Archive for the ‘Open Government’ Category

Party politics and big money interests often work in the shadows to defeat good public policy. An intersection of these two challenges in Washington state may have played a role in the failure of an erstwhile popular resolution to overturn the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling.

Public Citizen is a key part of the nationwide movement to pass state resolutions calling for an amendment to overturn Citizens United and related cases. The 2010 Citizens United ruling allows corporations to spend unlimited sums in elections independent of parties or candidates. Thirteen states and the District of Columbia already have called for an amendment to overturn the unpopular decision.

Poll after poll shows that large majorities of Republicans, Independents and Democrats alike disapprove of Citizens United and want to see limits on election spending by corporations, unions and individuals. Yet too often, party labels block passage of popular and desperately needed laws.

Earlier this year, the Washington Legislature was moving a resolution calling for an amendment to overturn Citizens United. Thousands of Washingtonians called, emailed and visited their legislators to ask them to support the resolution. More than 15 Washington towns passed resolutions calling for an amendment, from the conservative Walla Walla to the more liberal Seattle.

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"Craig Holman"We urge Congress to resume the legislative effort to shine a light on the activities of Wall Street consultants and lobbyists who lurk on Capitol Hill seeking valuable information they can use to cash in on the stock market. Today, the Government Accountability Office issued its long-awaited report on how this “political intelligence” industry operates in the shadows for the benefit of itself and its paying clients.

When Congress approved the “Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge” (STOCK) Act last year, making it clear for the first time that the laws against insider trading apply to Congress as well as the public, one key provision was left on the cutting room floor: a requirement that financial operatives and lobbyists who make a business trading on information gleaned from congressional sources disclose their activities and clients to the public.

At the time of the law’s passage, many in Congress seemed unclear about what the political intelligence industry is and how it operates. So Congress replaced the political-intel disclosure provision with a mandate for a congressional study on whether there is a problem.

That mandated study became public today, and it shows that there is indeed a problem.

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Congressional oversight is a fundamental constitutional duty, and an important tool to detect problems in the government. Recognizing this, a bipartisan congressional Watchdog Caucus has launched with the goal of increasing oversight in government. The caucus’ purpose is to expose fraud, waste and abuse and will promote a more open government.

The Watchdog Caucus’ mission is one we fully endorse: promoting accountability of government employees and creating a culture of transparency and protecting taxpayer dollars.

The goal of the Watchdog Caucus is to empower watchdogs, wherever they are. Watchdogs include inspectors general, federal auditors, Freedom of Information Act officers, whistleblowers and transparency groups like Public Citizen, as well as private individuals.

Taxpayers need and deserve strong watchdogs to guard against waste, fraud and abuse. Watchdog Caucus co-chairs, Reps. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) and Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) both have a history of investigating abuse and fraud within the government. Speier has spent the last 29 years encouraging openness on all levels of government and promoting the rights and protections of whistleblowers and others who expose government waste and abuse. Coffman is the chair of the House Veterans’ Affairs subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.

“Establishing the Watchdog Caucus is only the first step to get control of the abuses exposed by government watchdogs and to tap the expertise of experienced investigators,” wrote Speier and Coffman in a recent Politico op-ed. “Moving forward, we want to be champions of whistleblowers and a constituency for good government.”

For more about the Watchdog Caucus, visit its web site.

Keith Wrightson is Public Citizen’s workplace safety expert. Keep up with Public Citizen’s workplace health and safety work by following @SafeWorkers on Twitter.

Great news: BP has declined to bid on new Gulf oil leases.

It’s a victory for those still reeling from the havoc BP unleashed on the Gulf region, and it shows the power of activism.

In November, the government suspended BP from bidding on federal contracts. However, it did not say how long the suspension would last. Shortly afterwards, BP was downplaying the suspension to shareholders, telling them the corporation “has been in regular dialogue with the EPA” and was already negotiating with federal regulators to lift the ban.

In response, Public Citizen quickly called on the government to get a backbone and ban BP from receiving U.S. government contracts for at least the entirety of one of its affiliate’s five-year probation period (stemming from that affiliate’s guilty plea to criminal offenses stemming from the Deepwater Horizon disaster) because it has a proven track record of irresponsibility and dishonesty.

Public Citizen also launched a petition calling on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to ban BP from contracts for five years. That petition garnered several thousand signatures .  Now BP is singing another tune.

Once confident that it could quickly resolve its suspension, BP declined a provisioned offer by the Department of Interior (DOI) to participate in today’s auction of new Gulf of Mexico offshore drilling leases, suggesting that the corporation does not feel it can resolve the contract suspension within the time it takes the department to review new bids and award them to oil companies.

The Department late last week decided to buck the suspension and allow BP to participate in today’s lease auction, likely an attempt to drive up lease bids.

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Jonah Minkoff-Zern holding a protest sign that says "End Corporate Rule"Shareholders at seven different companies have filed resolutions asking those companies to refrain from spending from their general treasuries to influence elections.

The resolutions, where were filed with 3M, EQT, Exxon Mobil, Chevron, Bank of America, Target and Starbucks, are in response to the unprecedented level of undisclosed outside spending in recent elections. According to a report by U.S. PIRG and DEMOS, outside spending in the 2012 election cleared the $1 billion mark, and as much as 58 percent of the funds came from groups able to take unlimited contributions from corporations and individuals without disclosing their donors.

Corporations accounted for roughly 12 percent of all disclosed donations to super PACs during the 2012 elections. But while super PACs are required to disclose the sources of their funding, corporations have several avenues to spend in secret. They can donate to 501c groups, and trade associations like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a political spending juggernaut. The U.S. Chamber spent more than $36 million in 2012 to influence the outcome of 37 Congressional races and the Presidential race.

With so many ways for corporate executives to funnel funds into elections, it’s no wonder that last year a record-breaking 126 political spending resolutions were filed. “The value of corporate political spending to shareholders is highly questionable, even as the risk it poses to our democracy is self-evident,” said Shelley Alpern, director of social research and advocacy at Clean Yield Asset Management. “It’s time for companies to reverse course and simply exit this activity.”

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