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Selling the White House? Obama-Linked Group Promises Top Donors Access to President

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The watchdog group Common Cause is calling on President Obama to shut down the outside group Organizing for Action after revelations the group is promising high-end donors access to the White House. According to The New York Times, donors who contribute $500,000 or more will be appointed to the group’s national advisory board, which meets four times a year with the president. Organizing for Action was set up by former Obama campaign officials in order to push the president’s agenda. The group’s 501(c)(4) tax status means it can accept unlimited donations from corporations and individuals without revealing their identity. We speak to Bob Edgar, president of Common Cause. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to a new advocacy group created by former Obama campaign officials, who say they want to convert grassroots support for the president’s re-election into a network that will advance his second-term agenda. First lady Michelle Obama announced the group in a YouTube video shortly before the inauguration last month.

MICHELLE OBAMA: Last year, we did something truly extraordinary. We registered millions of people to vote. We recruited folks across this country to serve as volunteers. And we got millions of Americans out to the polls in this past election. So we should all be proud of what we accomplished. But let’s be clear: All that hard work was about more than just one election. So if we want to finish what we started and truly make that change we believe in, we can’t stop now. And that’s why today I’m proud that our friends and supporters are launching Organizing for Action, the next phase of our movement for change. Supporters like you will be the heart of this organization.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, despite this emphasis on Obama’s grassroots supporters, Organizing for Action has been set up as a 501(c)(4) organization. This means it can accept unlimited donations from corporations and individuals without revealing their identity. The so-called dark money group can also coordinate directly with the Obama White House. Now The New York Times has revealed that donors who contribute $500,000 or more to the group will be appointed to its national advisory board, which meets four times a year with the president.

AMY GOODMAN: Organizing for Action has responded to concerns by vowing to voluntarily disclose the names of large donors every few months. Some of the money raised toward the group’s $50 million goal has already been used to buy Internet ads targeting 13 Republican lawmakers and urging them to support stricter background checks for gun buyers. The ads were buttressed by a nationwide day of action Friday when thousands of Obama supporters rallied outside lawmakers’ offices with the same message.

For more, we’re joined by Bob Edgar in Washington, D.C., president and CEO of Common Cause, former Democratic congressmember from Pennsylvania, longtime advocate for tighter regulation of money in politics. He says this new group is a step in the wrong direction.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Bob. Why?

BOB EDGAR: I think it’s a step in the wrong direction. Its title is Organizing for Action. It really should change that title to “Organizing for a Perpetual Campaign.” We need the president of the United States to use the next four years to set a better example and not to cave in to what the Supreme Court unleashed with Citizens United on a narrow five-to-four decision three years ago. They said corporations and labor unions could use corporate treasury moneys to fund campaigns, and that spurred a whole host of super PACs. We saw in this last election $6 or $7 billion raised and spent throughout the country. Obama raised a billion; Romney raised a billion dollars. And here in this organization, Organizing for Action, they’re saying if you can give $500,000 or bundle $500,000, you can then have access to the president four times a year. That’s moving exactly in the opposite direction.

Three years ago, when Citizens United came down, the president, in the State of the Union, looked over at the Supreme Court justices, made them squirm a bit by challenging their decision. The president needs to get back to an agenda to reduce money in politics, not expand it. So Common Cause has asked the president to shut down Organizing for Action and to turn the attention. Let’s have a White House conference on reform. Let’s have the president put his arm around Senator McCain and fix the presidential public financing system. Let’s find a way to get full access to voting, to get voting up to 80 and 90 percent. And let’s have the next president of the United States not spend 300 or 400 days raising a billion dollars or $2 billion for re-election. Let’s find a way where the president, once elected, can govern. And we just think that the United States is hurt, democracy is soiled, by the amount of money that’s spent, not only in campaigns, but now in organizations like this following up from the last election.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Bob Edgar, on Monday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney responded defensively to questions of whether Organizing for Action was selling access to the White House.

PRESS SECRETARY JAY CARNEY: The fact is, there are a variety of rules governing interaction between administration officials and outside groups, and administration officials follow those rules. White House and administration officials will not be raising money for Organizing for Action, and they—while they may appear at appropriate OFA events in their official capacities, they will not be raising money.

REPORTER: But you’re not denying the point that was reported by The New York Times that even though he’s for all those reforms, that if you give $500,000 or more to this group, you get access to the president in meetings.

PRESS SECRETARY JAY CARNEY: Again, the president—

REPORTER: Is that true or false?

PRESS SECRETARY JAY CARNEY: The president is engaged in an effort to pass items on his agenda, and outside organizations that support that agenda, like organizations that are environmental in nature and support aspects of the president environmental agenda, or organizations that support his manufacturing agenda, you know, he—the administration officials can meet with them, including the president. Again, this is not an organization—and I would refer you to them—but this is not an organization, based on what they’ve said, that is involved in political campaigns. It is involved in issue advocacy. Thanks, all.

REPORTER: You said no quarterly meetings, but some meetings with the president? Would you get a meeting with the president if you donated $500,000?

PRESS SECRETARY JAY CARNEY: I would refer you to the—to the organization.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Bob Edgar, that was White House Press Secretary Jay Carney speaking on Monday. Could you explain how Organizing for Action compares with other lobbying groups and super PACs? And respond to what Jay Carney said.

BOB EDGAR: Well, I think Jay Carney was not only stretching the point, but having difficulty articulating how this organization is different from a political campaign or a political organization.

I think the real question is: Do we have a president that cares about reform? President Obama, before the '08 election, signed a pledge that he was going to fix the broken presidential public financing system. He was the first president since Watergate not to take the voluntary presidential public financing system. He didn't do that. President Obama set limits in the first inauguration on how much people could spend. This past inauguration, they lifted those limits. In the—four years ago, when the Democrats met in convention, the president put limits on how much outside money could be involved. This year, those limits were taken off. I think we’ve got a president whose advisers are advising him through old-school politics, rather than recognizing that 70 and 80 percent of the nation believes that reform is good politics, if the president was the leader on reform.

And my friend Bill Moyers says that this is the most dangerous moment in American history for democracy. We’re either going to be a nation that’s of and by and for the people, or of and by and for large corporations and the wealthy. Why should people who can give or raise $500,000 have more access to the president than average ordinary citizens? And why is Michelle Obama and the president spending time setting up organizations like this rather than helping Americans realize that money is tainting democracy, money is corroding the system? The Supreme Court says that money is speech. Money can also stifle speech. Let’s turn our attention to fixing the problems that we face as a nation. And let’s have the president stand up before the American public and voice reform, be the reformer that all of us expected him to be when people gathered around in ’08 to replace the George Bush administration with a new breath of fresh air.

AMY GOODMAN: Bob Edgar, after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision that led to creation of super PACs, Obama publicly opposed the ruling. He made his comment during his 2010 State of the Union address as the Supreme Court justices looked on from the audience.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Last week the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests, including foreign corporations, to spend without limit in our elections. I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities. They should be decided by the American people. And I’d urge Democrats and Republicans to pass a bill that helps correct some of these problems.

AMY GOODMAN: Just seven months later, the Obama campaign reversed that stance, as former White House aides created Priorities USA, a pro-Obama super PAC that spent more than $60 million to help re-elect the president in 2012. Can you talk about this, Bob Edgar, and also the two Supreme Court cases on—Supreme Court cases on campaign finance and the Voting Rights Act case that the Supreme Court’s hearing today?

BOB EDGAR: Yes. Back on the president, I would hope that the president would listen to his own rhetoric in '08 and ’09, and the president would fully understand that what the Supreme Court did was unleash and take off the lid on money in politics. We have a broken Federal Election Commission. We have now a broken election system, with money soiling and tainting the system. And we need a president to model better behavior. And he needs to recognize that this is the time for him to set a legacy for the next president. Do we really want the next president of the United States to be raising a billion or $2 billion or $3 billion in the first four years of their administration in order to get re-elected, or do we want that president to address things like global warming, ending poverty, dealing with the many issues we face as a nation? That's the danger of allowing money to impact not only our elections, but our day-to-day life.

Now, the Supreme Court has several other decisions. They did put off until next year a decision on aggregate giving and how much an individual can give in campaigns. Common Cause is a bit nervous about that decision. And the good news is, there was another decision before the courts that they set aside. That decision was whether corporations could give directly to candidates, and they decided not to deal with that issue, and we were pleased with that.

Today at the Supreme Court, there are arguments on the Voting Rights Act. I had a staff person get to the court at 4 a.m. this morning so that they could be inside and listen to the arguments. The Voting Rights Act is a very important piece of legislation. On March 7th, 50 years ago, in Selma, people marched peacefully—and then it became violent because of the reaction of the police—to move us closer to passing voting rights legislation. We saw in this last election in several states, where they were trying to suppress the vote, that the importance of the Voting Rights Act has in fact been revealed. My hope is that this court, as bad as it’s been on Citizens United, as bad as it’s been on so many decisions, voting more politically on a five-to-four basis—my hope is that we’ll see justice done and that they will not only support the Voting Rights Act, but allow it to stay in place and make sure that every person has a right to vote and that we get voting up from 60 percent to 80 and 90 percent. And in big elections where lots of people vote, we get all excited and proud that 60 percent of the people vote. Let’s get it up to 80 and 90 percent of the people voting. And that will put more pressure on special interests. When I served in Congress, talking points came first, and then the checkbook. What switched is now the checkbook comes first, and the talking points often are ignored. And I think it’s part of what’s led us to the gridlock we have in Washington. The Voting Rights Act is very important.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Bob Edgar, very quickly, before we conclude, I’d like to ask you about another issue: your organization Common Cause’s lawsuit that’s seeking to have the filibuster rule declared unconstitutional. Senate Republicans recently used the filibuster to try to block Senator Chuck Hagel’s nomination for U.S. secretary of defense. They lifted their block on Monday, and he was confirmed Tuesday. Last week, Republicans said they wanted more information first from the White House about events surrounding the fatal attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, last September. Could you explain why it is that your organization is pursuing this lawsuit against filibustering?

BOB EDGAR: Well, it’s actually connected to the decision of the Supreme Court on Citizens United, because we believe, Common Cause believes, that the filibuster is actually unconstitutional. It was invented by Aaron Burr 20 years after the Constitution, wasn’t named a filibuster ’til 50 years later. And up until 1970, the filibuster was used more to protect slavery and lynching laws than it was to protect human rights and civil rights. And even in 1939, when the movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Jimmy Stewart stood on the floor doing a filibuster, there were zero filibusters that year. A small group of ultra-conservative senators have decided over the last six, eight years to use the filibuster 60, 70 percent of the time.

In the Citizens United case, eight of the nine Supreme Court justices, even some of the Supreme Court justices who voted wrong on that decision, said that the House of Representatives and the Senate should pass full disclosure, should point out that foreign governments shouldn’t be allowed to participate in our election, and that all contributions should be fully transparent, fully disclosed. It passed the House. It was supported by the White House. It came to the Senate. It got 59 votes in the United States Senate and failed. The DREAM Act got 55 votes and failed. And even issues like Medicare, when Medicare passed in 1965, it only passed by 55 votes. It would fail today. We believe that the House and the Senate should be based on majority rule. We read the Federalist Papers, went back and looked at English common law. And Common Cause, five years ago, six years ago, had a different position. We’ve changed that position. We believe the filibuster is not in the best interest of democracy.

AMY GOODMAN: Bob Edgar, we want to thank you for being with us, president and CEO of Common Cause and a former Pennsylvania congressmember. This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we’re going to look at an Oxfam report on Pepsi-Cola, on Coca-Cola, on Nestlé, on Kellogg. Stay with us.

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