Despite an unusual presidential race, the 2016 election proved to continue the trend since the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision of dramatically increased campaign spending. Particularly, spending from outside organizations like super PACs and “dark money” nonprofit organizations like 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations and trade associations hit an all- time high. Citizens United and subsequent decisions ended the long-standing $5,000 limit on donations to PACs that make independent expenditures, thus earning them the new name of “super PACs.” These court decisions also allow electioneering nonprofit organizations to receive unlimited donations, and since nonprofits need not disclose their donors, they provide new avenues for corporations to funnel secret money into our elections and skirt the responsibility to their investors and the public for how they choose to spend in politics.

Even though president-elect Trump disdained normal fundraising strategies and received unprecedented free media coverage, it would be incorrect to say that corporate influence and outside spending did not have a big presence in the 2016 cycle. Each of the major presidential candidates established their own super PACs so that once donors maxed out to the candidate campaigns, they could continue making unlimited donations in support of the campaigns to their super PACs. Spending by these outside groups reached record levels and heavily contributed to the most expensive election in American history. What is even more worrisome is the fact that almost half of this unprecedented spending by super PACs came from just 50 families – the very wealthiest of America’s elite class.

Key points about outside spending in 2016

This was the most expensive election in history.  Early estimates identify that a whopping $6.9 billion was spent in the 2016 federal election cycle, making it the most expensive in history. Despite Donald Trump’s erratic fundraising strategy, big donors didn’t shy away from this election.

Outside spending hit a new record. Super PACs and 501(c) organizations not formally affiliated with any candidates hit new records of spending with a total of $1.4 billion in the 2016 cycle– up from $1 billion in 2012 and $338 million in 2008. “Dark money” groups, which are a subset of outside spenders comprised of political nonprofits that do not disclose their donors, spent just over $204 million in 2016. While “dark money” is a problem that should alarm every citizen, just as problematic is the level of coordination between candidates and super PACs. This coordination allows candidates to sidestep the $2,700 per election contribution limit. As soon as a wealthy donor maxes out to the campaign, he or she can simply turn to the candidate’s super PAC where no limits apply. Nearly half of all super PACs spend all their resources in support of one single candidate – the candidate responsible for setting up the super PAC.

Conservative groups continued to dominate outside spending. Conservative groups comprised 55% of the total outside spending in the 2016 election cycle compared to liberal groups’ 39%.

Outside spending groups spent heavily down ballot– with a lot of success. Outside spenders focused $595 million on Senate and House races. Three- fourths of this spending was targeted at races where Republicans were trying to hang onto their majority. The Pennsylvania Senate race was the most expensive race coming in at a total cost of more than $170 million, over $124 million of which came from outside spending. Outside groups outspent the candidates in many of these races, and in the end Republicans succeeded in maintaining their majority in both chambers.

Corporate influence flooded ballot initiative fights. Corporations spent over $335 million to protect their interests in ballot initiative campaigns in the states. Corporate interests won 62% of the fights where they focused their resources and outspent their opposition by an average of 33-to-1.

Corporations funneled untraceable funds through the Chamber of Commerce. In the 2016 election, the Chamber of Commerce spent the second-largest amount among groups not required to disclose their donors, second only to the NRA Institute for Legislative Action. Despite the Chamber’s claims to represent all businesses, in actuality the source of the majority its political spending comes from Big Business and very deep-pocketed corporate interests. This suggests that the over $29 million the Chamber spent on elections in 2016 was not focused on looking out for the average American business.

The 2016 election continued the trend of secret corporate influence taking advantage of lose regulations and unlimited spending capabilities to protect Big Business interests. It is more important than ever that Congress and the incoming administration not hamper the SEC from requiring publicly-traded companies to disclose their political spending. The inappropriate budget rider forbidding the SEC from finalizing this rulemaking should be removed in order to hold companies accountable to their shareholders and to the American people. Additionally, before leaving, the Obama administration should issue an executive order requiring all government contractors to disclose their political spending.

800px-leve-personne_bras_telescopiqueNew U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data on worker injuries shows that nursing assistants remain at high risk of workplace injuries, despite an overall decline in worker injuries across industries in 2015.  Last year, these workers had among the highest number of injuries and illnesses resulting in days away from work, alongside “heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers” and “laborers and freight, stock, and material movers.” The BLS data is compiled from the agency’s 2015 Survey of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses, an annual survey of non-fatal work-related injuries and illnesses from selected employers.

But the story doesn’t end there.  It is important to note that nursing assistants also experienced musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) at a rate of 171 cases per 10,000 full-time workers.  MSDs are injuries to the muscles, nerves and tendons of the limbs and lower back. Nursing assistants and other health care workers often develop MSDs from lifting and moving patients manually on a regular basis, requiring time off work to recover.

Public Citizen released a five-part series “Nursing: A Profession in Peril,” which showed how nursing employees injured while moving patients suffered lasting chronic pain, depression and reduced mobility. Many of these injuries have devastating and lifelong consequences, even causing some workers to lose their jobs when they could no longer fulfill their lifting duties.

Part four of the series documented that some health care employers have addressed this problem by implementing programs that replace manual lifting with equipment such as portable lifts and slide boards. Not only do these programs keep workers safe – they also save employers money. Studies show that employers recover expenses within approximately four years of implementation due to factors such as reduced workers’ compensation payments for manual lifting injuries.

Although 11 states have passed laws to respond to the MSD injury crisis, there is currently no federal standard requiring health care employers to protect workers by implementing safe patient handling programs in their facilities. Such a standard would be critical in preventing MSDs among nurses and other health care workers. Despite the fact that President-Elect Trump claims he will take actions to “protect American workers” within his first 100 days in office, his plan does not actually outline any details for addressing worker safety.  Furthermore, his administration has threatened a temporary moratorium on all new regulations, which will likely include halting important public health and safety rules.

While advocates await the next administration’s plan to improve occupational health and safety, one thing is certain – nursing employees deserve safe workplaces just like all other working people.

Emily Gardner is the worker health and safety advocate for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division.

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

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.

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