Punching above his weight

Greg Nash

Robert Weissman’s first days at the helm of Public Citizen proved to be an omen for the years to come. 

It was 2009, and the Supreme Court was hearing arguments in Citizens United, a case with sweeping implications for spending on political campaigns. Public Citizen, formed in 1971 to fight for public protections, had warned that the case could further thrust open the floodgates to corporate money in American politics.

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Ultimately, the justices ruled against those advocating for stronger campaign finance regulations, clearing the way for individuals, unions and corporations to dump unlimited sums into elections. Hours after the decision in 2010, Weissman and Public Citizen helped launch a massive campaign pushing for a constitutional amendment to overturn it. 

The proposal won a vote in Congress last fall, though it did not pass.

“This idea that was outside the bounds of serious discussion is now in the middle of the debate,” Weissman said during an interview with The Hill. “We had a floor vote in the U.S. Senate in September. And a majority of the Senate voted for a constitutional amendment.”

Though perhaps incremental, such strides are seen as important victories at Public Citizen, a group that must often compete with powerful and better-funded interests to have its voice heard in Washington’s policy fights.

And the group sits few of them out. Public Citizen takes part in an increasingly wide array of issue debates, regulatory disputes and legal battles that affect consumers.

In one of its recent achievements, for instance, the Department of Transportation released long-overdue regulations this year that require vehicles to have improved rear visibility — including backup cameras — to prevent injuries and deaths caused by drivers unable to see those behind them.

Public Citizen led a lawsuit against the agency for failing to issue the rules by 2011, as had been directed by Congress.

On another front, Weissman testified before Congress last month about the high cost of new hepatitis C treatments — one medicine costs up to $1,000 per pill — which he told lawmakers is caused by a monopoly built upon a government-granted  patent over the treatment.

“Public Citizen is unusual, in terms of the breadth of things that we work on,” he said of the group’s massive portfolio. “So in my job, you have to be able to say a little about a lot.”

The group spent $230,000 in 2013 on federal lobbying, according to disclosure forms — a fraction of what many corporations doll out on influence. Under Weissman’s leadership, Public Citizen has used a ramped-up social media presence to encourage people to get involved, even collecting 20,000 comments for financial regulators about the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform law’s controversial Volcker Rule.

“The short version of the deal is that the corporations bring money to the table and we bring people,” he said. “So, we’ve got to organize and mobilize people, where they have to just organize and mobilize money.”

Ralph Nader started Public Citizen 43 years ago to provide a check on corporate power, though he has not held any position there since 1980.

For Weissman, however, the connection runs deep.

Weissman started working with Nader while he attended college and then Harvard Law School. 

He served as the editor for Multinational Monitor, a magazine created by Nader, from 1989 through 2009, and then worked with two other Nader-founded organizations — the Center for Study of Responsive Law and public interest group Essential Action — before becoming the president of Public Citizen.

Weissman joked that, in the five years since he took over the organization, the only major changes included putting a banner outside its Dupont Circle offices and overturning a ban on red wine at all Public Citizen receptions.

In truth, the 49-year-old Cleveland native has elevated the group to a more prominent standing and forced its arguments, sometimes seen as untenable in Washington, into public debates.

“There’s a huge disconnect between what’s viewed as reasonable in Washington and what the American people want,” he said. 

The group is now “advocating for positions and pursuing policies that people thought were hopeless and winning anyway,” he said. “Or at least shifting the entire conversation so that we win a lot more than we would have won if we had started with the boundaries confined by conventional wisdom.” 

One such step toward victory is the battle Weissman has been fighting since his first day on the job: campaign finance reform.

Roughly $4 billion was spent in the 2014 election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, an amount owed in part to outside political groups allowed under Citizens United

“I can’t tell you how many friends — people who are literally my friends, people who are organizationally friends or people in the policy world — said that ... although they didn’t disagree with it on the merits, the idea of advocating for a constitutional amendment was crazy,” he said.

More than 20 Republicans in the Senate voted with Democrats in a 79-18 vote to advance the amendment and forced Democrats to spend a week debating its merits. In the end, Democrats fell short of the 60 votes needed to end the debate, with a 54-42 party-line vote.

Public Citizen stands to face tough headwinds in 2015, with Republicans in control of Congress saying they want to roll back healthcare, financial and environmental regulations they call burdensome — and that the citizen group has worked to enact.

The organization also looks to be at odds with the Obama administration, as the president tries to move forward with a massive international trade pact known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Opponents of the deal fear that it will feature giveaways to corporations, weaken certain regulations and hurt U.S. workers.

While they anticipate playing defense on legislative issues for at least the next two years, Weissman and Public Citizen are ready. He says the group’s supporters are ready, too.

“The challenge is what we signed up for,” Weissman said. “So we’re fueled by a bottomless pit of anger and outrage, but we believe in what we’re doing, and I believe in what we’re doing. I really love doing it and I’m really lucky to be able to do it.”