Suddenly, the ads were everywhere — flashing on TV screens and popping up on local radio stations. The TV ads featured a sweating white guy in a business suit shoveling dirt in the bottom of an ever-expanding trench while a voice-over boomed: “When you’re in a hole, stop digging.” In the radio spots, the scrunch of a shovel was interrupted by an echo-chamber-enhanced voice pleading: “Hello? Can we have a little help down here?”
The message was clear: Federal spending has put the nation in a hole and people need to tell Washington to stop — presumably by voting against incumbents in the November election. The messenger, however, was less clear. The commercials ended with the line: “This message has been brought to you by BankruptingAmerica.”
But just who is behind these hole-in-the-ground advocacy ads? The ads don’t say and the website (www.bankruptingamerica.org) sheds little light on who is bankrolling “BankruptingAmerica.” The “About Us” page lists no staff, mailing address, affiliates or sponsors. BackruptingAmerica (BA) characterizes itself as “an educational project that explores the politics hindering economic opportunity and growth.” BA’s Web page claims its goal is “not to merely place blame or point fingers” but also to seek solutions.
The anonymous authors claim that the organization opposes “unprecedented government spending and debt,… higher taxes and poorly designed bureaucratic red tape” (as opposed to well-crafted red tape, presumably). Putting on populist airs, BA claims a concern over “corporate welfare” and appears to hold both Bush and Obama equally guilty of reckless spending. The site even posts comments by “Left-of-center political commentator Robert Reich” and jibes from Bill Maher cracking wise about government spending.
“Put on your Earmuffs”
As part of its educational mission, BA promises to “explain the key components and likely effects of 1,000-page bills the public never sees” and promises to “look for the hidden kickbacks and pork barrel projects Congress hopes you’ll never find.” These would be two worthy services but there is no evidence BA has yet bothered to pursue either goal. If there has been any critical feedback, you won’t find it on the BA site. At the bottom of its page attacking “last year’s unpopular bailouts to over 600 businesses,” is the terse announcement: “Comments are closed.”
BA’s message is largely negative. Like the Tea Party, BA’s vibe is sustained by vague complaints and attacks against “big government.” One BA video explains “How to Create One Million Jobs in Five Easy Steps.” Step 1: “Put on your earmuffs.” (Ignore Washington’s claim that Federal spending can create jobs.) Step 2: “Remove your earmuffs and listen to a smart economist.” (Carmen Reinhart opines that the debt has damaged our economic growth.) Step 3: “Listen to another smart economist.” (Christina Romer, departing White House economist, notes that a 1% drop in GDP equals 1 million jobs.) Step 4: “Apply Transitive Property.” (Cutting the debt would help create jobs.) Step 5: “Go ahead and put on your earmuffs again.” (“Ignore Washington’s claims that cutting spending would harm job creation…. Tell Washington that cutting spending is essential for job creation.”)
The message remains Tea-Party-friendly. There are few specifics on what programs to cut (reducing the Pentagon budget is one quick way to cut the deficit by billions) and certainly no mention of taxing the 1% of Americans who (thanks, in large measure to Bush/GOP tax “reforms”) now hold most of the nation’s wealth.
Following the Clues
So who is behind BankruptingAmerica? There is one slim clue. Under the heading: “What’s in it for us?” BA reveals that it is “a project of Public Notice, a nonpartisan nonprofit… 100 percent focused on arming people with… economic facts and figures.”
The first public notice of Public Notice apparently came in late February 2010, with a column that appeared in US News and World Report railing against Washington’s “[b]ackroom deals, trillion-dollar deficits, pork-laden spending bills, and multibillion-dollar bailouts.”
On September 28, Public Notice paid for an ad on MSNBC that complained of soaring debt and out-of-control Federal spending and ended with a call for viewers to turn out in November and vote for “small, caring government.” The implicit message — that viewers should cast a vote against the incumbent party — seems inconsistent with the rules governing “nonpartisan nonprofit” organizations. However, Public Notice can get away with this because, unlike a traditional 501(c)3 nonprofit, it is a 501(c)4 organization. As such, it is free to engage in “limited” political activity and does not have to disclose its donors.
Jason Togyer, an on-air host at Pittsburg’s WRCT-FM, was concerned that Public Notice has been “underwriting announcements on public, non-commercial radio stations… right before an election.” The ads were included on “The World Café,” a program produced by WXPN-FM in Philadelphia and syndicated on other nonprofit stations.
Togyer noticed that, like the BA homepage, the Public Notice website contains “almost no information about who’s behind it.” Public Notice claims its mission is to provide “clear, unbiased and useful information” to the masses. But, as Togyer notes: “They don’t list a board of directors and they won’t reveal who’s funding it. They don’t even list a mailing address.”
The Public Notice website specifically attacks the government’s stimulus bill, which it proclaims a failure. The website also features a video with clips (that appear to come from Glenn Beck’s August 28 Washington, DC rally) that poses five questions: Which president (1) Spent $3 trillion in a single year, (2) provided a bailout for big corporations, (3) spent billions on a stimulus package during a recession, (4) hiked spending on non-defense items several times over the rate of inflation and, (5) passed a costly healthcare bill. The ad’s answer is a bit of a shocker: “Both Bush and Obama.”
This may look like a bipartisan jab but it’s disingenuous. As “The Dissenting Indian” blogs in a piece titled “Public Notice — A Teabagger/GOP Front,” “President Obama’s healthcare bill was fully paid for… and even reduces the federal deficit — by $130 billion over the first ten years and by over $1.2 trillion over the second decade.” By contrast, George W. Bush’s Medicare prescription drug program was a costly boondoggle designed to enrich the country’s largest drug companies.
Another clue to the politics of BankruptingAmerica is found by checking the site’s “Media” section. BA has posted a number of op-eds that it has placed in newspapers around the country. They are all written by Gretchen Hamel. Ms.Hamel is the founder and partner of a public relations organization called Endeavour Global Strategies. EGP appears to have a staff of three. Sean M. Spicer also is listed as EGP’s “founder and partner.” Before setting up EGP, both Hamel and Spicer were powerful communications officials in the George W. Bush administration.
As Bush’s Deputy Assistant US Trade Representative for Public and Media Affairs, Hamel was (in her own words) “a lead player in crafting and conducting” the campaign to pass Bush’s Free Trade Agreements. Hamel got her start in Washington as Deputy Press Secretary for Rep. J.C. Watts (R-OK) before becoming Communications Director for Rep. John Carter (R-TX). In 2005, Hamel became “chief spokeswoman and press secretary” for the House Republican Conference.
Until 2009, Spicer served in the Executive Office of the President as George W. Bush’s Assistant US Trade Representative for Media and Public Affairs. Before joining the White House, Spicer was Communications Director for the House Republican Conference. He has also served as President of the Republican Communications Association and currently serves on the Board of Trustees of the National Defense Committee.
Hamel Goes On the Record
In March, Zachary Roth managed to reach Gretchen Hamel at the Public Notice office in Washington, DC and reported on his conversation in a TPMMuckraker article for Talking Points Memo (TPM). Asked what specific spending programs Public Notice wished to see cut, Hamel replied: “Its not just about one program.” Asked about the funding sources behind Public Notice, Hamel would only say the organization had “dozens of supporters across the US.” Asked to name some of the major donors, Hamel demurred. “We will not be disclosing our donors. We want to protect the anonymity of our donors.” While she claimed this is common nonprofit practice, it is not.
Hamel reiterated the claim that Public Notice’s mandate was nonpartisan. “We’re gonna be critical of anyone who is involved in the misuse of taxpayer dollars and overspending,” she declared. When Roth asked if she had objected to overspending while serving in the Bush administration, she said she had “but did not elaborate.”
Hopping in the Hole
BankruptingAmerica is not the only “nonpartisan” PR firm waving its shovels in the direction of Washington. A group called DefeatTheDebt.com (DTD) is airing another set of ads that depict a flushed Uncle Sam shoveling away in the bottom of a large hole while a little girl looks down from above and pleads: “Please stop digging.” Another DTD ad depicts a classroom filled with children pledging allegiance to “America’s debt and the Chinese government that lends us money, and to the interest, for which we pay, compoundable, with higher taxes and lower pay, until the day we die.”
DefeatTheDebt boasts more transparency than Public Notice, providing an address, staffing and contact information. The website reveals that DTD is a project of the Employment Policies Institute (EPI), a nonprofit “dedicated to studying public policy issues that affect the American economy.” On DTD’s website, Executive Director Rick Berman expresses concern that the consequences of our growing $13 trillion debt (which requires “$500 million in interest payments every day”) could prove “disastrous.” But there’s another side to DTD and its sponsor, EPI.
According to SourceWatch, Berman created the Employment Policies Institute in 1991 to lobby on behalf of hotel, restaurant, alcohol and tobacco interests. EPI is also the home base for the pro-management Center for Union Facts. Despite its insider reputation as a “think tank financed by business,” EPI continues to present a “populist” face by claiming a number of worker-friendly domain names including MinimumWage.com, LivingWage.com, and GatewayJobs.org. Even EPI’s name seems to have been chosen for its proximity to the long-established Economic Policy Institute, a progressive think tank with roots in organized labor. It is probably no coincidence that the logo for Berman’s EPI uses the same typeface as labor’s EPI. The websites are easily confused: epi.org vs. Berman’s epionline.org. (Chairs of Berman’s EPI have included restaurant impresario Norman Brinker — Steak and Ale, Burger King, Pillsbury restaurant group — and Outback Steakhouse founder Chris Sullivan.)
In 1994, EPI warned that the Clinton Healthcare plan would trigger the loss of 2-3 million jobs. EPI did not advertise the fact that the Clinton’s program was to be financed, in part, by a tax on cigarettes — or that EPI had worked closely with R. J. Reynolds on its campaign. In 1997, Philip Morris saw EPI as a good partner to promote its opposition to proposed smoking bans in public places. (Like Public Notice, EPI is also a 501(c)4 organization, which frees it to engage in “limited” political activity and hide the identity of its donors.)
In 2008, EPI and the Center for Consumer Freedom (also founded by Rick Berman) joined the Republican attack on ACORN by purchasing a full-page ad in the New York Times accusing ACORN of “a list of abuses” and directing readers to contact RottenAcorn.com. EPI’s major gripe with ACORN was likely ACORN’s insistence on increasing the minimum wage — including wages for workers in the restaurant, hotel and service industries. EPI prefers to defend lower minimum wages, claiming they best serve the needs of “the poor and uneducated.” In1992, EPI was defending the fact that 6.5 million Americans had been relegated to part-time work, arguing that this meant greater “flexibility” for workers and companies.
In 2009, EPI crafted radio and TV spots for the “Committee to Rethink Reform,” which attacked the Democrats’ proposals for healthcare reform. SourceWatch reports that EPI has spent “substantial funds on ads in other right-wing campaigns.” Other EPI ads compare the national debt to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and warn that a “Budget Freeze Wont Fix the Debt.” One EPI spot stretches the “nonpartisan” label by featuring Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA).
On October 3, Rep. Wolf addressed the GOP’s Patriot’s Dinner in Prince William County, Virginia, and bemoaned the fact that the US now has to compete with India and China — “a nation that opposes our values, a nation that hacks our computers daily, a nation with no religious freedom.” Wolf criticized the nearly $13 trillion in debt the US has racked up (while failing to mention that nearly all of that debt was accumulated while he was in office). In July, Wolf (who makes a point of his close ties to officials at Lockheed Martin) introduced his “Bring Jobs Back to America Act” — a plan to create new jobs without new federal spending. Noting that "many companies see the rising costs of wages and shipping in foreign countries,” Wolf proposed luring US companies back home by offering lavish “tax incentives to aggressively ‘onshore’ these jobs." Ironically, July was also the month in which Wolf voted against the Small Business Jobs and Credit Act of 2010
How to Grab a Shovel and Fight Back
Washington has proven fertile ground for the spawning of misleadingly named lobbying groups. The roster of fake “grassroots” organizations includes Save Our Species Alliance (opposed to the Endangered Species Act), National Smokers Alliance (opposed to the regulation of Big Tobacco), Americans for Job Security (opposed to the estate tax for the wealthy), United Seniors Association (supported prescription medication legislation backed by Big Pharm), Americans for Tax Reform (Grover Norquist’s anti-tax group), FreedomWorks (Dick Armey and right-wing billionaires), Americans for Prosperity (the Koch brothers’ oil interests) and Karl Rove’s American Crossroads (which is suspected of shifting tens of millions in secret funding from corporations to bankroll political campaigns in the November elections). These corporate front groups masquerading as grassroots organizations have given rise to the term “Astroturf.” (The disclosure that California’s Proposition 23 — an initiative that would torpedo the state’s ambitious goal to address climate change by promoting “green jobs” in renewable energy — is largely backed by powerful out-of-state oil and gas interests has given rise to a new term for faux activism — the “gas-roots” organization.)
In response to growing citizen complaints, Sen. Max Baucus, Chair of the Senate Finance Committee, has called on the IRS to investigate secretive political front groups that skirt the law to raise millions to support the campaigns of pro-business candidates. Baucus has specifically asked the IRS to look into the dealings of Rove’s American Crossroads. In addition to congressional investigations, action is needed by the Department of Justice and the Federal Elections Commission.
Recently, “Diet for a Small Planet” author Frances Moore Lappé has stepped into the fray to call on friends to support the Fair Elections Act. “I’m on fire about what, to me, is the ‘mother of all issues’,” Lappé writes, “We’re losing democracy itself, as the power of private corporate influence in elections is drowning out citizen’s voices.” Fortunately, Lappé notes, in late September, a key House committee gave the nod to the “Fair Elections Now Act.” FENA — a bi-partisan bill sponsored by Reps. John Larson (D-Conn.), Walter Jones (R-NC) and Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) — would promote a nationwide system of voluntarily citizen- and public-financed elections that would free candidates to compete without relying on corporate money. Candidates would be required to raise donations of no more than $100 each from individual, home-state voters. These contributions would be matched four-to-one by a fund supported with revenues from the sale of Federal broadcast licenses.
Common Cause President Bob Edgar called the committee vote “a huge step forward for voters who feel ignored by Washington…. As long as we have politicians answering to corporations and lobbyists who finance their campaigns, they will never be accountable to the people who elected them.”
Public Campaign CEO Nick Nyhart hailed the vote as sending “a strong signal” that 85% of US voters want regulations to “curb lawmakers’ dependence on special interest campaign donations.”
The program has already been adopted by three states, including Maine, where 80 percent of the state’s legislators no longer have any financial reason to favor corporate gain over the public good. FENA already has 166 sponsors — Democrats and Republicans — and the support of more than 170 state and national organizations. A campaign is underway to press House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to bring FENA to a vote before the full House — hopefully, before the November election.
Actions You Can Take:
American Crossroads Watch. www.velvetrevolution.us/acrw/signup.php
Clean Up Washington. www.cleanupwashington.org
Write the Department of Justice. www.justice.gov/contact-us.html
Contact Congress: To find our where your representative stands on FENA, call the Congressional Switchboard at (202) 225-3121
Call Speaker Nancy Pelosi. (202) 225-4965.
Public Campaign. www.publicampaign.org/
Fair Elections Now. http://fairelectionsnow.org/
Gar Smith is the winner of several Project Censored Awards and is co-founder of Environmentalists Against War. He is based in Berkeley, California.