Most Americans are already feeling campaign fatigue, and the Democratic candidate has yet to be chosen. One thing that proves how tired most Americans have become of so much to do with politics is a recent article from CNBC noting that a “Majority of Americans say they won’t donate to 2020 presidential campaigns,”
However, this idea is a bit misleading. After all, the same article goes on to indicate that the “majority of privately contributed campaign funds comes from America’s wealthiest. In the 2014 election cycle, the top 0.01% of income earners, the most affluent portion of the notorious ‘1%,’ accounted for 29% of all political committee fundraising.”
The everyday earners and donors accounted for roughly 33% in each major party’s donor base, and though it would seem by these early figures that most will not give, it may not be the case. As one expert noted in the piece said, “I think the major driver in donor behavior this cycle and last cycle has been reactions to Trump and Trump’s policies. I think that’s driving engagement to the degree that we’ve never seen. Ever.”
Yet, even as these facts and figures appear before the public, it has to be noted that many of the would-be candidates have taken an array of different positions on the matter of big-money donations. This is due in part to the ever-increasing awareness that voters have about the potential influences of PACs (Political Action Committees) and SuperPACs that are aligned with “dark money” donors.
Described by one Senator as “shadowy political spending groups,” they seek to create influence at many levels. They obtain posts within the administration, creating ethical issues that are being addressed via legislative actions.
However, some political experts say that the influence such forces create can be detected in “subtle things that are less top of mind, less likely to be in the news — some amendment tucked into a larger bill…[and] greater access for friendly lobbyists.” And it is this sort of sway that cannot be ignored. Keep in mind that they get the name dark money groups because campaign finance and IRS laws protect their anonymity.
To clarify, “dark money” is the term used to talk about expenditures by large groups towards the election of a candidate. The phrase also describes dark money as donations that are unable to be traced to their sources. Whether it is through a PAC, SuperPAC, or other donating organization, it is almost impossible to detect and then legislate the funding.
PACs and SuperPACs are non-profits, and recent changes in the law mean they are no longer required to disclose the names of donors. The funds they distribute or spend on candidates may come from almost anywhere. As you can imagine, this means they can keep the source of political backing a secret. That also means they enjoy a “workaround” of traditional tax and campaign finance rules designed to limit influence.
Though PACs and SuperPACs are a relatively new evolution in American elections, the rule changes we mentioned grant, such groups, more and more leverage all of the time. For instance, the Citizens United ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court in 2010, eliminated the ban on corporations and unions spending enormous sums on political campaigns. Deeming it a matter of free speech, the court (in a five to four ruling), determined it was appropriate for labor unions and corporations to “spend as much as they want to convince people to vote for or against a candidate,” according to an article from The Center for Public Integrity.
And for those who do not believe it can be that substantial of an issue, we already noted that it is big money that pays into most campaigns. One source has reported that “spending of this kind (in which groups did not reveal their donors) climbed rapidly from five million dollars in the year 2006 to more than three hundred million dollars in 2012.” Another report explained the problem like this: “With big-dollar donors effectively in control of American politics, writing six- and seven-figure checks to SuperPACs to support ad campaigns that confuse viewers and distort the views and records of candidates, it’s no surprise that voters are increasingly cynical about public affairs.”
And no wonder fewer and fewer or donating, but as we also learned, that may not remain accurate. And this is particularly true when major political players say they will not accept such funds.
As an example, Senator Kamala Harris (Dem., and the junior senator from California) has said she will not take any fossil fuel industry money, will not accept donations from corporate PACs and will not work with federal lobbyists. She did not indicate any refusals of SuperPAC funding.
As of early 2019, according to a report for the Center for Public Integrity, “Californians gave 74 percent of her campaign dollars….Harris’ campaign committee has received about 92 percent of its contributions from individual donors.”
However, she “operates a leadership PAC, Fearless for the People, which has made recent contributions to the U.S. Senate campaigns of other current or potential Democratic presidential candidates, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York. It’s also given money to Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.”
Clearly, she is unlikely to be a politician who falls under the sway of dark money influences. Does it mean we should not scrutinize her as we might other senators? Of course not, and any signs of influence is what we are going to consider throughout the rest of this article. To do so, we will examine several specific points:
- Her publicly stated priorities and issues
- Senator Harris’s committee and caucus activities
- Her critical sources of campaign funding
- Senator Harris’s most recent legislative items sponsored or co-sponsored
By doing so, we can determine if her campaign backers rather than constituents have influenced her policies and actions. We will also use other data to reach our conclusions, including bipartisanship ratings, approval ratings, and more.
For example, Senator Harris rates poorly in the Lugar Center Bipartisanship Index, holding the 95th spot in the list. What this means is plain: legislation she creates does nottypically attract the support of Republicans, and that, in turn, she does not often support their efforts. She does rate favorably in Senate approval ratings where she holds 62nd place and maintains a 61% net approval rating among fellow Democrats and a 13% net approval with Republicans.
About Senator Kamala Harris
Born in 1964 in California, she grew up in the academic Berkeley area and lived through the tumultuous desegregation busing period. As a person of mixed race, this played a particularly relevant part of her early life. Her parents divorced, and her mother relocated the family to Canada. Ms. Harris then attended Howard University, majoring in economics and political science. She then obtained a JD from the University of California and was soon a deputy district attorney in California. She was elected District Attorney in San Francisco in 2004 and then the state’s Attorney General in 2011 and again in 2014. In 2016, she ran for and won a Senate seat.
Her official website explains that she has “has spent her life fighting injustice…fighting for the rights of all communities in California. Since taking office, she has introduced and cosponsored legislation to raise wages for working people, reform our broken criminal justice system, make healthcare a right for all Americans, address the epidemic of substance abuse, support veterans, and military families, and expand access to childcare for working parents.
It’s the privilege of Kamala’s life to work on behalf of the people of California.”
She does not provide visitors to her site with a list of her legislative priorities or the issues on which she feels compelled to focus. However, as ProPublica tracks all Senators to determine how they vote, the most common subjects of bills they sponsor and even what issues appear in press releases. They have identified that Senator Harris focuses on the following in her legislative work:
- Public Lands and Natural Resources
- Crime and Law Enforcement
- Labor and Employment
The Senator’s press releases and the topics most discussed in her press releases include:
- Civil Rights and Liberties, Minority Issues
- Emergency Management
- Crime and Law Enforcement
There is a bit of overlap here, but not much, and that means we need to keep scrutinizing the Senator’s words and actions to reveal any signs of influence.
Senator Harris’s Committee Work
For the 116th Congress, Senator Harris is assigned to the following committees and subcommittees:
- Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs
- Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations
- Subcommittee on Federal Spending Oversight and Emergency Management
- Committee on the Budget
- Committee on the Judiciary
- Subcommittee on Intellectual Property
- Subcommittee on the Constitution
- Select Committee on Intelligence
And yet, if our goal is authentically to gauge her achievements and authenticity in the goals she claims, we need to also look at her backers to be sure that any overlapping priorities do not indicate influence.
The Top Industries Funding Senator Harris Campaign Efforts
For2020, Senator Harris’ campaign has raised $24,832,245.00 and spent $11,561,785.00. This support came from an array of industries, and we’ll look at those contributors in three distinct groupings:
- The industries in which the Senator was a “favorite,” or top recipient in the last campaign cycle (2016)
- The industries that contributed the largest amount of financial support
- Individual organizations that donated the most
According to the Open Secrets Website, Senator Harris was not an industry favorite, but was greatly supported by a long list of industries, which were, in ranking order:
- Lawyers/Law Firms
- Securities & Investment
- Business Services
- Health Professionals
- Printing & Publishing
- Real Estate
- Women’s Issues
- Miscellaneous Business
- Miscellaneous Finance
- Civil Servants/Public Officials
- Non-Profit Institutions
- Electronics Manufacturing & Equip
- Miscellaneous Services
- Commercial Banks
In addition to the general industries making contributions, the individual organizations were offering up the most, and which are listed below. NOTE: None of these organizations or groups donated directly to the campaign. Instead, they worked with PACs or had direct employee contributions for the 2016 election.
- Paul, Weiss et al – “A firm of more than 1000 lawyers with diverse backgrounds, personalities, ideas and interests who provide innovative and effective solutions to our clients’ most complex legal and business challenges. The firm represents some of the world’s largest publicly and privately held corporations, financial institutions and asset managers, and clients needing pro bono assistance.”
- Walt Disney Co – “An American diversified multinational mass media and entertainment conglomerate headquartered at the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, California… Disney has created and acquired corporate divisions in order to market more mature content than is typically associated with its flagship family-oriented brands. The company is known for its film studio division, Walt Disney Studios, which includes Walt Disney Pictures, Walt Disney Animation Studios, Pixar, Marvel Studios, Lucasfilm, 20th Century Fox, Fox 2000 Pictures, Fox Searchlight Pictures, and Blue Sky Studios. Disney’s other main divisions are Disney Media Networks, Disney Parks, Experiences and Products, and Walt Disney Direct-to-Consumer & International. Disney also owns and operates the ABC broadcast network; cable television networks such as Disney Channel, ESPN, Freeform, FX, National Geographic TV, and A&E Networks; publishing, merchandising, music, and theater divisions; and Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, a group of 14 theme parks around the world.”
- Kirkland & Ellis– “An international law firm founded in Chicago, in 1909.
- Kirkland is the largest law firm in the United States, with US$3.76 billion in revenue, and an estimated profit per equity partner of US$5.03 million. Kirkland has represented many prominent and controversial clients, such as British Petroleum (in relation to the 2010 Deepwater oil spill), Kraft Foods (in relation to its merger with Heinz), billionaire and alleged child-sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein, Bain Capital, and a group of major investors in the international fishmeal industry, in relation to their claims against China Fishery.”
- DLA Piper – “A global law firm with lawyers located in more than 40 countries throughout the Americas, Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia Pacific,” and more.
- AT&T Inc – “An American multinational conglomerate holding company headquartered at Whitacre Tower in Downtown Dallas, Texas. It is the world’s largest telecommunications company, the largest provider of mobile telephone services, and the largest provider of fixed telephone services in the United States through AT&T Communications. Since June 14, 2018, it is also the parent company of mass media conglomerate WarnerMedia, making it the world’s largest media and entertainment company in terms of revenue.”
- Alphabet Inc– “An American multinational conglomerate headquartered in Mountain View, California. It was created through a corporate restructuring of Google on October 2, 2015 and became the parent company of Google and several former Google subsidiaries.”
- University of California
- Creative Artists Agency – “Represents thousands of the world’s leading actors, directors, writers, producers, musical artists, comedians, authors, athletes, coaches, broadcasters, teams, leagues, chefs, designers, consumer brands, and more.”
- Womencount PAC – “A non-profit progressive political organization that gives women of all generations and backgrounds from around the United States a powerful voice in the political process. [the] organization has three arms: a 527 that launches issue-related campaigns, a 501c4 that conducts political advocacy, and a PAC that raises and donates funds to candidates for office.
- Hueston Hennigan LLP – “A litigation boutique composed of trial lawyers who specialize in high-stakes business disputes and white-collar criminal defense. Although they are headquartered in Southern California, the firm has tried cases that have amassed to high-profile victories throughout the US and internationally.”
This demonstrates a healthy balance of in-state and outside supporters and offers a positive portrait of Senator Harris. To complete our search for signs of influence, we must turn our attention to the legislation she’s introduced and sponsored during the current Congress. It is her legislative acts that will prove definitively any undue pressure from backers.
9 Items Senator Harris Has Sponsored During the 116th Congress – To Date
For the 116th Congress, to date, Senator Harris has 424 pieces of legislation with her name appearing; she has sponsored 49 of them, and the remaining 375 she has cosponsored. The Senator’s official Congressional page indicates that her emphasis in this Congress has been, as ProPublica noted, health, immigration, crime and law enforcement, government operations and politics, and education.
S.4 —LIFT (Livable Incomes for Families Today) the Middle Class Act
Reintroduced on January 3, this is a bill meant to provide “middle class and working families with a tax credit of up to $6,000 a year—or up to $500 a month—to address the rising cost of living,” according to a press release from Senator Harris’ office. In it, she outlines that “The latest Federal Reserve report on the economic well-being of Americans indicated that four in ten adults still say they don’t have enough savings to cover a $400 emergency expense.”
Her response to this was to draft this bill that would:
- Provide up to $6,000 a year per family, in the form of a refundable tax credit.
- Tax credit applies to households earning under $100,000 annually.
- Tax credit provides up to $3,000 for single filers earning under $50,000 per year.
- The tax cut can be accessed each month or at the end of the year.
- Families can receive up to $500 per month.
- Individuals can receive up to $250 per month.
- The advance credit each month would also provide families an alternative to taking out predatory payday loans. The median payday loan borrowed is $350 and interest on these loans can be as high as 780% annually, which often force borrowers deeper in debt. By making more money available, it would also help families budget for other goals.
- The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy estimates the LIFT Act would impact one in every two workers and two out of every three children in America. In addition, ITEP estimates approximately 1 million Pell Grant eligible students would qualify for the credit of up to $3,000.
Explaining her effort to see this passed into law, Senator Harris said, “We need to make America’s tax code work for working people. Instead of more tax breaks for the top 1% and corporations, we should be lifting up millions of American families. A real tax cut for middle class families is a good place to start. That is why the LIFT the Middle Class Act is my first priority in the new Congress.”
She had no cosponsors for the bill, but did obtain a long list of endorsements from such groups as “DEMOS, Economic Security Project, SEIU International, the National Urban League, Greenlining Institute, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, San Francisco Mayor London N. Breed, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg,” and dozens more. The bill was read twice and referred to the Committee on Finance.
S.65 —Ensuring Diverse Leadership Act of 2019
Reintroduced on January 9, this bill would “ensure that at least one minority and one female candidate are interviewed for each vacancy for the presidency of a reserve bank at each of the twelve reserve banks in the Fed (San Francisco, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Richmond, Atlanta, Chicago, St. Louis, Minneapolis, Kansas City, and Dallas).”
Diversity in these roles is almost non-existent, according to a news release about the bill, which said: “Of the more than 130 individuals who have served as presidents of the twelve reserve banks, only 3 have been non-white. In 2017, Raphael Bostic became the first African American reserve bank president when he became president of the Atlanta Fed. Additionally, there have been only seven women to ever serve as a reserve bank president.”
It went on to explain that in addition to “ensuring diverse candidates are interviewed for the position of president, the bill would also require that reserve banks submit a report to the Senate Banking Committee, the House Financial Services Committee, and the Office of the Inspector General of the Federal Reserve System within 60 days of filling a vacancy for a presidency detailing how many candidates were considered and providing demographic information on them. The bill would also make technical corrections to the Federal Reserve Act to replace the term ‘Chairman’ with the term ‘Chair.’”
Speaking of the bicameral bill, Senator Harris said, “Bringing greater diversity to the Federal Reserve will ensure that more perspectives are heard as major decisions are being made about our nation’s economic future and will produce better outcomes for the American people. We must do more to ensure that this country’s leadership reflects the people they serve—not just at the Federal Reserve, but across all levels of government.”
The bill has four cosponsors and was read twice and referred to the Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs.
S.385 —Fairness for Farm Workers Act
Reintroduced on February 7, the bill seeks to “strengthen critical protections for farmworkers as they face long hours and exposure to heat. The bicameral bill would amend the Fair Labor Standards Act to grant overtime protections to farmworkers who work more than 40 hours a week and eliminate most remaining exemptions to the minimum wage for farmworkers,” according to a press release from Senator Harris’ office.
That same release indicated that the CDC or “Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [explained], 100 farm workers suffer injury each day and face the risk of missing work. Average farmworkers are paid a salary at or near the federal poverty line with most not getting paid any overtime pay at all.”
The bill would reach its goals by:
- “Requiring time-and-a-half overtime pay for all agricultural workers, with additional compliance time for small farms.
- Removing exemptions to overtime for agriculture generally and end the exemptions for overtime and minimum wage requirements for certain small farms, hand harvest laborers, non-local minors, and range livestock production. Maintains the family farm exemption to these requirements.
- Removing exemptions to overtime for workers employed in irrigation projects, livestock auctions incidental to farm work, small country grain elevators, certain sugar processing, certain types of intra-state transportation and preparation for transportation of fruits and vegetables, cotton ginning, and cotton compressing.”
Senator Harris said of the bill, “It is absolutely unconscionable that many farmworkers—people who often work over 12 hours a day in the hot sun—do not receive overtime pay for the hard work they do to put food on the tables of American families. This legislation is a major step towards economic justice for our farmworkers, and I’m proud to reintroduce it and continue this fight for basic fairness.”
Endorsed by more than 160 organizations and cosponsored by 14 Democratic senators, the bill was read twice and referred to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.
S.388 —Families, Not Facilities Act of 2019
Reintroduced on February 7, this bill aims to “prohibit U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) from using information gathered in the process of resettling unaccompanied immigrant children to take civil enforcement actions prospective sponsors and all individuals who reside with them. The legislation would also redirect ICE funding to programs that would provide for the safety and welfare of unaccompanied children,” according to Senator Harris.
Speaking about the legislation, she said “No potential sponsor who intends to build a safe and nurturing home for an unaccompanied immigrant child should be deterred from coming forward due to fear of a civil ICE enforcement action. This is leaving these vulnerable children to languish in unacceptable conditions in government custody. Unaccompanied children at the border deserve our compassion and assistance, and we must do more to ensure that our government is respecting the human rights and dignity of the youngest among us.”
It would attain its goals by:
- “Prohibiting the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security from using U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) information provided by an unaccompanied child, or initially obtained to evaluate sponsorship of an unaccompanied child, to conduct civil immigration enforcement actions against a child, prospective or current custodian or sponsor, or resident in the home of the prospective or current custodian or sponsor.
- Transferring ICE FY2019 Enforcement and Removal Funding to the new Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) programs intended to provide unaccompanied children with comprehensive social work services and connect them with legal representation. It also transfers funds to the FBI’s Violent Crimes Against Children Program and the HHS Task Force to Prevent and End Human Trafficking.
- Creating an ORR Advisory Committee on Shelters comprised of nonprofit immigration and child welfare experts and require the committee to publish public reports on their findings.”
It was read twice and referred to the Committee on the Judiciary.
S.513 —HEART Act of 2019
Reintroduced on February 14, this bipartisan bill seeks to “better prioritize the wellbeing of animals by speeding up the legal process for federal animal fighting cases, holding offenders financially responsible for the care of animals in custody, and allowing courts to take into account animals’ welfare when considering legal delays,” as explained in a press release from Senator Harris’ office.
This is a bicameral bill, and speaking of the need for it, Senator Harris said that “Abusing animals and intentionally provoking them is wrong. When our government saves animals that have been victims of cruelty and abuse, we must do everything we can to ensure their welfare. I’m proud to reintroduce this bill to streamline the process of getting these animals the care they need and ensuring that they are properly cared for in the future.”
The bill has endorsements from “the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Humane Society, the National Sheriffs’ Association, and the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys.” It has six cosponsors and was read twice and referred to the Committee on the Judiciary.
S.848 —Digital Service Act of 2019
Introduced on March 14, this bill seeks to “empower state and local governments to invest in ‘digital services,’ small teams of technologists, designers, and civil servants who will update and rebuild government systems. The legislation will also bolster the United States Digital Service (USDS), which since 2014 has completed over 100 projects improving the federal government’s ability to serve the American people while saving taxpayers billions.”
It would reach such goals by:
- “Authorizing $50 million annually for the United States Digital Service.
- Authorizing $15 million annually for state and local governments to receive two-year seed grants to establish and strengthen digital services.
- Requiring at least 50% of each grant to be used for talent rather than technology.
- Requiring grantees to report on outcomes before the end of the two-year period.
- Requiring the USDS to report to Congress on the impact of grants bi-annually.”
Explaining the importance of the legislation, Senator Harris noted that “Americans deserve a government that works for them and that just plain works. We must do more to empower our state and local governments to tap into the power of technology to provide seamless, cost-effective services for the 21st century. The Digital Service Act will help harness top talent for the government, save taxpayer dollars, and put the power of technology to work on behalf of the American people.”
With one cosponsor, the bill was read twice and referred to the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.
S.1299 —21st Century STEM for Girls and Underrepresented Minorities Act
Introduced on May 2, this bill aims to “provide funding for school districts across the country to support STEM education for girls, students of color, LGBTQ students, and students with disabilities.” In a press release about it, Senator Harris noted that the U.S. is “facing a projected shortage of approximately 1 million STEM professionals by 2025, [and that she] is committed to increasing opportunities for women and minorities to secure these high wage, stable jobs.”
If passed into law, it would “authorize a $40 million competitive grant program for school districts to improve participation in STEM education. Examples of qualifying activities include:
- Providing tutoring and mentoring programs in STEM subjects.
- Providing afterschool and summer activities designed to encourage interest and skill-building in STEM subjects.
- Providing subsidies to minimize the costs of STEM-related educational materials, equipment, field trips, internships, and work experiences.
- Educating parents about the opportunities and advantages of STEM careers.
- Providing professional development services to teachers, principals, and other personnel aimed at reduced racial and gender bias.”
Though not bicameral, similar legislation is also before the House. Speaking about it, Senator Harris said “When we have more women, people of color, LGBTQ folks, and people with disabilities in STEM jobs, we get better results. Preparing our nation’s students for the jobs of the 21st century starts in the classroom, and we must ensure that the benefits of that education are shared equally with those who are currently underrepresented in STEM professions.”
With four cosponsors, the bill was read twice and referred to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.
S.1377 —EQUAL Defense Act of 2019
Introduced on May 8, this legislation is also known as the Ensuring Quality Access to Legal Defense (EQUAL Defense) Act of 2019, and seeks to “support public defender systems, which are straining to uphold the constitutional right to counsel for indigent defendants as required by the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Gideon v. Wainwright decision.”
In a news release about it, Senator Harris’ office explained that the 1963, “U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Gideon v. Wainwright recognized the constitutional right to counsel to anyone accused of criminal wrongdoing and unable to afford their own attorney. But in today’s criminal justice system, public defenders are too often unable to uphold Gideon’s promise because they lack critical resources.
The EQUAL Defense Act will provide financial support for public defense systems and training programs that aim to improve the delivery of legal services to indigent criminal defendants.”
With no cosponsors, the bill was read twice and referred to the Committee on the Judiciary.
S.1458 —Outdoors for All Act
Reintroduced on May 14, this is a bill that seeks to “help communities around the country construct and improve parks and other outdoor recreational spaces, particularly in underserved communities that lack access to outdoor recreation areas.” As a news item about it explained, “one in three Americans do not live within a 10-minute walk of a quality local park, which limits the ability for children to grow up experiencing the outdoors.”
Senator Harris said, “Every American—especially our children—deserves access to the outdoors no matter where they live. We must do more to ensure that our communities have conveniently located parks and open spaces so that everybody can enjoy the mental and physical health benefits of spending time outdoors.”
If passed into law, this Act would do that and “codify and establish a dedicated source of funding for the Outdoor Recreation Legacy Partnership (ORLP). As a nationally competitive grant program funded through the Land and Water Conservation Fund, ORLP helps create and improve state and locally-owned parks and other outdoor recreation areas, particularly in recreation-poor communities deprived of the benefits that parks and open spaces provide.”
It is bicameral legislation with endorsements from a long list of organizations and cosponsorship from eight Democratic senators. It was read twice and referred to the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.
It is obvious that Senator Harris is acting on behalf of her constituency and the people of the U.S. There are no organizations or major donors who may benefit directly or attain influence in any way through the different items she has sponsored and cosponsored thus far. Because she is also attempting to get the nomination for the 2020 presidential election, it will become easier and easier to scrutinize her actions, words, and efforts. Based on what we’ve seen here, there will be no surprises about dark money or less than desirable campaign contributions.