investigation is currently ongoing, but that family discrimination more broadly is certainly a real issue.

Historically, families have had a harder time finding housing due to exclusionary zoning policies, discriminatory rental agents, and seemingly neutral regulations like limits on the number of occupants per room.

Rules, statutes, and regulations created by homeowner associations, condo boards, and landlord groups also often create discriminatory outcomes for families. As more and more apartments and condominiums crop up in cities, attention to these forms of discrimination will become even more important. 

Ultimately this is one more reason we should be grateful that the Supreme Court upheld the “disparate impact” theory last month because proving that minorities, disabled individuals, and families face housing discrimination isn’t always so easy to do.  


Affirmative Action is Headed to the Supreme Court. Here's Why We Still Need It

On June 29th, the Supreme Court announced that it would rehear Fisher v. Texas, a case where a white woman claims she was denied admission to the University of Texas at Austin because of her race. In 2013 ProPublica reported, Fisher was a good student, but her grades and test scores weren’t high enough for admission. And while the university did admit 47 students with lower scores than Fisher, 42 of those students were white. There were 168 black or Latino students who had grades and test scores similar or better than Fisher’s who were also denied admission.

Ask any person of color who has achieved even a modicum of educational and career-related success if she’s ever been accused of being an affirmative action hire or just there for diversity quotas and there’s a good chance she’ll say yes. Affirmative action laws leave a sour taste in the mouths of many white Americans. In their minds, the only thing preventing them from being accepted into a prestigious university is their whiteness. Universities are giving away precious spots to black students, while white students get sidelined.

This view basically purports the idea that affirmative action has done its job and more. Minority students no longer need to worry about disadvantages in college admissions; it is now white students that are now at risk for discrimination. But, if that’s truly the case, the numbers don’t add up.

It’s true that college enrollment is up among blacks and Latinos, but the race gap in educational attainment isn’t closed yet. According to FiveThirtyEight about 70 percent of white high school graduates go to college while just 65 percent of black high school graduates do the same. In 2013, 40 percent of whites between the ages of 25 and 29 had a bachelor’s degree or more. Just 20 percent of blacks could say the same. Minority students are also less likely to attend selective schools like University of Texas at Austin.

So, never fear white students of America—your skin color isn’t holding you back, but your grades might be. 

NEA Members Announce They Will Fight Institutional Racism. Do They Mean It?

At the National Education Association’s recently concluded annual meeting—a gathering where the country’s largest labor union sets its policy priorities for the coming year—delegates passed several historic measures that committed the union to fighting institutional racism.

Perhaps the most notable measure was New Business Item B, which passed unanimously. It opened with language stating that the NEA “acknowledge[s] the existence in our country of institutional racism—the societal patterns and practices that have the net effect of imposing oppressive conditions and denying rights, opportunity and equality based on race.” Allocating $277,000 to the effort, the union pledged to, among other things, focus on providing support for programs that can “end the school to prison pipeline” and expand professional development opportunities that emphasize “cultural competence, diversity, and social justice.” While this funding will last for one year, the measure includes a clause that says some money should go toward “researching implications for NEA’s Strategic Plan and Budget for 2016-2018,” which suggests that the union would consider devoting more resources to anti-racist efforts in the future.

EduColor—a relatively new movement to elevate public school advocates of color on issues of equity and justice—released a statement following the NEA’s conference. While EduColor’s members applauded the steps taken by the union to confront institutional racism, they pointed out that “it should humble all of us to some degree that it took such a long time to do what seemed so obvious to NEA members of color.” With school segregation, inequitable school funding, and shortages of black and brown teachers, EduColor said, “Now, we must go beyond statements and into the substance of our actions.” Making anti-racist work compulsory for their union, they argue, must “sit side-by-side with collective bargaining rights.”

Jose Vilson, the founder of EduColor, writing on his blog, said he hopes the NEA is committed to fighting racism because its members truly believe in social justice, and not because its members are afraid of being labeled as racists if they don’t. Vilson noted that the NEA introduced and passed bills that he “wouldn’t have thought possible even a few months ago”—a testament to the hard and difficult conversations taking place in their union and across the country—but that still, “we have to recognize that many of our colleagues aren’t ready to hear that they may be part of the problem, too.”

The questions that have come to the forefront of education policy debates over the past year are not about to disappear, or be resolved, anytime soon. The NEA joins the American Federation of Teachers, a union with a much longer history of tackling racial justice issues, in reckoning with how to fight politically for greater equity and opportunity both within and outside of the school building. While the two unions seem to recognize that education is greatly impacted by economic inequality, incarceration, and racism, it will no doubt take activist educators to keep their organizations’ priorities focused on results. 

The U.S. Won the World Cup—Can We Take Women's Sports Seriously Now?

On Sunday night—surely you know by now—the United States Women’s National Team won the World Cup with a high-scoring 5–2 victory over Japan.

What has gotten just as much attention as the match itself—and rightfully so—is the pay disparity between men and women’s sports. The U.S. Women’s Team took home $2 million for their third World Cup victory. Last year, the German team won the Men’s World Cup and took home $35 million, while the U.S. men took home $8 million after being eliminated in the first round of the tournament. The total payout for women in 2015 was $15 million. For the men in 2014, it was $576 million.

Obviously, FIFA, world soccer’s governing body, has ethics in inverse proportion to its hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenue—just imagine the NFL operating in multiple countries, with Bond villains at the helm. And FIFA President Sepp Blatter, who last month announced his resignation following corruption investigations, once suggested female players should wear “tighter shorts” to increase popularity (and incorrectly said that women play with a lighter ball). In 2014, a group of international players sued FIFA and the Canadian Soccer Association for gender discrimination after it was announced that the 2015 tournament would be played on artificial turf instead of real grass. Any moves toward making international soccer more equitable will clearly not be coming from inside FIFA.

But that of course does not mean criticism of FIFA should cease; nor does it mean we should ignore the very real inequality in U.S. sports. The National Women’s Soccer League’s minimum salary is $6,000, with salary caps for entire teams at only $200,000. In contrast, the MLS minimum is now $60,000. Writing in The Atlantic last month, Maggie Mertens made a compelling argument that support for women’s soccer, or lack thereof, is a feminist issue.

Sports command enormous cultural and capitalist importance, and when players are compensated one-tenth as much as others for the exact same work simply because of their gender, we cannot pretend sports are frivolous, or that they are anything less than a deeply unequal workplace. And if it weren’t for feminist achievements like Title IX, it is doubtful that the Americans would be as dominant on the world stage.

But lack of interest in women’s sports is still the reason given for lack of pay equity—and for lack of coverage. And what follows this excuse is a shrug of shoulders at what appears to be circular problem: If fans were more interested in women’s sports, there would be more coverage; if there were more coverage, fans would be more interested. But I don’t buy it.

Sure, the bars were less crowded in D.C. than they were last summer for the men’s World Cup. But I was heartened by the sight of so many men in U.S. jerseys at watch parties, and of male friends leaping from chairs to throw arms up after a goal. More than 25 million viewers tuned in on Sunday night—more than any soccer match (men or women) in U.S. history, and more than the recent NBA Finals. As Dave Zirin points out in The Nationpeople are watching women’s sports (when they can), and enjoying it. It is the broadcasters clinging to the sexist idea that no one does—or should—care about female athletes that has, as one 25-year study found, kept attention to women’s sports averaging around just 5 percent of total coverage. Just as it is the fault of FIFA and women’s leagues all over the world that don’t pay their players fairly, it is also the fault of sports journalists and publications that choose to ignore those athletes, or, as that same study notes, offer coverage with a distinct lack of excitement. Not everything has to have the same intensity as Andrés Cantor’s “Gol!” calls, but just imagine if women's sports got half the production value of the NBA draft.

Of course, there is one point that I haven’t yet addressed, and that is that the style of play is very different between men and women’s soccer. On this, I will concede.


Scalia's Temporary Retreat from Textualism

In a 1996 essay, Antonin Scalia declared war on judicial activism. He criticized justices for ruling according to their personal predilections and blasted the American legal system for being populated by “lawmaking” judges who usurp the democratic process by using whatever means necessary to bring the case to a desired resolution.

As a result, Scalia proposed that judges adhere to a form of statutory interpretation called textualism, in which they examine only the text of the law in question when issuing decisions. While this means judges should avoid outside sources of information (like the legislation’s history), Scalia insisted that they should still read an act “to contain all that it fairly means” and avoid adhering rigidly to individual clauses, particularly if doing so would produce absurd results.

The Court’s ruling in King vBurwell, which held that four obscure words in the Affordable Care Act did not bar the federal government from providing subsidies to citizens who purchased insurance on federally run exchanges, thus ought to be a truly sweet moment for Scalia. The case was created, contested, and decided on largely textual grounds, and the majority opinion, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, was “perfectly consistent with textualism,” says Nicholas Bagley, an assistant professor of law at the University of Michigan and the co-author of an amicus curiae brief in King.

But Scalia, who is on record as believing the entire act to be unconstitutional, wrote a blistering dissent that called the Court’s majority decision an example of judges using “interpretive distortions … to correct a supposed flaw in the statutory machinery.”

“Our only evidence of what Congress meant comes from the terms of the law, and those terms show beyond all question that tax credits are available only on state exchanges,” Scalia wrote. But as Bagley points out, such a position is inconsistent with Scalia’s stated emphasis on avoiding ironclad literalism.

“The [majority] opinion does not rest on legislative history or what was on Congress’s mind,” Bagley says. “The opinion rests on the text’s statute.”

Indeed, in his opinion, Roberts cited previous instances where Scalia stressed the importance of textualism. In United Savings Association of Texas vTimbers of Inwood Forest Associates, Scalia wrote that “a provision that may seem ambiguous in isolation is often clarified by the remainder of the statutory scheme” and in Utility Air Regulatory Group vEPA, Scalia wrote “that the words of a statute must be read in their context and with a view to their place in the overall statutory scheme.”

Even in the 2012 ACA case, Scalia seemed to have no trouble discerning that federally provided subsidies were essential to the act’s machinery, writing that without them, “the exchanges would not operate as Congress intended and may not operate at all.”

But it is apparent that three years later, when such a holistic reading of the act would mean its survival, Scalia suddenly saw things a little differently. 

Will Students Soon Be Tested for 'Grit'?

The National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP)—nicknamed “the Nation’s Report Card”—is the largest nationally representative assessment that tests what American students know and can do in different subjects.

Curiously, it was recently announced that beginning in 2017, NAEP plans to start measuring so-called “non-cognitive skills” like motivation and grit in the background surveys they issue to all test-takers. Additionally, according to Education Week, questions about “self-efficacy and personal achievement goals may be included on questionnaires for specific subjects to create content-area measures.”

Though schools won’t be judged based on these NAEP measures, the article says, “other such tests for accountability purposes may be on the horizon.” A coalition of seven districts in California are reportedly developing an accountability system that will evaluate schools in part by including measures of “growth mindset, self efficacy and self-management, and social awareness.” These are supposed to be in place next year.

The odd thing about this NAEP announcement is that very recently psychologists Angela Duckworth and David Scott Yeager published a paper in the journal Educational Researcher arguing that while emerging findings on character skills are promising, existing research is not ready to be incorporated into accountability assessments. Angela Duckworth told NPR that she feels “enthusiasm” for these measures “is getting ahead of the science” and that wanting to use these skills for evaluation would be gravely premature.

In April I published a long piece on the rise of grit fervor in education reform, which looked at the ways in which current tools to measure grit and other character traits are flawed. There are significant limitations to self-reported assessments, and Duckworth and Yeager’s subsequent journal paper echoed these concerns. Researchers haven’t given up on developing improved measures, and they are currently exploring future possibilities like computer simulations.

The intellectual humility Duckworth and Yeager demonstrated in their paper (and this video) is quite impressive, and should not be understated. Why school districts and NAEP are still intent on moving forward quickly with measuring these skills then deserves some further clarification.

From Our Friends at the Atlantic

If you haven't seen it already, James Fallows, one of our favorite writers (and long-time Prospect contributor), has a very nice write-up of our new issue over at The Atlantic. "Congrats to the Prospect for publishing material like this for a quarter-century, and may it continue," he writes. We'll do our best!