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Mr. SANDERS. Mr. President, I thank Senator Whitehouse, Senator Schumer, and all those who have been working so hard on this enormously important issue which has everything to do with whether our country remains the kind of democracy most of us want it to be.
I come to the Senate floor today to express my profound disgust with the current state of our campaign finance system and to call for my fellow Senators, as a short-term effort, to pass the DISCLOSE Act. Passing the DISCLOSE Act would be an important step forward, but clearly we have much more to do on this issue.
Long term, of course, we need a constitutional amendment to overturn this disastrous Supreme Court decision--the Citizens United 5-to-4 decision of 2 years ago. Long term, in my view, we also need to move this country toward public funding of elections so that once and for all big money will not dominate our political process.
Long term, there is no question in my mind that Citizens United will go down in history as one of the worst decisions ever rendered by a U.S. Supreme Court. Five members of the Court came to the bizarre conclusion that corporations should be treated as if they were people; that they have a first amendment right to spend as much money as they want to buy candidates, to buy elections. Somehow, in the midst of all of this unbelievable amount of spending millions and millions of dollars, the Supreme Court came to the conclusion this would not even give the appearance of corruption. I think that is, frankly, an absurd conclusion.
Mr. President, let me tell you--and my take on this may be a little different than some of my colleagues--what concerns me most about the Citizens United decision. If we look at Citizens United in tandem with other trends in our economy today, what we see is this Nation is rapidly moving from an economic and political society to an oligarchic form of society.
Economically, what we see are fewer and fewer people who control our economy. We see a nation which has the most unequal distribution of wealth and income of any major country on Earth, in which the top 1 percent of our Nation owns 40 percent of the wealth and the bottom 60 percent owns 2 percent of the wealth. That gap between the very wealthy and everybody else is growing wider and wider. That is wealth in terms of income distribution.
The situation is even worse. The last study we have seen suggests that 93 percent of all new income between 2009 and 2010 went to the top 1 percent. So, economically, we are moving toward a nation in which a few people have a significant amount of the wealth of America--significant amount of the income of America in terms of concentration of ownership. We see a situation in which six financial institutions on Wall Street have assets equivalent to two-thirds of the GDP of the United States of America--over $9 trillion controlled by six financial institutions. And the recklessness, greed, and illegal behavior of those financial institutions are what drove us into the recession we are struggling with right now.
So now, as a nation, the trends are that fewer and fewer people own the wealth of America and fewer and fewer large corporations control the economy of America. But, apparently, that is not good enough for the 1 percent, for our millionaire and billionaire friends, because now they want to take that wealth and exercise it even more than has been the case in the past in the political realm. That takes us now to Citizens United.
In the real world, we all know what is going on with Citizens United. We know billionaires are saying: Look, yeah, it is great I own an oil company. It is great that I own a coal company. It is great that I own gambling casinos. But, gee, I could have even more fun by owning the United States Government.
So we have entities out there who are worth some $50 billion--and the Koch brothers come to mind. If you are worth $50 billion and you have all kinds of interactions with the Federal Government and you have strong political views, why wouldn't you spend $400 million--which is what the media says that family is going to spend, and maybe even more--if you can purchase the United States Government. That is not a bad investment.
That is what Citizens United is about. It is billionaires spending huge amounts of money without disclosure--without disclosure.
I would have gone further than this bill, but this bill is certainly an important step forward. What does it require? It says if someone is going to spend more than $10,000 in a campaign they have to make public who they are. I don't think that is a terribly onerous provision. The American people are not stupid. They understand if somebody is going to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on political activities they want something. That is what it is about.
Why do people make campaign contributions? Many of us get a whole lot of campaign contributions from folks who give us $25, $30, $40. Most of my campaign contributions come from people who give us less than $200. But if somebody is going to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a campaign, I think the American people have a right to know who that is and what they want; who is taking that money and what those contributors are going to get in return.
If you are a billionaire and you want lower taxes, have the courage to say: Hey, I am a billionaire. I am putting money into a party, and what I am going to get out of it is lower taxes for the rich. If I am somebody in a corporation that is polluting the air and the land and the water, and I want to get rid of those regulations, have the guts to come forward and say: Yeah, that is what I want. I want to eviscerate the EPA. I don't care that children in Vermont or Rhode Island get sick, that is what I want.
So what this is about is fairly elementary. What this is about is simply having those people, those institutions, those corporations and unions that are putting more than $10,000 into the political process reveal who they are.
What concerns me very much about this whole process--and I think concerns the American people--is while our middle class disappears and poverty increases, while the gap between the very wealthy and everybody is growing wider, it appears very clear right now these folks are not content, the top 1 percent is not content with simply owning the economy, with controlling the economy. They now want to control, to an even greater degree than is currently the case, the political process as well. That is what these campaign contributions of hundreds of millions of dollars are about.
When I think back on the history of this country and the enormous sacrifices men and women made defending the American ideal--the ideal that was the vision to the entire world. The entire world looked to the United States for what a strong democracy was about--one person, one vote. In my State of Vermont, we have meetings and people come out--one person, one vote--to discuss the municipal town budget, to discuss the school budget. And now we have evolved to a situation where one family can spend $400 million buying politicians, buying elections. That is a long way away from what democracy is supposed to mean in this country. The DISCLOSE Act is a very important first step forward, and I hope we can get strong support for that important piece of legislation.
Mr. President, I yield the floor.
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