Video + Story: Welch calls for recess appointment of FEC commissioners

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Standing at a landmark “democracy” sculpture in downtown Burlington on Wednesday, U.S. Rep. Peter Welch outlined a short-term strategy to counteract the impact of the US Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.

Welch was home at the start of a two-week recess. After a morning at the South Royalton Market and GW Plastics, he stopped to speak at the Barre Rotary Club before arriving on Main Street in Burlington, gathering with the press down the block from the Chittenden Superior Court Building.

He was joined there by Winooski resident Robert Millar and VPIRG Director Paul Burns, who said a Tuesday vote in Montpelier by the Senate Government Operations Committee in support of a constitutional amendment resolution increases the chances the issue will come up for a floor vote in the Vermont Legislature.

Welch, a Democrat, reiterated his support for an amendment to declare that corporations aren’t people, and introduced Millar, who spoke enthusiastically about 65 successful Town Meeting votes on the issue in March.

Adopting a constitutional amendment “is a drastic and difficult solution,” Millar acknowledged. But “we have reached one of those critical points in our history where it may be our only option,” he said.

Welch sees the need for immediate action by Congress, the federal government and President Obama to “mitigate” the impacts of Citizens United on current and future campaigns until such an amendment does become law. To that end he outlined three practical steps — legislation that increases disclosure, tougher enforcement by the IRS and Federal Election Commission, and presidential recess appointment of new FEC commissioners.

“Now we have political organizations masquerading as social welfare organization,” Welch charged, “and they are basically using taxpayer subsidized tax exemptions to do this work.”

Pointing to partisan gridlock, both in Congress and at the FEC, he reported that the GOP has refused to replace commissioners whose terms have expired. This adds to a public perception of bureaucratic paralysis. Welch and 32 colleagues want Obama to fill five vacancies during the congressional recess.

“They’re not doing their job,” he said of the opposition. “Let the Senate act, but let them vote yes or no, up or down. They’re not even taking them for consideration.”

Welch and 31 congressional colleagues also call on the IRS to investigative whether 501(c)4 organizations affiliated with Super PACs are violating federal law. Organizations that receive tax-exempt, non-profit status are usually prohibited from engaging in political activity.

“Now we have political organizations masquerading as social welfare organization,” Welch charged, “and they are basically using taxpayer-subsidized tax exemptions to do this work. An extreme example is the Crossroads GPS of Karl Rove.”

The third strategy is to pass a federal disclosure law that increases transparency and shareholder oversight. The thrust is to require shareholder approve before spending company funds on a campaign, disclosure of funding sources and on-air disclaimers. “In other words, at the end of an ad it would say, ‘I am president of X company and I approve this ad’,” Welch said.

Burns pointed to earlier court decisions that set the stage for Citizens United, including a 1976 decision that equated money with speech. “These are errors by the Supreme Court,” he charged, “that have corrupted the political process and endangered our democracy. And the people of Vermont have spoken out on Town Meeting Day.”

Nevertheless, he and Welch stressed that amending the U.S. Constitution is likely to be a long and difficult process. In the meantime, “there are things than can and should be done,” Burns added. That is why he said VPIRG backs Welch’s multi-pronged approach.

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Greg Guma

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  • Patrick Cashman

    You have to savor the hypocrisy on this one. Mr. Welch is lamenting the influence of 501(c)4 organizations in politics, while sharing the microphone with the Executive Director of a 501(c)4 organization (VPIRG). If Mr. Welch is serious about reducing the influence of such organizations in politics, perhaps he should take a couple steps away from Mr. Burns.

  • Ron Pulcer

    Mr. Cashman,

    Yes, it is true that VPIRG is a 501(c)4 org (since 1972, according to their annual report). This type of org was traditionally defined by the IRS as a “social welfare agency”. Since the Supreme Court’s “Citizens United” decision, it has allowed Super PACs to be qualified as 501(c)4 orgs. Super PACs exist merely to flood the TV and radio with political ads (mostly negative).

    Orgs like VPIRG and “Vermonters for Health Care Freedom” are both 501(c)4 orgs. They may occasionally produce and place newspaper, TV, radio and Internet ads. But they have a mission beyond merely producing campaign ads.

    So there is a nuanced difference between Super PACs and other 501(c)4 orgs like VPIRG and VFHCA (which by the way are on opposite sides of the political spectrum). VPIRG focuses on environmental and other issues. VFHCA focuses on the healthcare issue. In contrast, Super PACs exist primarily to produce campaign ads to attack political opponents (individuals or parties).

    Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS is a Super PAC and not a “social welfare agency” as defined by the IRS.


  • Patrick Cashman

    Mr. Pulcer,
    You’re making an artificial distinction. 501(c)4 organizations advocate for issues, or in the case of VPIRG a list of issues. Those issues may consist of the organization being for or against a particular question, just as with any political party and that same kind of list of positions would be called a “platform” when applied to a political party. The mechanism by which various 501(c)4 organizations attempt to move their platform forward varies by organization, but whether or not a 501(c)4 chooses to incorporate advertising or lobbying is irrelevant when the end state is the same; to win their issue.
    I’m all for getting the influence of all 501(c)4 organizations out of politics. So why not start with a local, heavy handed and over represented organization such as VPIRG.

  • Ron Pulcer

    Mr. Cashman,

    Would you also apply the same approach to “local, heavy handed and over represented organizations” and “getting the influence of all 501(c)4 organizations out of politics” to VHCF (Vermonters for Health Care Freedom”? VPIRG and VHCF are both “issue-oriented” 501(c)4’s operating in Vermont.

    In contrast, the 5 Super PACs backing the 5 top Presidential candidates appear to be less about “issues”, and more about “carpet bombing” their political opponents with negative ads. At this point, Mitt Romney’s related Super PAC has the most money and is able to “attack” his opponents, but does very little to educate the voting public about the “issues”. They all do it, and I’m sure President Obama’s related Super PAC will also be attacking Mitt Romney, and giving us little info about the “issues”.

    Former Gov. Mitt Romney – Restore Our Future

    Former Sen. Rick Santorum – Red, White and Blue Fund

    Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich – Winning Our Future

    Rep. Ron Paul – Endorse Liberty

    President Barack Obama – Priorities USA Action

    I’m sure they are “not coordinating” with their Super PACs (wink, wink, nod, nod)!

    I would much rather see ads about local issues from VPIRG and VHCF than have Presidential candidates attack-ad each other and not deal with details of issues.

    All of these orgs are 501(c)4’s. But there is a big difference between ads about “issues” than Super PAC ads about “candidates”.

  • Patrick Cashman

    Mr. Pulcer,
    In regards to your first question, absolutely. Though I see VPIRG as a more significant threat as it has infested Vermont politics for a significantly longer time.
    As to the second part of your response, I just don’t understand it. You complain of national level usurpation of the political process by monied interests, yet forgive the same infection conducted in the same way when it happens on the local level? It’s inconsistent and illogical.