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'Organizing for Action' or 'Charging for Access'? | The Nation

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Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.

'Organizing for Action' or 'Charging for Access'?


Organizing for Action Chairman Jim Messina, who announced following critical coverage that the group would not accept donations from corporations, federal lobbyists or foreign donors. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak.)

What are we to make of Organizing for Action?

OFA—the direct descendant of those other OFAs, Obama for America and Organizing for America—has recently been drawing headlines and inspiring headaches. That’s because it’s an organization with multiple souls. On the one hand, OFA promises to finally do what the Obama team failed to four years ago: Engage and mobilize the campaign’s grassroots volunteer army into a potent force for fighting Republican obstructionism after the election. On the other hand, OFA itself is structured in a way that encapsulates much of what’s broken about our current politics: big-dollar donors trading money for access. Can OFA both exemplify our predicament and ameliorate it?

Last weekend, OFA drew scorching critiques from the editorial boards of the The Washington Post and the The New York Times. Both expressed understandable alarm over OFA’s funding structure: The plan is reportedly to raise half of the organization’s budget in donations of over $500,000, and to reward those donations with quarterly “advisory board” meetings between top donors and the president himself. The Post said the group “should be renamed Paying for Access.” The Times called the funding structure “nothing more than a fancy way of setting a price for access to Mr. Obama.” (The White House pushed back on the report on Monday.)

Common Cause President Bob Edgar was at least as harsh, saying last week that the new OFA “apparently intends to extend and deepen the pay-to-play Washington culture that Barack Obama came to prominence pledging to end.”

As both papers noted, the Obama strategists (including Obama for America Campaign Manager-turned-Organizing for Action Chairman Jim Messina) behind OFA have particular financial flexibility because they’ve organized the group as a 501(c)(4) “social welfare group,” exempt from many requirements under our broken system of campaign finance law. That’s a system that the president has repeatedly recognized needs reform.

All of this invites charges of hypocrisy (always a tailor-made media storyline) and there have been plenty. But the Obama team is facing a challenge that doesn’t lend itself to clear-cut answers: How can you effectively do combat within the system as it exists, while also fighting to transform it? How do you plot a course that’s neither unilateral disarmament against the Right, nor surrender to Politics-As-Usual?

President Obama may be sincerely trying to plot such a course. There’s no doubt he’s sometimes stumbled along the way. As clean elections advocate Jonathan Soros told Bill Moyers last month, “The president has missed a number of opportunities to show leadership on this issue. And I think that’s been both unfortunate and a bad choice politically for him.”

Does this new OFA represent another missed opportunity? With critical fights ahead on issues from guns to immigration, and an all-out and well-funded opposition, I’m glad OFA will be mobilizing the grassroots (and that the president is keeping an eye towards 2014). And I don’t begrudge them the need to raise money, or expect them to fully embody a more progressive legal regime that doesn’t yet exist. Nonetheless, I wish the Obama team had shown a greater measure of audacity, and hope, by embracing a different funding model: focusing more on smaller-dollar donations, and setting out to truly prove, as the Obama and Dean electoral campaigns did, that serious money doesn’t only come from millionaires. (And it’s not as if the White House needed another vehicle to reward $500,000 donors with access; alas, there are already ambassadorships.)

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“We are very concerned about the precedent the OFA move creates for future presidents and elected officials at all levels,” Free Speech for People Executive Director John Bonifaz told me last week, “a new way to allow corporations and the wealthy few to gain disproportionate influence and subvert the democratic process.” For Bonifaz, a stalwart advocate for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United, February ended on a mixed note. On February 22, the White House released a response to Free Speech for People’s online petition urging that Obama include a call for a constitutional amendment in his State of the Union address. Obama didn’t do so, but the White House response told the petitioners, “You’re right” and “President Obama agrees with you.” That response went live on the same night as the Times story reporting on OFA’s planned reliance on high dollar donors. As Bonifaz told me, “I think the timing of the White House response to our petition is not coincidental and that it demonstrates we need to keep the pressure on for presidential leadership on the amendment front.”

So how should we feel about the new OFA? Another anti-corruption advocate, Public Campaign President Nick Nyhart, says it’s still too soon to tell. If Organizing for Action “makes a difference in what gets done, and there’s little evidence that deals cut with donors undermined other issues or forced compromises,” says Nyhart, then “it was the right decision given the realities of where money politics already are.” If not, he adds, “then we should learn from that too.”

The good news is, the principled pushback from concerned citizens and campaign finance reformers seems to be getting results. In a CNN op-ed published this morning, after suggesting that some of OFA’s critics were confused, Messina wrote, “We have now decided not to accept contributions from corporations, federal lobbyists or foreign donors.” That goes beyond previous commitments by OFA, which—to its credit—had already agreed to more disclosure and restrictions than the bare minimum required by law. (Unfortunately, as the AP reported today, corporations seeking to use their money to earn meetings with administration officials could still do so through the trade group Business Forward, which “has said it will ramp up its operations.”)

As OFA’s new role evolves, it’s good to know its leaders are listening to concerned citizens and critics. They should know that we’ll be watching.

Another attempt to fight back against big business’s clout, the proposed financial transactions tax, is a good idea whose time has come, Katrina vanden Heuvel writes.

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