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Public Statements

The DISCLOSE Act

Floor Speech

By:
Date:
Location: Washington, DC

Mr. KERRY. Mr. President, in the 25 years I have had the privilege of serving in the Senate, I have regrettably, in the course of almost every election period, with one brief exception when we had the McCain-Feingold bill in
place, seen our system of funding campaigns become increasingly broken. The truth is, a lot of the anger the American people feel today--rightfully--for the absence of this Congress--not just this particular session but the Congress of the United States being able to directly address the concerns of the American people--a lot of that anger really ought to be directed at the system itself, at the fact that we have locked in place funding of campaigns that robs the American people of their voice, that steals the legitimacy of our democracy, and concentrates decisionmaking in the hands of the powerful, individuals with a lot of money or powerful corporations with a lot of money.

Money is driving American politics. Money is driving the American political agenda. Money decides what gets heard and does not get heard around here, what gets acted on and does not, and how it gets acted on in many cases. Every so often we have bubbling up a legitimate kind of citizen energy that motivates one particular reaction here or another, whether it is a tax bill or a particular piece of legislation for women, pay, but it is rare now. It is actually rare that the kind of grassroots effort that traditionally we think of when we think of legitimate democracy, that it is felt in its appropriate ways.

The truth is, the increased influence of special interest money, big money in our politics, is robbing the average citizen of his or her voice in setting America's agenda. There are far more poor people, there are far more children, there are far more interests that don't get represented. We constantly see, like the debate we have had recently over carried interest, for instance, or a number of other interests here get as much time and as much debate over one or two of those single issues as some of those that affect a far greater proportion of the population.

As a result of the Supreme Court's ruling in the case of Citizens United, we have seen an incredible step backwards from accountability, a step backwards from preserving our democracy, and an incredible gift to the power of money. In the last few years, under the McCain-Feingold bill and under our rules, at least if a company wanted to participate in the election, it had to go out and ask its executives to contribute. We went through the sort of charade of having a fundraising event at which a whole bunch of executives would have to show up or people who worked for a company, and they wrote a check. The checks were bundled together, and there were your contributions. But at least there was accountability. At least people knew those people had contributed. At least people saw where it was coming from and who it was coming from.

Under the Citizens United decision, all a CEO has to do is put it in the budget of the corporation. The corporation can budget annually. We are going to put $2 million, and the CEO can turn that money over in its totality to some group that is formed to destroy somebody's reputation with a lot of lies, just pour the money over. That is it. Total secrecy. We don't even get to know who gave the money. No accountability. They just turn the money over to lobbyists who run the media campaigns to help their friends and defeat their opponents in Congress. We can have the best Congress. People have always said that money buys people in public life. But this is a step toward the greatest certification of that I have ever seen. It sends a chilling message to candidates without means, which is most candidates, that they can't combat the bottomless pocket of a K Street lobbyist who has some cabal of corporations that want to pour a bunch of money in to get their special interests protected.

So American workers in Ohio or Indiana or any other State who wonder why those jobs went overseas, there is a tax benefit that helps those companies actually take those jobs overseas. Why is that tax benefit there? Why do we have thousands upon thousands of pages of special interest tax provisions in our Tax Code? Because the lobbyists and the powerful people are able to be heard, and they are able to work their will. They are able to make that happen.

Now we have a rule, because the Supreme Court ruled that corporations are like people and have the same rights. So we have a new assault on America's democracy. I mean that. It is an assault on our democracy. We have always had money in the marketplace of politics. We understand that. For years people have tried to find one way or another of trying to address that concern. This is not a new concern of the American people. It is hard to say where we are headed, all of us, in our careers in public life. I am, obviously, on the back end of that runway, but I am stunned by what the impact of this is going to mean to our country and to the ability of average voices to be heard.

The humorous Will Rogers once quipped that ``politics has gotten so expensive, it takes a lot of money even to get beat.'' But Will Rogers would be stunned by the amount of money in politics today.

In 2008, a record total of $5.2 billion was spent by all the Presidential, Senate, and House candidates. When I ran for President in 2004 on a national basis, we spent $4.1 billion. That broke the 2000 record when Al Gore ran of $3.1 billion. So we go from $3.1 billion to $4.1 billion to $5.2 billion.

Now we have a new rule. All these secret funds can come into the political process. We have already broken the record in 2010 from the 2006 race by a huge amount. I think the total amount of money spent in 2006, which was an off Presidential year, was about somewhere around $700 something million, $800 million. We are well over $1.2, $1.3 billion already in this cycle. That is just the campaign spending. That is the direct money that goes into the campaigns.

But last year, special interests spent a record of $3.47 billion hiring lobbyists. The rest of the country might have been suffering from a recession, but it was a great year for K Street in Washington, a 5-percent increase in fees over the previous year.

President Obama's ``change'' agenda stirred up so many people who were going to be opposed to it from the very beginning--health care, banking regulation, all the things that have undermined Americans in the last years--they wanted to preserve the status quo. They sat up, and they came up with about $1.3 million spent per minute in 2009. That is the amount the watchdog group, Center for Responsive Politics, arrived at when they took the $3.47 billion that

lobbyists collected and divided it by the number of hours Congress was in session in 2009. It comes out to $1.3 million per minute spent to try to hold on to the status quo.

Now thanks to the Supreme Court, it is a lot easier for special interests to finance and orchestrate contrived political movements. Unbelievably, the Court ruled in Citizens United that corporations have the same right to speech as individuals. Therefore, they can spend unlimited amounts of money in elections.

I remember from my days in law school learning distinctly that a corporation is a fictitious entity. It is a fictitious entity created as a matter of law to protect the corporation in the conduct of its economic business, not to protect it in the context of giving it the same rights as an individual with respect to speech. For a Supreme Court of the United States to somehow put a corporation on the same plane as the individual citizen is absolutely extraordinary.

As a result, we are now seeing a whole bunch of spending by shadowy groups run by long-time Republican Party officials and activists that is going to end up in the hundreds of millions of dollars, money that cannot be traced to its source. How do Members feel about that? How do Americans feel about the millions of dollars being spent and they don't know who is spending it? Unaccountable democracy.

What we are talking about, I suppose, means little to the corporations compared to what they are going to get in terms of blocking a regulation. We have people here who want to delay the regulations for clean air. They are going to come in here and try to say: We can't proceed now to have clean air. We have to delay it. So more coal fumes will pollute the air and more people will get sick and so forth. But they will try to work their way, and they have a lot of money to try to do it with.

The Supreme Court's ruling also clears the way for the domestic subsidiary of a foreign corporation to spend unlimited amounts to influence our elections.

I want people to think about that. A foreign corporation and a national of a foreign country are barred under the law from contributing to Federal or State elections. But nothing in the law bars the foreign subsidiary incorporated in the United States from doing so. Those subsidiaries do not answer to the American people. They answer to their corporate parents way off in some other country. That means that in no uncertain way a foreign corporation can indeed play in an American election, and clever people will not have a hard time in covering that trail.

So today, on the floor of the Senate, in Washington, DC, in the year of the tea party--when the tea party is asking for accountability, and the tea party is asking for sunshine, and they want reform--I would like to hear the tea party stand up today and say: Republicans ought to vote overwhelmingly to have sunshine on the funding process of our campaigns.

The DISCLOSE Act, on which we will vote today, does not amend the Constitution. It is not going to overturn the Supreme Court decision that equated the rights of people--I would think the tea party ought to be excoriated over the notion that a corporation has been given the same rights as the Constitution gives to an individual. But it does not even overturn that. It does not even constitute campaign finance reform. All it does is shine the disinfectant of sunlight on corporations and faceless organizations that are trying to buy and bully their way in Washington through campaigns run against Members who disagree with them.

The DISCLOSE Act requires corporations, organizations, and special interest groups to stand by their political advertising, just like any candidate for office, and it requires the CEO of a company to identify themselves in their advertisements. And corporations and organizations would be required to disclose their political expenditures.

Is that asking too much, that the American people get to know who is spending the money to influence them so that maybe they will have the ability to judge whether there might be a little bias in that ad or there might be a little personal interest in that ad, there might be a reason they are getting the information they are getting, the way they are getting it?

That is all we are asking. It is not radical. It is not prohibitive. It simply removes the false notion that Americans are somehow voluntarily organizing all across this country in order to pursue a public interest. The fact is, corporate special interest money is being compiled and targeted to pursue a special interest and to send a loud televised message to those who disagree with them that they are going to be punished for disagreeing. If that practice is not disclosed and tempered, it is not only going to tip elections, it is going to cripple--cripple--the legislative process more than it has already been crippled in these past few years.

Instead of negotiating with each other in the public interest in the Congress, Members of Congress find themselves asking corporations--supposedly subject to the law and will of the American people--they ask them whether it is OK with them whether we regulate or legislate and release their allies to vote in favor of one thing or another. And guess what. No surprise to the American people, those corporations almost always refuse to do so.

So when the Citizens United decision was handed down, the voices seeking support from these corporations argued it would have no effect on the American political process. They said: We don't need to worry about new funneling of funds to candidates. But the record already says otherwise. The truth is, Karl Rove admitted that based on the Citizens United decision, he has formed two new groups specifically, because this decision empowered him to do it, to influence the 2010 elections with $52 million of ads bankrolled anonymously by special interests.

Now that the Supreme Court has opened the door to these anonymous ads, a lot of other groups are planning to spend approximately $300 million or more on the elections this fall. Already we have seen incredible disparity. I think the total spent by these anonymous groups attacking Democratic candidates around the country is over $30 million. The total amount the Democrats have had available to them, because they do not have as much money, and they do not represent those powerful groups, is about $3 million. Seven to one is the ratio.

All you have to do is begin to analyze these ads, and you can see exactly what the message is and why it is coming.

So here is the deal: Whether you agree with the ads or not is not what is at issue on the floor of the Senate today. At a minimum, I would hope our colleagues would support the idea that messages that are sent in American politics, advertisements that are made for or against a candidate, advertisements that are made for or against a particular idea, that those ought to be sent openly; that they ought to be sent in an accountable way so the American people--which is what this is all about, this institution, this house, the Senate, the House. All of this comes from the words ``We the People,'' and we have been hearing those words, ``We the People'' all over America from the tea party and from others who are trying to remind people what that is all about. This vote is all about that today, and their outrage ought to be summoned all across the country to shed the sunlight on this political process and hold it accountable.

If our friends come to the floor this afternoon and vote en bloc against it, let me tell you, that is a declarative statement about whose interests are being protected and what is at stake in this election as we go into this November.

The stakes for the American people are simply too high to let special interests hide behind faceless and unidentified campaigns. I cannot think of anything that is less American than secret money going into campaigns to try to affect the choices of the American people.

This is an opportunity for us to truly speak for the American people, and I hope my colleagues will join us in doing so today.

I yield the floor.

BREAK IN TRANSCRIPT


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