Our country is still reeling in the aftermath of the greed-fueled contagion of the 2008 economic collapse and Wall Street getting caught in villainous behavior is daily news. The anger of the American public toward Big Banks that were bailed out while average citizens went under—institutions that continue to get away with mere slaps on the wrist to settle claims of severe wrongdoing— is the foundation of the current populist political surge. It’s not surprising that Hollywood wants to get in on the act, and they should be applauded.

oneheart-invite215The Academy Award-winning  film The Big Short spotlighted for the movie-going public the complex web of financial maneuverings that tumbled down like a house of cards, leaving millions without homes and millions more with empty nest eggs. “A-listers” Julia Roberts, George Clooney, and Jodie Foster have even embraced the “us-versus-Wall Street” theme in the recently-available-for-the-small-screen film, Money Monster. The plot focuses on the problems that cascade from an everyman feeling wronged by a high-speed trading firm, and a “glitch” that bottomed out the value of a stock. Without commenting on the quality of the film, it can be said with all conviction that such glitches are not fiction.

In May of 2010, there was a flash crash that brought the curtain down on a trillion dollars of market value in a matter of minutes. And, in October 2013, in an unexpected twist, the normally very steady U.S. Treasury bond market went on a wild ride that was eventually blamed partially on high-frequency trading, computer programs called algorithms that automatically buy and sell financial instruments in much less than a blink of an eye.

Why should we risk our market stability with such rampant speculation? Spoiler alert: we don’t have to!

Right on cue to tamping-down on undesirable market behavior is an idea associated with Nobel prize-winning economist James Tobin, who called for a corrective tax on speculative trading that would  “throw some sand in the wheels” of the market to slow it down. Dozens of countries already have these taxes in place and the U.S. had a tax on Wall Street taxes from 1914 through 1965. Public Citizen has long advocated for reinstating a tax on Wall Street trades to protect consumers.

Not a Hollywood blockbuster, but another recent film, The Same Heart, also chronicles the rise of the high-speed trading ‘bot. However, the problem toward which the documentary film’s lens is primarily pointed is the horrible injustice of childhood poverty. But, instead of showing only the negative—the unthinkable hurdles of hunger, disease, and violence that billions of children face worldwide—it focuses on a possible solution: taxing Wall Street trades. The Same Heart makes the ethical and economic case for the wealthiest among us, the financial elite who make millions and billions of dollars in profit from financial transactions, to fund programs that invest in the world’s youth.

On September 27, at 1 pm in the Capitol Visitor’s Center, Public Citizen, in coordination with Media Voices for Children, which produced the film, the Child Labor Coalition, and the Congressional Progressive Caucus, is hosting an event called “Investing in our Future, One Transaction at a Time,” a panel discussion and screening of an excerpt of The Same Heart. I will be center stage for a dialogue with U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), filmmaker Len Morris, and experts from the Center for Economic and Policy Research, Communications Workers of America, the Institute for Policy Studies, and the National Consumers League. In addition to speaking about how the tens of billions in estimated yearly revenues from a Wall Street tax could benefit the next generation, I will outline how current legislative proposals to reinstate a tax on Wall Street trades to make markets less volatile and work better for average investors.

A fairer market does not have to be a celluloid dream. If we want to flip today’s script: the robbers being the banks themselves, bad guys costumed in pinstripes, never jail stripes, we need to take on Wall Street. The first step is making Wild West Wall Street stock market gamblers pay their fair share by taxing their trades at a fraction of a percent.

And, even if you’re not in DC to make the movie and panel event, you can still help set the scene for a legislative win. Please tell your U.S. Representative that you want her or him to be a hero and cosponsor the Putting Main Street FIRST (Finishing Irresponsible Reckless Speculative Trading) Act (HR 5745). If you’ve already done that, be a social media superhero and help spread the word about the Take on Wall Street fight by sharing this blog on Twitter with the hashtags #WallStTax or #TakeOnWallSt.

With your help, soon we will reach a critical consensus: no longer will we let the One Percent steal the show.

Earlier this month, The Guardian published an investigation into the network of politicians, donors, and groups that raised tens of millions of dollars to defend Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and several Wisconsin state senators who faced recall elections in 2011 and 2012. They also looked at conservative Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice David Prosser, Jr., who was up for re-election in 2011.

american_corporate_flagIt is estimated that an astounding $137 million was spent on the recall races, with millions more spent on the Supreme Court race. The Guardian exposé, based on over 1500 pages of leaked emails and other documents, gives us a bird’s eye view into the dirty business of raising boatloads of cash from corporate special interests and the very rich.

This trove of leaked documents is particularly important because Wisconsin law does not require the disclosure of monies spent on “issue advocacy” ads that praise or criticize a candidate without explicitly calling on voters to vote for or against the candidate. Many groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, ran “issue advocacy” ads in these races, and therefore their names do not appear in publicly available databases of elections spending in Wisconsin. The leaked documents offer the public a chance to peak behind the legal curtain that shields deep-pocketed special interest groups from having to disclose their electioneering activities.

ChamberWatch wanted to learn more about the role played by the Chamber in financing the deluge of ads that dominated the airwaves in the months leading up to these elections. So we reviewed the 1500 pages of leaked documents that The Guardian made available online.

We found that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce as well as the Wisconsin state chamber, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, played major roles as outside spenders in these races, particularly in the Supreme Court race.

Tellingly, when Walker’s chief fundraising consultant laid out an initial blueprint for funding his recall election, she listed the Chamber’s Institute for Legal Reform as a major potential donor along with the Koch brothers, Sheldon Adelson, major corporations, and CEOs of major corporations, among others.

The primary evidence that the Chamber spent money on behalf of Walker comes from an email sent by Chamber head of communications Tom Collamore to one of Walker’s campaign consultants. The email includes a Wall Street Journal article about a $2 million ad buy by the Wisconsin state chamber promoting Walker. (The total spent by the state chamber on the recall elections was at least $4.7 million). The consultant then forwards the email, writing “Tom is a good friend…we have had many conversations about Scott…they know the significance of this race and that is why they are so supportive…and will continue to be so.”

Unfortunately, none of the leaked documents indicate exactly how much money the Chamber spent on the governor’s race. However, we know that a PAC associated with the Republican Governors Association was one of the largest outside spenders in the governor’s race. We also know that the Chamber gave $1.25 million in 2012 to the RGA, making it the sixth largest donor to the group. Of course, we don’t know how much if any of this money was spent in Wisconsin.

The evidence of Chamber elections spending is even more clear cut with respect to the Supreme Court election. One of Walker’s top advisors writes that he assumes the Chamber is in for a minimum of $1.1 million for the Supreme Court race. A subsequent email from the same advisor mentions a Chamber ad buy of $1.5 million for the Supreme Court race. Judging by estimates of total spending it is a safe bet that the Chamber was one of the largest if not the largest spender on the Supreme Court race.

The leaked documents also reveal that at the same time the U.S. Chamber and Wisconsin state chamber were showering Walker and Prosser with money, the state chamber was also providing corporations including Altria, Walmart, Kimberly-Clark, Xcel Energy and AT&T access to Walker as well as lobbying him on unemployment insurance and workers compensation.

And therein lies the reason why the Chamber and the large corporations it represents were “so supportive” of Walker and Prosser and why they spent so much money bolstering their reelection campaigns. Walker and his conservative allies in the state legislature were receptive to lobbying by Big Business pushing an anti-worker agenda. They had just passed a major bill eviscerating worker rights and protections. And Prosser could be counted on to protect this legislation from any legal challenges. Without Walker, without a conservative majority in the state legislature, or without Prosser, not only would it have been possible to undo the damage done by this legislation, but Big Business would no longer have the opportunity to get additional items on its anti-worker wish list enacted into law and upheld by the courts.

The leaked Wisconsin documents paint a picture of a political system almost entirely reliant on—and beholden to—big money corporate donors. And the U.S. Chamber and its affiliates stand at the nexus of this unholy alliance between Big Business and the political class. Perhaps it’s time to admit the obvious: our democracy is now a corporatocracy.

IRS Commissioner John Koskinen’s appearance in front of the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday was a missed opportunity to advance an important discussion about nonprofit governance. Members of the committee from both parties chose to create a political spectacle rather than talk about real solutions for problems with the definition of political activity for tax-exempt organizations.

Republicans proceeded as though the hearing was a genuine impeachment hearing, while denying Commissioner Koskinen any kind of due process –including the rights to have counsel present and to call and cross-examine witnesses.

John Koskinen

IRS Commissioner John Koskinen, courtesy of Brookings Institution/Flickr

On the other side of the aisle, many Democrats chose to question the Commissioner about Donald Trump’s unreleased tax returns and the Donald J. Trump Foundation’s alleged self-dealing. Some Democrats did defend the Commissioner and labeled the proceeding a “sham” and a “farce.”  Even though Koskinen made it evident early in the hearing that he could not comment on particular taxpayer situations, a number of Democrats asked again and again about thinly veiled hypotheticals relating to Trump’s tax situation.

It is understandable that Democrats would not ask Koskinen questions related to the impeachment attempt by the House Freedom Caucus, given that the impeachment is doomed to fail and is merely designed to make headlines. Democrats could have used the opportunity to show the American public that they are serious about creating clearer rules for tax-exempt organizations rather than respond to a political attack with a political attack of their own.

In fact, members of both parties could have used this as a chance to confront the dysfunction and disunity that has plagued Congress. Instead of asking the Commissioner questions he has already answered and accusing the Commissioner of nefarious acts of which the Treasury Department’s independent Inspector General and the Department of Justice have cleared him, members should have asked substantive questions on topics that can move the government forward.

For example, members of the committee could have used the opportunity to ask Koskinen about the negative effects that the current vague rules have on nonprofits – especially 501(c)(3) organizations. They could have asked about the effects of the Congressional prohibition on the IRS’s ability to engage in rulemaking activities for 501(c)(4)s. Or, they could have asked about how to improve the current tax regime for non-profit organizations moving forward.

Without clearer rules to define political activity, risk averse 501(c)(3)s will be forced to refrain from civic activities that should be permissible because they do not want to jeopardize their tax-exempt status. In addition, bad rules cloud the waters when it comes to responding to an attack on an organization’s core mission. When someone close to a political candidate compares refugees to skittles, how can a refugee-focused 501(c)(3) respond without violating the (c)(3) ban on political activity? There are nonpartisan ways to respond, but because the rules are so unclear, most would choose to remain silent rather than take any risk they could accidentally stray over the line.

The time has come to stop using the IRS to further partisan political goals and instead acknowledge the important nonpartisan role it plays in governing tax-exempt organizations and the critical responsibility it has in maintaining American democracy.

Last week, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) fined Wells Fargo $185 million for the astounding abuse of opening more than two million unauthorized deposit and credit card accounts.

Now, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is employing a rarely used procedure to force a rushed vote on a bill to defang the CFPB.

Ok, now here’s a quiz. Can you guess which member of Congress with his wife holds more Wells Fargo stock than any other, at least according to the most recently available financial disclosure forms?

You guessed right! Mitch McConnell.

Let’s walk this through in more detail.

On Friday, the CFPB announced $185 million in fines and penalties against Wells Fargo for the jaw-dropping, illegal practice of opening deposit and credit card accounts for consumers who did not request them and did not know they existed. Not just a few such accounts — 2 million of them. According to Wells Fargo, more than 5,000 employees were involved in setting up the sham accounts.

One hundred million of that total penalty was imposed by the CFPB; $35 million goes to the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, and $50 million to Los Angeles. The $100 million fine is the largest ever imposed by the CFPB.

2016-09-15-1473948463-9494296-ScreenShot20160915at10.06.23AM.png

Enter Mitch McConnell.

This week, he announced plans to rush to the Senate floor S. 3318, “A bill to amend the Consumer Financial Protection Act of 2010 to subject the Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection to the regular appropriations process, and for other purposes,” introduced by Georgia Republican Senator David Perdue.

You might be curious to read the bill.

Too bad.

It was just introduced on Monday, and the text does not yet appear oncongress.gov, the website where proposed bills are posted.

2016-09-15-1473949249-707470-ScreenShot20160915at10.20.05AM.png

But the title tells you what you need to know. When the CFPB was created, Congress gave it budget autonomy — it is funded by transfers from the Federal Reserve system, and its budget is set at 12 percent of Federal Reserve operating expenses. The CFPB creators built in this feature because they knew that otherwise the Big Banks could destroy the consumer bureau by stripping its funding. This isn’t unique among banking regulators — the Fed, the OCC, the FDIC and others all share this autonomy, as it has long been recognized that our cops on the financial beat should not be subject to appropriations while policing Wall Street. Since then, the Big Banks have lobbied hard to subject the CFPB to congressional appropriations, almost explicitly for the purpose of slashing its funding and stopping it from doing its job.

S. 3318 is not following the traditional pathway to the floor of the Senate. It has not yet been debated and voted on in committee. Instead, using a special procedure, Majority Leader McConnell is taking it straight the Senate floor.

Which raises the question: Senator, what’s the rush?

Well, it just may be that Mitch McConnell brings a special passion to the issue, in the wake of the CFPB penalty on Wells Fargo.

In his 2015 financial disclosure form, McConnell reports between $1,000,001 and $5,000,000 in deferred compensation for his wife, Elaine Chao, from Wells Fargo. Chao, the former Secretary of Labor, serves on Wells Fargo’s board of directors.

2016-09-15-1473951317-1602265-ScreenShot20160915at10.54.46AM.png

The bank paid her a not inconsiderable $291,027 in 2015 for her board service.

2016-09-15-1473949439-8003426-ScreenShot20160915at10.23.27AM.png

Quite something, right?

We cannot assume that McConnell is acting just to punish the CFPB for imposing a modest fine on Wells Fargo for its systematic misdeeds.

It’s entirely possible — arguably more likely — that McConnell is acting to please his Wall Street paymasters, more than out of pique in response to the CFPB penalizing a megabank to which he’s unusually close.

It’s true that that can pass as a kind of ethics defense in Washington, D.C. (see theongoing case of Rep. Roger Williams, R-Texas, also an auto dealer, who is defending himself against charges of wrongdoing related to the introduction of an amendment to benefit auto dealers on the grounds that he was not trying to benefit himself but was instead doing a favor for a lobbyist for the National Automobile Dealers Association). But it doesn’t wash among Americans uncontaminated by Washington corruption.

It’s clear that Americans want transparency when it comes to how companies spend in politics.

Courtesy Flickr/Almond Butterscotch.

Courtesy Flickr/Almond Butterscotch.

The next administration and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) must address secret corporate political spending because it poses a great threat to democracy and investor confidence, says a new report by Public Citizen. The report, highlighting the historic campaign for an SEC rule requiring publicly held corporations to disclose their political spending, comes in advance of a Sept. 20 event on the state of corporate disclosure and as Public Citizen and its partners in the Corporate Reform Coalition (CRC) review and plan ahead for a new administration and new SEC priorities.

The Sept. 20 event is organized by Public Citizen, the AFL-CIO, Americans for Financial Reform, Ceres the Financial Accountability & Corporate Transparency (FACT) Coalition, the International Corporate Accountability Roundtable (ICAR), Patriotic Millionaires and SIF: The Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment, and hosted by the Center for American Progress. It will explore the SEC’s recent “Disclosure Effectiveness” review, which is evaluating corporate disclosure requirements, and the role of environmental, social and governance disclosures in promoting a sustainable economy.

The report details how a five-year campaign has driven 1.2 million comments to the SEC in support of a disclosure rule – the most in the agency’s history. The campaign also has garnered more than 500 stories in local and national press, and brought together powerful champions on Capitol Hill who are working to ensure that an SEC rulemaking on disclosure is not obstructed by congressional Republicans’ insertion of a harmful policy rider into the appropriations process that would stop the SEC from finalizing the rule. In addition, another 20,000 comments supporting political spending disclosure have come into the agency as comments to its “Disclosure Effectiveness” review process and to the agency’s Regulation S-K concept release, which solicited comments on proposed changes to corporate financial statement requirements.

The campaign began in response to the disastrous 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. FEC, which opened the floodgates for corporations to spend unlimited and undisclosed amounts to influence American politics. In 2011, a bipartisan committee of leading corporate and securities law professors filed the first petition requesting a rulemaking at the SEC requiring all public companies to disclose their political expenditures. In response, the agency began a rulemaking, then halted it.

In this election cycle, secret outside spending is the highest it has ever been, clocking in at a whopping $660 million. Americans know that corporate influences lurk behind most campaign ads. Polls show they remain frustrated by the lack of transparency around corporate political spending.

Disclosure is material to investors as they consider the risk of their investment and important to the American voters who want to know who is bankrolling their elections. The SEC needs to take a stand and move forward with this rulemaking.

© Copyright . All Rights Reserved.