Citizens United

Making Super PACs Illegal.... How?

A new Washington Post- ABC News poll shows that almost 7 out of 10 voters believe that super PACs, the independent expenditure only committees created in the wake of the Supreme Court’s disastrous Citizens United decision, should be illegal. Super PACs are not responsible for all problems with American democracy, however, they do amplify those troubles so it is no surprise that the public is crying out in opposition to them. Unfortunately, due to the Court’s backwards interpretation of the first amendment, we cannot legislate away super PACs today. However, there are some very important steps that every level of government – from your city council to the White House - should take right now to mitigate the impact of super PACs before the 2012 election.

There are three main problems with super PACs: unlimited money, corporate money, and secret money.

Unlimited Money: Super PACs are allowed to raise unlimited funds from any given single source, which allows corporations and the ultra wealthy to directly translate economic success into political power. PennPIRG and Demos’ recent report Auctioning Democracy found that 96% of all super PAC funds came in contributions of $10,000 or more from just 1,096 sources. Forget the 1%, that political elite is actually the equivalent of .000351% of the population. In other words, unless you have $10,000 stashed away in a cookie jar to give to a political campaign, your contribution may be severely minimized.

What Do Jon Stewart, Elizabeth Warren, and Barack Obama Have In Common?

It’s been a big week for calling out corporate tax dodgers.

In his State of the Union speech, President Obama called for an economy where “everyone plays by the same set of rules” and where companies can’t avoid taxes by shifting profits overseas. He acknowledged what we’ve been saying for a long time which is that special interests have long played by a different set of rules than the rest of us – ones they’ve helped create, I might add.

That same night, Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren went on the Daily Show and called out 30 corporations that a recent Pennsylvania Public Interest Research Group (PennPIRG) and Citizens for Tax Justice study found paid more to lobby Congress than they did in federal income taxes between 2008 and 2010. When Warren told this to John Stewart on the Daily Show, it made the usually unflappable comedian’s jaw drop.

The special treatment that special interests have won over the years is on full display when it comes to our tax code. While small businesses and ordinary taxpayers pay taxes on the income they earn, companies like GE and Wells Fargo have so deftly manipulated the tax code that they paid no taxes on billions of dollars in profits between 2008 and 2010. In fact, they actually got tax rebates from Uncle Sam on tax day. While it may sound criminal, it’s all perfectly legal.

Most taxpayers can’t employ hoards of tax lawyers to manipulate the tax system or hire an army of lobbyists to craft the tax code in their favor. Warren put it best during her Daily Show interview: “Washington now works for those who can hire an army of lobbyists and an army of lawyers.” The “Dirty Thirty” companies identified by PennPIRG and CTJ all told spent nearly half a billion dollars lobbying Congress on tax policy and other issues over the three year period of the study. “They hire those people to make [the tax code] onerous so they can worm their way through,” as Stewart rightly asserted.

The "Dirty Thirty" Corporations that Spend More on Lobbying than Taxes

Taxes and democracy are two oft-maligned activities that Americans dearly depend on. "Indeed it has been said," noted Winston Churchill, "that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." He might just as easily have been talking about the responsibility of paying taxes.

Two years ago the Supreme Court's misguided Citizens United decision struck down long-standing Congressional limits on the political power of large corporations by vastly expanding the legal metaphor that "corporations are people." Now there is fresh evidence that corporate influence over Congress makes it easy for those same corporations to avoid their civic duty of paying taxes.

A new report identifies thirty Fortune 500 corporations that pay less in federal income taxes than they spend on federal lobbying.

You read that right. These companies - dubbed the "Dirty Thirty" - exploited loopholes in the tax code so aggressively that all but one of them enjoyed a negative tax rate over the three year period of the study, while together spending nearly half a billion dollars to lobby Congress on issues including tax policy. Instead of paying for the public structures such as roads, police and education which make their profits possible, they collected $10.6 billion in tax rebates from the federal government. Had these thirty companies paid the statutory 35 percent corporate tax rate, the Treasury would have collected an additional $67.9 billion.

Every dollar in taxes avoided by these Fortune 500 companies is a dollar that must be cut from public programs, added to the national debt, or paid in the form of higher taxes by ordinary taxpayers.

The companies in the Dirty Thirty include household names like General Electric, Verizon, Mattel, Wells Fargo, Dupont and FedEx. There's no avoiding how the story at each of these companies represents a mockery to both our tax system and our democracy.

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