The Universal Notebook: Nuke the 'stink tanks'

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Republicans asked for it and they got it.

Democrats in the U.S. Senate had no choice but to use the so-called “nuclear option” of eliminating the requirement of a 60-vote super majority to confirm the president’s judicial and executive nominations. Obstructionist Republicans had so abused the senate filibuster rule that half the filibusters in the entire history of the United States had been used against Obama nominations. When the Senate voted 52-48 to nuke the super majority, Republicans had 76 Obama nominees bottled up in procedural limbo.

Republicans, of course, cried hypocrisy and vowed that once they took back a majority, the Democrats would rue the day they used the nuclear option. Please God, we should never have a GOP majority in the Senate ever again. But that said, what’s good for the GOP goose is good for the Demo gander.

The president of the United States and the people of the United States are entitled to timely, straight up or down votes on all presidential nominees. If a nominee can be shown to be unqualified, incompetent, corrupt or holds views antithetical to your own, then vote against him or her. But why anyone ever thought it was a good idea, let alone an American idea, to keep the POTUS from filling executive, diplomatic and judicial positions by parliamentary procedure is beyond comprehension.

We are currently suffering through the worst Congress in the history of the United States, and the primary reason is that Republicans in both the House and Senate, while claiming to do the people’s bidding, are actually taking all their marching orders from billionaires and corporations that fund ideological nonprofits, PACs and “think tanks.”

We have well-organized and well-heeled right-wing radicals wrecking this country, using what have come to be called “stink tanks” to push model legislation on unwary states. It is high time we shine a bright light on these powerful, dark money groups that operate out of public view.

While it was wrong for the Internal Revenue Service to single out conservative Tea Party groups for audits, it makes good sense for the IRS to now clearly define what constitutes “political activity” and to deny tax-exempt status to groups like the Maine Heritage Policy Center that masquerade as think tanks when they are actually political advocacy organizations.

When Gov. Paul LePage first took office, his initial reform agenda came right out of the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council playbook quarterbacked by MHPC. Now we have the prospect of a new right-wing sneak attack coming from the conservative State Policy Network, which recently funded the MHPC FreeME plan to turn Washington County into an income- and sales tax-free zone.

The FreeME idea seems pretty innocent: give economically depressed counties a tax break. Of course, that’s just the elephant’s nose under the tent. The real agenda is to create tax-free zones for corporations so they won’t have to share the wealth. Just what we need: a Downeast tax haven for the Koch brothers.

If, heaven forbid, LePage should be re-elected, expect to see a lot more ALEC and SPN initiatives in Maine’s future: attacks on public unions, gutting public pensions, rolling back environmental protections, privatizing education, cutting taxes, denying social services, disenfranchising students, the elderly and people of color. Sound familiar? It should.

Beyond denying tax-exempt status to dark money groups like ALEC, MHPC and SPN, we need to create total transparency in our political system so that, at the very least, we know who is trying to buy our democracy. Full donor disclosure should be required of any nonprofit, corporation, union, political action committee or individual who donates money to any political cause, whether candidate for election, referendum campaign, or legislative agenda.

We have this dark money plague in America, of course, because of the Supreme Court’s benighted decision in Citizens United to allow unlimited political contributions. We have men sitting on the Supreme Court right now who seriously believe that corporations are people (with all the inalienable rights thereof) and that money is speech.

All of which brings us back to the filibuster and the nuclear option.

Because judicial nominees can no longer be blocked by filibusters and cloture votes, candidates for the bench must be scrutinized more carefully than ever for their qualifications and be confirmed or denied on the merits. That’s a good thing. But it also makes it all the more imperative that we make sure the man or woman who gets to nominate Supreme Court justices is someone who is on the side of we, the people.

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Yarmouth. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.