In addition to Betsy DeVos’ decades-long push for vouchers to underwrite tuition at private schools, another less publicized passion has been her opposition to restrictions on campaign contributions and her role in the 2010 Citizens United ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, which opened up a floodgate of contributions to campaigns at all levels of the electoral system.
The court ruled at the time that corporations had the same political speech rights as individuals, and restrictions on independent expenditure committees contributing to campaigns were unconstitutional.
DeVos’ confirmation hearings before the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee were scheduled for today, but they have been postponed for a week, until Jan. 17. The committee is chaired by Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-TN, who was himself a secretary of education under former President George H.W. Bush. Alexander, a strong backer of DeVos, issued a statement indicating that her confirmation by the committee is assured.
“Betsy DeVos is an outstanding nominee who has complied with all of the committee’s requirements, and no one doubts that she will be confirmed as education secretary,” an aide to Alexander said. “This hearing delay is simply to accommodate the Senate schedule.”
DeVos’ efforts to remove restrictions on campaign contributions, and those of the family she married into, are described in Jane Mayer’s just published “Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right.” Few issues have been “more central to the DeVos family’s mission than eradicating restraints on political spending,” writes Mayer.
The family, she writes, is among “a small group of hugely wealthy, archconservative families that for decades poured money, often with little public disclosure, into influencing how Americans thought and voted.”
As a New York Times article today describes, the DeVoses have been major backers of a plethora of conservative organizations such as the Mackinac Center, the Acton Institute, the National Center for Policy Analysis and the Institute for Justice.
Members of the DeVos family have also been prolific spenders when it comes to political campaigns.
According to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, in the past two years alone, DeVos family members have poured about $14 million into a range of state and national campaigns, PACs and super PACS. The organization noted that the family’s contributions “easily exceeded” the combined contributions of the PACS of the United Auto Workers and the Michigan Education Association, representing teachers in DeVos’ home state.
DeVos’ late father was billionaire Edgar Prince, whose fortune came from his business supplying auto parts to the auto industry in Michigan, and who was himself a major contributor to conservative causes. Her mother, Elsa Prince Broekhuizen, was the fourth-largest contributor to Proposition 8, the anti-gay marriage initiative narrowly approved by California voters in November 2008.
Following in her family’s footsteps, DeVos has been a significant player in her own right, helping to establish several conservative organizations or serving on their boards.
It has been two decades since she spelled out her views on campaign financing in a lengthy and strongly worded piece that appeared in the Capitol Hill-based Roll Call in 1997. Her blunt rhetoric at the time bore striking similarities to that of her future boss in the White House.
“To be really heard in our system requires some serious cash,” she wrote. “There is a name for political candidates who can’t raise enough money to run television ads – losers.”
The article was published the same year that she became a founding board member of the James Madison Center for Free Speech, also founded in 1997, based in Terra Haute, Ind. Its honorary chairman was current Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-KY.
According to its website, the organization was established “to support litigation and public education activities in order to defend the rights of political expression and association by citizens and citizen groups as guaranteed by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.” In Jane Mayer’s view, the “nonprofit organization’s sole goal was to end all legal restrictions on money in politics.”
The organization has been enormously successful in that regard, driven by the passion and persistence of its chief counsel, attorney James Bopp Jr., who was instrumental in winning the Citizens United lawsuit in the Supreme Court more than a decade later.
Devos’ Roll Call article was spurred by her opposition to the campaign reforms introduced in Congress at the time as the result of the unlikely alliance between Sen. John McCain, R-AZ, and then-Sen. Russell Feingold, D-WI.
“The do-gooders are out en masse with a variety of proposals, ranging from the clearly unconstitutional, to the patently absurd, to the very dangerous,” DeVos wrote in the opening paragraph of her article.
“Soft money” in politics, she said, is nothing more than “hard-earned American dollars that Big Brother has yet to find a way to control.”
“I know a little something about soft money,” she wrote with some pride, “as my family is the largest single contributor of soft money to the national Republican party.”
She took issue with the view that there is too much money in politics: “The truth is that we know more about the cheeseburgers we eat than the leaders we elect. McDonald’s spent more on television advertising last year than did all the candidates for the House of Representatives combined.”
Most critically, she equated campaign spending with free speech, echoing the argument that made its way into the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling in 2010. The McCain-Feingold reforms and other efforts to limit campaign spending, she said, were nothing more than an “attempt to limit speech.”
Efforts in Congress to restrict the ability of independent citizen groups to talk to the voters via advertising, she wrote, “amounts to nothing less than politicians trying to gag our ability to comment on their performance.”
She then pivoted to a critique of “mainstream media” for what she called their misguided role in supporting campaign finance limits.
If “the crowd succeeds in enacting spending limits on candidates and gagging the ability of citizen groups to speak,” she said, the only institution that would be left unregulated “and able to spend any amount of money it pleases” would be the news media. “The news media increasingly would become the controllers of the message, and the only way that candidates could get their message out to voters would be to be featured in television, radio and newspaper coverage.”
At the time, Bopp was the general counsel for the James Madison Center for Free Speech. The organization appeared not to have any staffers, but rather acted as a pass-through for funds to consultants like Bopp, who had the same office address and phone number in Terra Haute, Ind., as the nonprofit organization.
In a remarkable outcome of a 10-year crusade, the Supreme Court eventually ruled in his favor, against all predictions.
There is widespread agreement that if it had not been for Bopp’s dogged persistence over several decades, the Citizens United case would never have reached the Supreme Court, or achieved the stunning victory that continues to shake the political and electoral landscape since then.
A 2010 New York Times article following the ruling described him as “a lonely Quixote tilting at the very idea of regulating political donations as an affront to free speech.”
In the article, Richard Hasen from Loyola Law School in Los Angeles said the Citizens United case “was really Jim’s brainchild…. He has manufactured these cases to present certain questions to the Supreme Court in a certain order and achieve a certain result. He is a litigation machine.”
It is not known the extent to which DeVos’ views on campaign financing will surface at next week’s confirmation hearing, or if they will at all. After the Citizens United ruling, the major battles on that front have arguably been won, at least from DeVos’ perspective. What will likely get more attention is the extent to which she will press forward on expanding “school choice” to every low-income child in the nation, as Trump promised during his campaign. If her past activities are any guide, it is a goal she will embrace with equal passion and persistence.