Public Service Spotlight

Jon Tester

U.S. Senator from Montana

Public Service Spotlight: Tester

Many members of Congress rallied to the cause of clean elections and transparent political spending in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. Some, however, championed those causes even before the Court’s ruling. For working on multiple fronts to keep candidates and elections honest, we honor Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) this month in our Public Service Spotlight.

Sen. Tester’s awareness of the dangers of money in politics dates back to his first campaign for the Senate in 2006, when he challenged an incumbent linked to the Jack Abramoff scandal. Since taking office, he put his promises into practice. In the current Congress, Sen. Tester sponsored the Senate Campaign Disclosure Parity Act, a bill CREW supports that would require Senate candidates to file their campaign finance disclosure reports electronically, as presidential and House candidates already do. The Senate’s paper filings are a relic of a bygone era, depriving the public of timely access to information. Although Sen. Tester has voluntarily filed his reports electronically since 2011, such filings should be mandatory for all candidates. Yet even though Sen. Tester’s bill enjoys bipartisan support, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) blocks it at every turn.

After Citizens United, Sen. Tester’s efforts became all the more important. At an event in Washington last month, Sen. Tester noted that he saw the corrosive impact of the court’s jurisprudence when he ran for reelection in 2012. Between the two candidates and outside groups, that race cost more than $100 per vote cast. Sen. Tester estimated a senator spends two to three hours per day fundraising. Runaway campaign spending transformed politics in Montana, which had especially strong laws to protect the integrity of its elections before the Supreme Court gutted them. In a non-binding resolution, more than 70 percent of voters in Montana called for overturning Citizens United. Sen. Tester has been a strong supporter of the DISCLOSE Act, which parallels state-level efforts in Montana that would require dark money groups to disclose their donors.

Obstacles remain on the road back to a government that serves the public interest. Yet while many politicians lament the seemingly dim prospects for reform, Sen. Tester’s commitment to transparency in word and deed serves as a reminder that elected officials already have great power to put their ideals into practice. Until Congress achieves long-overdue reforms to our elections and government, the public would be well served if more members emulated Sen. Tester’s example.

 


The Texas Ethics Commission

Protecting the Integrity of Texas Elections

Public Service Spotlight: Texas Ethics Commission

More than four years after the Supreme Court’s disastrous Citizens United decision, Washington remains shamefully indifferent to the growing scourge of money in politics. The DISCLOSE Act is bogged down in Congress by Republican obstruction, federal agencies with the power to address the problem sit on their hands, and this week’s debate in the Senate on regulating political money has done little to bridge the deep partisan divide.

In the states, however, legislatures and regulatory agencies have taken strong steps to contain the damage of the Court’s activism. Buoyed by strong popular support, leaders in both parties championed measures to make campaign spending transparent in state and local elections and safeguard the integrity of the democratic process.

The latest sign of progress comes from the Texas Ethics Commission, the Lone Star State’s campaign watchdog, which proposed new regulations requiring dark money groups to disclose their donors. For standing up to powerful interests seeking to sway elections under a cloak of secrecy, we are pleased to honor the commission in our Public Service Spotlight.

The commission’s proposed regulations would require nonprofits to disclose their donors if they devote 25 percent or more of their expenditures to politics. The regulations, which are subject to a public comment period, could come up for a vote before the full commission as soon as October, although the matter may ultimately wind up in court. One dark money group has already sued the commission to block the regulations, predictably arguing that they would infringe on free speech. Disclosure of dark money has broad support in Texas, however. A similar measure passed the Republican-dominated legislature last year, only to be vetoed by Gov. Rick Perry. Given that Gov. Perry has since been indicted on public corruption charges related to widespread cronyism in his administration, his opposition to a common-sense proposal to improve transparency should only embolden reformers.

By taking on dark money, the commission joins a growing list that includes New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, Nevada Secretary of State Ross Miller, and the Massachusetts legislature. The need for action is clear: A recent tally estimated that dark money spending on U.S. Senate elections surpassed outside spending by groups that disclose their donors. CREW’s research has shown that this is no longer just a federal phenomenon: Dark money is playing an increasing role in state and judicial elections anonymous spending trickles down into local elections as well. We hope you’ll join us in thanking the Texas Ethics Commission for becoming the latest public-minded regulator to take part in this bipartisan national movement.

 


Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Jeff Miller

Chairmen of the Veterans Affairs Committees

Public Service Spotlight: Sanders/Miller

Washington erupted in justified outrage earlier this year over revelations of rampant mismanagement and fraud throughout the Veterans Affairs (VA) system. The trouble at the agency, which came to light in part thanks to the courage of a whistleblower, may have led to the deaths of some 40 veterans awaiting treatment at one hospital alone.

But after Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned and the scandal receded from the headlines, a few lawmakers kept working to address the deficiencies at the department. For overcoming the gridlock that has all but paralyzed Congress and reaching a compromise that sets the VA on the long road to reform, we are pleased to award CREW’s Public Service Spotlight to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL).

As chairmen of the two veterans affairs committees, Sen. Sanders and Rep. Miller bridged deep differences between their respective chambers to forge a bill that won overwhelming support on both ends of Capitol Hill. The final legislation lets veterans facing long wait times seek treatment at non-VA facilities. It also provides money directly to the VA to expand the system’s capacity and grants the Veterans Affairs Department greater power to remove managers for misconduct. President Obama signed the bill into law earlier this month.

Even supporters of the legislation concede that it is only the first step in a longer process of reforming the troubled VA system. In typical fashion, Congress ducked a debate over what institutional changes may be needed at an agency that has grown overburdened by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And while lawmakers took great and predictable umbrage when news of the scandal broke, the debate over a solution quickly devolved into the usual squabbling over the measure’s cost. Ultimately, new Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald will need to oversee broader changes to right the ship in the wake of the scandal.

Still, such compromises are a necessary part of any new law. In this Congress, on everything from immigration to gun safety measures to campaign finance reform, inaction is still the most likely outcome, and a half measure to fix the VA is better than no action. Sen. Sanders and Rep. Miller proved it is possible for the two parties to overcome their divisions to address problems. Perhaps their success will encourage their colleagues to think about why their modest achievement has become such a rarity on Capitol Hill.

 


Jackie Speier

U.S. Representative from California

Public Service Spotlight: Speier

For all of the recent illegal activity that has come to light in Washington, some of the worst breaches of the public trust are outrageous precisely because they are entirely legal.

Some of the primary conduits of legal corruption in the capital are the leadership PACs members of Congress establish to raise and distribute money. Because there are so few restrictions on how members can spend money raised through these PACs, they can quickly turn into slush funds, paying for everything from lavish trips to event tickets and expensive meals for members and their families. CREW called attention to this glaring loophole by releasing reports like Family Affair and collaborating with 60 Minutes for an exposé of some of the worst cases of self-dealing in Congress. Fully correcting the problem, however, will require a change in the law.

That’s why we’re pleased to see Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) taking a leading role in solving this problem. Rep. Speier’s introduction last month of the Make Every Representative’s Integrity Transparent Act, or MERIT Act, marks a crucial first step in confronting the culture of nepotism and self-serving behavior in which members of Congress operate. For her leadership, we are pleased to award Rep. Speier our Public Service Spotlight.

The MERIT Act takes a head-on approach to the problem by prohibiting members from using leadership PAC funds for personal use. The act would also close off several other avenues used by members to enrich themselves and their families. Candidates and members would be prohibited from using their campaign committees or leadership PACs to pay relatives and from using campaign committees to purchase goods from relatives.

Cracking down on another creative technique that some members have used for financial gain, the MERIT Act would cap the interest rate on loans members make to their own campaigns. In the past, members like Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-CA) have loaned their campaigns money with unusually high interest rates, allowing them to collect eye-popping sums upon the loans’ repayment.

Rep. Speier undoubtedly faces an uphill battle convincing her colleagues to embrace a measure that would eliminate some of the perks to which they’ve become accustomed. Still, with public confidence in Congress at historic lows, both parties are under pressure to demonstrate that they can still serve the public good. We hope you’ll join us in thanking Rep. Speier for taking this necessary first step on the road to reform.

 


Dr. Sam Foote

Whistleblower on VA Abuse

Public Service Spotlight: Foote

Recent leaks about the size and scope of America’s national security apparatus sparked a fierce debate over who counts as a whistleblower, but the distinction doesn’t have to be controversial. In the recently uncovered scandal at the Veterans Administration (VA), physician Sam Foote risked his job to bring pervasive fraud to light, earning the title of whistleblower — and CREW’s Public Service Spotlight.

More than a year ago, Dr. Foote began to notice problems at the VA Health Care System in Phoenix where he worked. Dr. Foote, who has since retired, eventually discovered that staff at the overburdened hospital kept secret logs of patients seeking appointments to obscure long wait times and maintain the illusion that the Phoenix VA hospital was meeting its goals for serving patients. As many as 40 veterans may have died while waiting for appointments at the Phoenix facility, according to Dr. Foote.

In October 2013, Dr. Foote filed a whistleblower complaint with the VA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG), after which he says hospital administrators started harassing him. After retiring at the end of 2013, he filed a second complaint in February. Finally, in April, national media outlets broke Dr. Foote’s story. The OIG investigation, along with other whistleblowers, revealed that the problems Dr. Foote uncovered pervaded VA hospitals across the country, ultimately culminating in the resignation of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki.

Of course, Secretary Shinseki is just a sacrificial lamb and his resignation does not resolve the deeply rooted problems at the VA. Ultimately, Congress and President Obama bear responsibility for streamlining bureaucracy at the VA and ensuring the department has the resources it needs to adequately serve veterans. In a New York Times op-ed, Dr. Foote laid out several possible reforms that lawmakers might consider as they work to fix the agency’s problems. 

Dr. Foote wasn’t alone. He shares credit for forcing change at the VA with other employees and media outlets like the Arizona Republic, whose Freedom of Information Act requests are still being stonewalled by the department. Nonetheless, the fraud in the department might never have come to light if not for Dr. Foote’s courage. In coming forward, Dr. Foote knew he was risking his own career and would deeply damage the reputation of a department that he had served for years. “But I had to be able to sleep at night,” Dr. Foote wrote

In taking a stand for America’s veterans and helping to set the VA on the long road to reform, Dr. Foote reminded Americans that whistleblowers play a critical role in holding government accountable.

 


Mike Quigley

U.S. Representative from Illinois

Public Service Spotlight: Quigley

While the Obama administration has repeatedly failed to follow through on its promise to be the most transparent administration in history, Americans can take comfort in knowing that on Capitol Hill, some members of Congress take seriously the importance of an open government. For living up his billing as co-chairman of the House’s Congressional Transparency Caucus, we award our Public Service Spotlight to Rep. Mike Quigley (D-IL).

In March, Rep. Quigley reintroduced the comprehensive Transparency in Government Act, which would make all three branches of government more responsive to the public. The proposed bill contains a veritable wish list of measures long sought by open government advocates, including centralized online disclosure of non-profit tax returns, live audio of Supreme Court hearings, and public access to Congressional Research Service reports.

For years, transparency advocates have asked for data on congressional activities in a format that computers can understand, making the information easier to reuse and republish. Last month, Rep. Quigley successfully offered an amendment to an appropriations bill report so that Congress will now publish online information about where bills stand in the legislative process. While this may seem like a housekeeping measure, it has been the subject of significant debate over the last few years, and its adoption would mark a tangible step forward by Congress into the digital age.

One agency that has too often stood in the way of a more transparent government has been the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). The office’s inadequate transparency policies leave the public with incomplete information about its review of major rulemaking by agencies and the justifications agencies publish to explain their annual funding requests. At an appropriations hearing last month, Rep. Quigley asked OMB Directory Sylvia Burwell — since nominated by President Obama as Secretary of Health and Human Services — a series of tough questions about her office’s commitment to transparency.

Given the progress of technology in the digital age, government transparency has never been more achievable — or essential. We applaud Rep. Quigley for taking a leading role in making government more accountable to citizens.

 


Ross Miller

Nevada Secretary of State

Public Service Spotlight: Miller

While most efforts to counteract the Supreme Court’s disastrous Citizens United decision have so far fallen short, advocates for transparent and fair elections have scored some significant victories on the public’s behalf.   

The latest good news comes from Nevada, where last month Secretary of State Ross Miller reached a settlement requiring a dark money group to pay a fine over ads it ran in the state in 2010. For making progress where federal regulators have failed and protecting the public against a rising tide of anonymous election spending, we are pleased to honor Secretary Miller in our Public Service Spotlight.

The case involved the Virginia-based Alliance for America’s Future (AAF), which ran ads supporting Nevada gubernatorial candidate Brian Sandoval in 2010 without registering as a political committee as required by Nevada law. Under the settlement, AAF will pay a $40,000 fine, disclose the donors who contributed to its 2010 activities, and register as a political action committee subject to state disclosure laws.

The settlement is far from perfect. A $40,000 fine is a drop in the bucket to a group that spent $200,000 on its ads. Even worse, AAF still managed to evade full disclosure by listing as its sole donor a group called the Republican Governors Public Policy Committee (RGPPC). Research by the Center for Responsive Politics uncovered two donors to the RGPPC, but because the group is not required to disclose its donors, AAF can stop well short of revealing the true sources of its funding — the same shell game being used to mask money pouring into elections around the country.

Secretary Miller is one of several state and local officials working to contain the damage of Citizens United beneath the federal level. Figures like New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa, and former chairwoman of the California Fair Political Practices Commission (and now FEC member) Ann Ravel have fought to require dark money groups to disclose their donors and face consequences when they don’t.

With polls showing growing public alarm over ever-increasing sums of money in politics, it’s not surprising that, as Washington dithers, state-level officials are taking the lead in putting democracy back in the hands of the people.

 


Ann Ravel and Ellen Weintraub

Public Service Spotlight: Ravel/WeintraubMembers of the Federal Election Commission

The Internal Revenue Service’s proposed regulations for political activity by nonprofit groups sparked a flood of public comments — more than 140,000 in all — from individuals and organizations concerned about the runaway growth of money in politics.

One of those comments came from a notable source: Ann Ravel and Ellen Weintraub, members of the Federal Election Commission. While we have frequently criticized the FEC for failing to adequately enforce election law, the comment from Commissioners Ravel and Weintraub offers hope that at least some members of the agency understand that unchecked, undisclosed money poses a dire threat to democracy.

Rather than comment directly on the proposed regulations, which unfortunately fail to address the problem of dark money, the commissioners called on the IRS to promote greater disclosure of political spending. Courts have consistently upheld the constitutionality of disclosure requirements, they noted, which are “particularly important in an era when so much political spending comes from vaguely-named organizations about which there is otherwise little public information.”

In a tacit acknowledgment of their own agency’s inability to ensure compliance with campaign finance laws, the commissioners told the IRS that it need not follow the FEC’s lead in determining the appropriate threshold of political activity to require disclosure. Of course, as CREW noted in its own comments to the IRS, the tax code requires that 501(c)(4) groups operate “exclusively” for social welfare purposes. Organizations that engage in any political activity are, therefore, not entitled to this tax exemption.

Commissioner Ravel, in particular, understands the stakes of allowing dark money groups to run roughshod over our political process. As chairwoman of the California Fair Political Practices Commission, Commissioner Ravel cracked down on a network of dark money groups that funneled millions of dollars into a campaign against two California ballot initiatives, an effort for which CREW honored Commissioner Ravel with two previous Public Service Spotlight wins.

While the FEC still has a long way to go before it behaves like a functioning government agency, we hope that the aggressive, clear-sighted attitude we have seen from Commissioners Ravel and Weintraub is a sign of things to come.

 


Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board

Taking a Stand Against NSA Overreach

Public Service Spotlight: PCLOBRevelations that the National Security Agency (NSA) routinely collects data on millions of citizens in the course of its surveillance activities shocked the public and government entities supposedly overseeing the NSA.

Finally, however, a government oversight body has asserted its role in protecting civil liberties. The independent Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB) issued a report concluding the NSA’s bulk data collection is illegal and should be shut down. For resisting pressure to acquiesce to the government’s increasingly lawless activities and reaffirming the need to safeguard civil liberties, we award PCLOB our Public Service Spotlight.

The forceful conclusion, although issued by a divided board featuring two dissenters, nonetheless came as a surprise from a body that has been criticized as ineffectual. Established in 2004 following a recommendation from the 9/11 commission, the PCLOB appeared destined to become another toothless government agency, ignored by presidents and paralyzed by Washington’s bitter partisanship.

The PCLOB’s report should lay those concerns to rest. Not only did the panel conclude the NSA surveillance programs had violated the law, it rejected the government’s rationale that the spying had saved American lives, saying it was “aware of no instance in which the program directly contributed to the discovery of a previously unknown terrorist plot or the disruption of a terrorist attack.”

While the report is an overdue first step, the task of bringing the agency back in line with the law is far from over. A new director, Vice Adm. Michael Rogers, will soon take the helm of the NSA, and the congressional intelligence committees must exercise oversight of the agency that was so sorely lacking before last year’s disclosures.

Unfortunately, the American public will continue to distrust the NSA if ordinary citizens continue to believe their government is lying to them about the scope of its spying. The release of the PCLOB report underscores the need for a new Church Committee, fully independent of the executive branch, to exhaustively scrutinize our government surveillance programs.

 


Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray

Public Service Spotlight: Ryan/MurraySetting Aside Differences to Achieve Compromise

Congress ended an otherwise unproductive 2013 on a high note, passing a budget agreement with overwhelming bipartisan support in both chambers. For overcoming long odds and a bitter partisan climate to produce results in a divided Congress, we award our Public Service Spotlight to Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA).

The agreement may begin to reverse some of the economic damage caused by years of congressional gridlock and inaction. After repeatedly failing to produce any budget deal at all, the parties agreed on spending levels for the next two years. The deal also eliminates some of the harmful, across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration.

The budget, which didn’t fully satisfy members of either party, represents a true compromise — something that has been sorely lacking on Capitol Hill.

Two members from opposite sides of the political spectrum setting aside differences for the good of the country is behavior Americans expect to see from Congress and, despite last-minute complaints from the same interest groups that cheered on the damaging government shutdown in October, Rep. Ryan and Sen. Murray successfully won their colleagues’ backing for the deal.

Passing a budget is among the most basic responsibilities for members of Congress, and in a way, the sheer novelty of the accomplishment is a sad statement about the current reality on Capitol Hill. Still, however low the bar, we are pleased that under the leadership of Rep. Ryan and Sen. Murray, Congress finally cleared it.

 


Senators Jeff Merkley and Tom Udall

Public Service Spotlight: Merkley/UdallFighting Against Senate Gridlock

The U.S. Senate is commonly referred to as the world’s greatest deliberative body, but abuse of the filibuster has drawn deliberation to a standstill — paralyzing democracy rather than encouraging debate. CREW has long called for reform to fix the Senate by changing this parliamentary procedure. In this month’s Public Service Spotlight, we highlight the work of Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Tom Udall (D-NM) for their successful efforts to change filibuster rules.

Since they were elected to the Senate in 2008, Sens. Merkley and Udall have been intent on pushing a rules change to reform the filibuster. Last month, in what has commonly been referred to as the “nuclear option,” the Senate voted to change its rules by a majority vote to eliminate filibusters on most presidential nominees. This change doesn’t cover Supreme Court nominees or extend to the passage of legislation, but does streamline the process for approving the president’s picks for executive branch and judicial positions.

After the vote, Sen. Merkley stated “The American people want this institution to function. They want to see it take on big issues. They don’t want to see the entire calendar year eaten up by paralyzing process on nominations.” CREW agrees wholeheartedly.

As we’ve said before, fixing the filibuster is neither a partisan nor an ideological issue. Presidential nominees deserve up-or-down votes, not months — or longer — spent in political purgatory. As a result of these senators’ efforts, we are one step closer to ensuring our government and courts are staffed and run by the brightest and best people, and the Senate runs more smoothly.

We hope you’ll join CREW in applauding Sens. Merkley and Udall for their success in easing the paralysis gripping the Senate.

 


The Women of the U.S. Senate

Public Service Spotlight: U.S. Senate WomenForging Bipartisan Compromise

While the U.S. Senate historically has been considered an old boys’ club, the 20 women serving in the upper chamber show times are changing. Of the group of 14 senators who hammered out a solution to the government shutdown, six are women. In this month’s Public Service Spotlight, CREW highlights this bipartisan group of female senators: Susan Collins (R-ME), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), and Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND).

As a deal emerged to end the government shutdown last month, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) remarked, “Leadership, I must fully admit, was provided primarily from women in the Senate.” If men like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) were responsible for driving the country into the shutdown, women like Sen. Collins and her colleagues got the government back to work.

But their effort to end the government shutdown is just one example of the extensive influence of the Senate’s female members. Women comprise only 20 percent of the upper chamber, but they serve as the chair or ranking member of half of the body’s 20 committees.

Discussing her relationship with her female Senate colleagues, Sen. Collins stated, “Although we span the ideological spectrum, we are used to working together in a collaborative way.” In hyper-partisan Washington, that is exactly the kind of attitude more Americans would like to see from their elected leaders. We hope you’ll join CREW in applauding these six senators for their leadership.

 


Bob Corker

Public Service Spotlight: Bob CorkerU.S. Senator from Tennessee

It’s hard to be a Republican in Congress who stands up to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX).  It’s even harder to be a Republican who calls out Sen. Cruz and members of his own party during a televised debate.  But Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) did just that last week when he took Sens. Cruz and Mike Lee (R-UT) to task for grandstanding instead of working to keep the government open.  In this month’s Public Service Spotlight, CREW highlights Sen. Corker’s efforts to prevent his colleagues from turning the “world’s greatest deliberative body” into reality TV.

The day after Sen. Cruz’s 21-hour filibuster, Sen. Corker took the floor to chastise the junior senators from Texas and Utah for turning Senate business “into a show” as the country barreled towards a government shutdown.  In a 10-minute exchange, Sen. Corker rebuked Sens. Cruz and Lee, stating “The reason we’re waiting is that y’all have sent out releases and e-mails and you want everybody to be able to watch, and it just doesn’t seem to me that that’s in our nation’s interest.” 

Sen. Corker added their efforts to draw attention to their actions were “taking priority over getting legislation back to the House so they can take action before the country’s government shuts down.”  While this may help solidify Sen. Cruz’s future political support for a potential presidential bid, it does nothing to solve the problems we face today.

Through their actions, Sens. Cruz and Lee demonstrated they were more interested in preening than in advancing the interests of the country.  Times of crisis call for workhorses not show horses, and Sen. Corker’s brave words embody the mentality required for effective representation in Congress.

We hope you’ll join CREW in applauding Sen. Corker’s efforts to restore sanity to the Senate.

 


Benjamin M. Lawsky

Public Service Spotlight: Benjamin LawskyNew York State Superintendent of Financial Services

Despite countless hearings and editorials devoted to the lessons of the 2008 financial crisis, many government agencies are still too close to the industries they regulate, or too timid to take them on.  But one Empire State official is using the power of his office to challenge the financial industry’s status quo.  In this month’s Public Service Spotlight, CREW highlights the efforts of New York State Superintendent of Financial Services Benjamin M. Lawsky for cracking down on the banking industry in ways federal regulators have been unable or unwilling to do.

Since taking the reins of the Department of Financial Services in 2011, Mr. Lawsky, a former prosecutor, has made a name for himself as one of the nation’s most assertive banking regulators.  In August 2012, his office announced a $340 million settlement with Standard Chartered after allegations the British bank had used its New York branch to launder money from Iran.  Mr. Lawsky then went on to win a $250 million settlement this past June with the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi for related charges.  By contrast, the bank settled with the Treasury Department months earlier for a mere $8.6 million.

In August, Mr. Lawsky set his sights on the Internet-based payday loan industry, sending cease and desist letters to 35 companies making usurious loans to New Yorkers, including well known online lender Western Sky Financial.  State law bans lenders from charging more than 25 percent interest, but the Department of Financial services found some lenders were charging interest rates as high as 1,095 percent.  To help close the legal loophole, Mr. Lawsky also wrote to the major banks, instructing them to cut off payday lenders from accessing customers’ accounts to collect payments.  Days later, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced a lawsuit against Western Sky Financial.  As a result of these actions and those of other state regulators, the prominent payday lending company suspended operations on September 3.

We hope you will join us in applauding Mr. Lawsky’s admirably aggressive stance on abuses by the banking industry in New York and encourage other state financial regulators to follow his lead.

 


Jim Sensenbrenner

Public Service Spotlight: Jim SensenbrennerU.S. Representative from Wisconsin

In this era of increasing political gridlock, it is getting harder and harder to find members of Congress who are willing to buck party lines and take difficult stands for what they believe is right.  This month, CREW highlights the actions of Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI), who is quickly becoming the voice of reason in Congress, working to forge bipartisan solutions to bolster the Voting Rights Act and limit the National Security Agency’s (NSA) surveillance programs.

After the Supreme Court’s ruling in Shelby County v. Holder invalidated Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, Rep. Sensenbrenner began leading the charge to find a bipartisan solution to update the law. In stark contrast to the last-minute, backroom deals that have become business as usual in Congress, Rep. Sensenbrenner — while serving as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee in 2006 — ensured the law was renewed a year before it was set to expire in 2007.  Regarding Rep. Sensenbrenner’s commitment to the latest challenge, Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) said, “If anyone on the other side of the aisle can bring people to the table and get it done, this man can do it.”

Further, as one of the chief authors of the PATRIOT Act, Rep. Sensenbrenner has used his standing to work to protect Americans from unreasonable government surveillance.  Thanks to his efforts, an amendment that would have defunded the NSA’s phone surveillance program nearly passed the House, falling just seven votes shy.  The vote served as a watershed moment, proving that reining is surveillance measures is an issue with bipartisan support.

Protecting voting rights and ensuring the government doesn’t infringe on Americans’ civil liberties in the name of national security are colossal undertakings.  We hope you will join CREW in applauding Rep. Sensenbrenner for his efforts.

 


Wendy Davis

Public Service Spotlight: Wendy DavisTexas State Senator

In the Texas Senate, lawmakers do things differently.  Unlike their federal counterparts, Texas senators are not only required to hold the floor and stay on topic in order to filibuster, but also must refrain from basic comforts like drinking and even leaning against a desk.  For this month’s Public Service Spotlight, we’re highlighting the efforts of Texas State Senator Wendy Davis, who filibustered for more than 11 hours to block the passage of an anti-abortion bill she strongly opposed.

Sen. Davis’ actions epitomize the immense power of the talking filibuster.  CREW has long advocated for significant changes to the U.S. Senate’s filibuster process, including requiring whoever is filibustering to actually hold the floor and talk — just as Jimmy Stewart did in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.  Earlier this year, CREW and a coalition of groups mobilized the effort to reform the filibuster and eliminate gridlock in the upper chamber. 

Talking for more than 11 hours straight is daunting task for anyone, especially when you are forbidden from sitting down, eating, or taking a bathroom break.  Despite nearly impossible odds of staving off the bill before the end of session, Sen. Davis — outfitted in pink sneakers — bravely undertook the challenge.  Ultimately, her efforts contributed to the defeat of the bill — for now.

Regardless of whether you agree with Sen. Davis, it is impossible to deny her admirable conviction.  We applaud Sen. Davis for making a very public stand for what she believes in and hope her example puts pressure on the U.S. Senate to reconsider its own filibuster rules.

 


Sens. Carl Levin and John McCain

Public Service Spotlight: Carl Levin and John McCainChairman and Ranking Member, Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations

Not even an industry darling like Apple Inc. is exempt from the tax laws other American corporations must follow. When it came to taking on one of the world’s most admired — and powerful — companies for tax avoidance, Sens. Carl Levin (D-MI) and John McCain (R-AZ) didn’t mince words.

As the chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, this duo has gone after major multinational corporations such as Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard for employing creative tax avoidance schemes. But as Sen. Levin stated, “Apple sought the Holy Grail of tax avoidance.” In advance of last month’s hearing on Apple, the committee released a 40-page memorandum with its findings, along with recommendations.

At the hearing, Sens. Levin and McCain criticized Apple for “creat[ing] offshore entities holding tens of billions of dollars, while claiming to be tax residents nowhere.” By shifting profits overseas and avoiding U.S. taxes, Apple makes hardworking Americans who pay their fair share feel like rubes.

Our tax system isn’t perfect and is in need of updating to ensure U.S. companies with overseas operations pay the taxes they owe, rather than relying on loopholes. As Sen. McCain stated, “The proper place for the bulk of Apple’s creative energy ought to go into its innovative products and services, not in its tax department.” We couldn’t agree more.

We hope you’ll join CREW in applauding Sens. Levin and McCain for their bipartisan efforts to highlight this problem.

 


Previous Recipients of CREW's Public Service Spotlight

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