By: Grace Aylmer, Campaign Coordinator, U.S. Chamber Watch project

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has a decades-long history of spending copious amount of money to elect pro-corporate judges to state courts. Back in 2000, the U.S. Chamber began a 10 million dollar effort to elect judges in five states- Alabama, Illinois, Michigan, Mississippi, and Ohio.

The Chamber and its big business allies have spent millions to elect judges who will represent the corporate perspective in the court, limiting consumers’ rights to sue corporations, siding with corporate defendants over injured workers or consumers, blocking efforts to reduce pollution, and stymieing laws and regulations meant to protect public health and safety.

Outside spending groups like the Chamber of Commerce have the ability to make unlimited donations to other outside spending groups, in addition to not having limits on what they receive from their own donors. In some states, these groups don’t even have to disclose the monies they spend on electioneering activity. The Chamber and its big business allies have already surpassed prior records for TV spending in state Supreme Court elections. Total outside group spending for the current state supreme court election cycle is an estimated $15.6 million, exceeding the previous record set in 2011-12 by over $2 million.

The Chamber has gotten involved in several state judicial elections, pouring in millions to try and elect pro-corporate, anti-consumer judges.  In North Carolina, this year’s state Supreme Court election has the potential to flip the state Supreme Court’s majority from Republican-affiliated judges to Democratic-affiliated judges. The race, between incumbent Justice Robert Edmunds and his challenger, State Superior Court Judge Michael Morgan, has garnered national attention from social and racial justice groups because of the court’s role in congressional redistricting. Edmunds, who is being supported by the Chamber, previously ruled in favor of the state’s congressional map, despite it being ruled unconstitutional in August after 28 of 170 legislative districts were found to be racially gerrymandered. The North Carolina Chamber of Commerce recently received $1 million from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for Legal Reform that has been spent on TV ads supporting Edmunds.

Another “dark” money outside spender in North Carolina is Fair Judges, a group that received $300,000 from the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC), which is the biggest spender in state Supreme Court elections. The Chamber, which contributed over $2 million in 2016 and over $3 million in 2014 to nationwide efforts, is the largest donor to the RSLC, contributing more than twice as much as the next biggest donor.

What’s even scarier than the amount of outside dark money spending flooding into state judicial races is the negative nature of the ads that are being paid for with this money.

In Montana, a state Supreme Court race between pro-corporate law professor Kristen Juras and district court judge Dirk Sandefur provides a startling example. “Child Porn,” “Satanic Ritual,” and “Raping 10 year old” jump out in glaring block letters set against an ominous background on an attack site against Judge Sandefur. The site, StopSetEmFreeSandefur.com, is run by a group that has received more than $200,000  from the Chamber-funded RSLC. It houses a 30 second ad, stating “for some, it’s Judge Dirk Sandefur’s refusal to give prison time to two child pornographers, for others, the last straw is Judge Sandefur’s mere seven year sentence for a man guilty of repeatedly raping a 10-year old girl, but for all, Dirk Sandefur’s decision to give no prison time to a man convicted of sexually assaulting a toddler and holding a gun to the child’s head…is the last straw.”

While much of nation’s attention has been focused on an unconventional presidential race, the problem of unlimited, undisclosed “dark” money and nasty attack ads has been largely overlooked in the nation’s equally important judicial elections, and North Carolina and Montana provide only a snapshot of the Chamber’s influence over our courts. When excessive money is spent on judicial elections by the Chamber  it raises the question of who the courts really serve.

Outside spending may leave judges feeling beholden to the corporate special interests that put them into office, threatening the integrity of our judicial system and reinforcing the concern that citizen voices are being drowned out.

 

By: Emily Gardner & Sammy Almashat

All children – regardless of immigration status – deserve a safe childhood free of the toxic effects of nicotine poisoning. A recent article in The Washington Post Magazine highlights the devastating conditions on tobacco farms, where employers permit young children to labor for hours on end in the sweltering heat, often providing little access to water or protective gear. As a result of handling tobacco plants, child tobacco workers may experience symptoms consistent with acute nicotine poisoning, including nausea, vomiting, headaches, and dizziness. Many of the children and their parents are undocumented, leaving them vulnerable to employer exploitation. (In recent years, Human Rights Watch has documented the dire conditions for child workers on tobacco farms.)

tobacco-837764_640Take the case of Eddie Ramirez, one of the teenagers profiled in the Post article. Eddie, age 17, has been working in the fields since he was only 12 years old, even though he initially found tobacco work unbearable. Although he tried finding other, safer jobs, only tobacco farms would allow him to work without a green card or U.S. citizenship.

Many supporters of child tobacco labor argue that children like Eddie need to do this dangerous work in order to help their families make ends meet. Unfortunately, the Post’s article offers little critique of this flawed argument. In the early days of the Industrial Revolution, child labor proponents used similar arguments to justify children toiling in perilous factory jobs for low wages, a chapter in American history being replayed on tobacco and other farms today. In addition to putting children’s health at risk, child labor perpetuates the cycle of poverty by interrupting children’s education and limiting their future prospects.

Failing to protect children from hazardous labor is unacceptable. However, current U.S. law still permits children – younger than 12 years old in some circumstances – to work on tobacco farms, exposing them to nicotine, pesticides, and other dangerous conditions that could have long-term health consequences.  In 2011, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) proposed a rule which would have banned child labor in tobacco and certain other hazardous work in agriculture.

Unfortunately, DOL pulled the rule in 2012 under intense pressure from agribusiness.

Recently, labor and children’s advocates have demanded that the government renew its efforts to prevent children from working in direct contact with tobacco in U.S. agriculture. Over 100 groups and nearly 50 members of Congress wrote letters calling on President Obama to ban this practice. In the final days of the Obama administration, our government should correct the grave mistake it made in 2012 and end the exploitation of child tobacco workers.

Emily Gardner is the worker health and safety advocate for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division. Sammy Almashat is a researcher with Public Citizen’s Health Research Group.

Keep up with Public Citizen’s work on these issues by following @SafeWorkers on Twitter.

This week, the Corporate Reform Coalition released a video interview with Vanguard Group’s founder, John C. “Jack” Bogle, about his vision in 1975 to set up a different kind of mutual fund company and how he thinks companies should best serve their shareholders.

Watch Vanguard’s founder Jack Bogle talk about a shareholders right to information like a company’s political spending.

Bogle, who founded Vanguard over 40 years ago based on a novel principle at the time- that a mutual fund company should be owned by the shareholders of its funds and not just by management- remains committed to that vision today. He fosters that commitment by speaking out on broader investor issues, for example, corporate political spending disclosure.

Bogle has submitted public comment to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) on the securities law professor’s petition calling for the SEC to put forth a rulemaking that would require publicly- held companies to disclose how they spend money in politics. When asked why he commented on the petition Bogle replied, “It’s the shareholder’s right to know what we are all doing,” referring to corporate activities.

bogle-shareholder-right2-twitterBogle’s remarks come at a significant time. Investor advocates are reaching a tipping point in their push for the SEC to issue a rule requiring companies to disclose how they spend money in politics.

As of October 21, outside spending in the 2016 election alone has totaled over $1 billion, much of which is coming from dark money groups that do not have to disclose their donors. This makes it impossible to track secret corporate influence. American know that more dark money in our politics is not good for the health of our democracy, but when faced with adversaries such as giant corporations it’s hard to see an easy way to make change.

One way to combat secret corporate influence is to bring it into the light, which this disclosure rulemaking would do. Unfortunately, the SEC has been dragging its feet on the rulemaking and Congressional Republicans have helped the stagnation by inserting an inappropriate policy rider into the federal budget forbidding the SEC from finalizing (though not from working on) the rule.

For the last decade, investors have been filing shareholder resolutions at individual companies and seeing promising responses from many who are interested in increasing their transparency. Without a uniform rulemaking, though, others are allowed to continue to keep shareholders and the public in the dark about how they spend in politics. Even those who do disclose may not do it the same way as other corporations, making it hard for investors to actually use the information to make corporate comparisons.

How do mutual funds fit into this picture? The major ones, like Vanguard and BlackRock, have incredible power in corporate elections; power accumulated from the millions of retirement savings accounts they manage. With the volume of shares they control, the major mutual funds can and should support shareholder resolutions calling for political spending disclosure. Instead, Vanguard, specifically, either votes against or abstains from voting for these resolutions at the companies where its clients’ savings are invested. The weight of the major mutual fund vote means that many times resolutions fail to get majority support without it.

All shareholders, whether the traditional kind or those who own shares through their mutual fund investments, “are entitled to the information they want, they’re owners,” says Bogle in the interview. Therefore, if shareholders are calling for information about how companies spend money in politics so that they can weigh the reputational risk of this activity, companies should listen and increase their transparency.

The gravity Jack Bogle continues to hold within the investment community is immense, and we should heed his words about shareholder rights. The SEC should make strides on the political spending disclosure rule and Congress should not stand in its way. Until the rule is finalized, though, mutual funds should not hamper the efforts of shareholders calling for disclosure at individual companies.

Bogle seems optimistic that the tide is turning in shareholders’ favor. “When shareholders aren’t served first the world will change,” he says. “And it is changing.”

Originally published on the Corporate Reform Coalition’s website.

Each day this week we’ll be highlighting some of the anti-regulatory bills that Public Citizen and our allies have been pushing back against this fall.

Midnight Rules Relief Act or the “Three-Year Presidency” Act

Photo courtesy Johan Jonk Stenström/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0

Photo courtesy Johan Jonk Stenström/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0

Congressional conservatives already have a mechanism for denoting their disapproval of new public protections finalized during the fourth year of an administration. In an effort to further strengthen their power to curtail or weaken these lifesaving standards, congressional conservatives introduced the Midnight Rules Relief Act (H.R. 5982). The bill would amend the Congressional Review Act (CRA) to allow a blanket disapproval of all regulations finalized near the end of presidential terms.

H.R. 5982 is based on a fatally flawed premise – namely, that regulations which are proposed or finalized during the so-called “midnight” rulemaking period are rushed and inadequately vetted. In fact, the very opposite is true. There are currently dozens of public health and safety regulations that have been in the regulatory process for years or decades, including many that date from the Obama administration’s first term. Some even predate the current administration.

H.R. 5982 would empower Congress to use the CRA – a process that is rushed, nontransparent and discourages informed decision-making – to block, at the 11th hour, rules that have completed the journey through the onerous rulemaking process. Members of Congress do not have to articulate a valid policy rationale – or any reason at all – in support of CRA resolutions of disapproval. Resolutions of disapproval not only nullify the regulation in question, but also prohibit a federal agency from issuing any other regulation that is “substantially the same” in the future, unless specifically authorized to do so by a future act of Congress. Accordingly, broad disapproval resolutions would wipe out huge swathes of agencies’ authority to address pressing public threats, potentially forever.

H.R. 5982 was shelved when lawmakers left at the end of September, but is set to reappear in the post-election congressional work term often called a lame duck session. Then, expect to see it move rapidly through the House floor process, be voted on and shuttled to the Senate.

Unfortunately, the whack-a-mole game is not over. The above bills are only a small taste of some of the legislation still to come. Right as Congress was departing for a six week recess, U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions (TX-32) introduced a nefarious bill attacking federal agency guidance documents like the U.S. Department of Education’s campus sexual assault guidance and equality guidance. In the next Congress, conservatives will be fully armed with new, sneakily-named but destructive and pernicious anti-regulatory bills, and it’s our job to stop them.

To learn more about joining the fight to stop legislation that attacks public protections, please visit the Coalition for Sensible Safeguards website at SensibleSafeguards.org. The only way to win whack-a-mole is with more hammers!

Each day this week we’ll be highlighting some of the anti-regulatory bills that Public Citizen and our allies have been pushing back against this fall.

REVIEW Act or the “Endless Corporate Lawsuits” Act

Photo courtesy Eric Parker/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0

Photo courtesy Eric Parker/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0

Industry has a long history of running to the courts to block or delay public protections that would cut into their massive profits. As a gift to their industry donors, House conservatives crafted the Require Evaluation before Implementing Executive Wishlists Act or the REVIEW Act (H.R. 3438).

The REVIEW Act would make our system of regulatory safeguards weaker by requiring courts to review “high-impact” regulations to automatically “stay,” or block the enforcement of such protections, until all litigation is resolved– a process that takes many years to complete.

If passed, it would add several years of delay to an already unreasonably slow rulemaking process, invite more rather than less litigation, and rob the American people of many critical science-based public protections, especially those that ensure clean air and water, safe food and consumer products, safe workplaces, and a stable, prosperous economy.

H.R. 3438 would reverse one of the most fundamental and settled legal principles in our regulatory system. Under current law, courts are allowed to use their discretion to determine if it is appropriate to issue an injunction blocking the enforcement of a regulation while it is being challenged in court.

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