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Disclose Act of 2012--Motion to Proceed--Continued

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC


Mr. WHITEHOUSE. Mr. President, I rise today to speak about the DISCLOSE Act of 2012. This is legislation that will shine a bit of needed light into the flood of secret money in our elections. I would like to start with particular thanks to Senators Chuck Schumer, Michael Bennet, Al Franken, Jeff Merkley, Jeanne Shaheen, and Tom Udall for their hard work on developing the legislation. I look forward to joining them as this debate goes forward.

This morning the majority leader moved to proceed to this vital piece of legislation. I thank him. I and many of my colleagues are looking forward to the opportunity to make the case in this Chamber for this important piece of legislation. In a sense, that case has already been made. As anyone who watches television knows, our airwaves are filled with negative political attack ads. The organizations that pay for these negative political attack ads all have patriotic-sounding names dotted with words like ``prosperity,'' ``freedom,'' and ``future.'' The names sound harmless, but they are phony. All too often the ads are paid for by secret special interests, billionaires, and wealthy corporations seeking special secret influence in our democracy and drowning out the voices of middle-class American families.

As USA Today put it just last week in an editorial supporting this DISCLOSE Act, ``Everybody's watching what's expected to be by far the most expensive presidential campaign in history, and not without a dose of horror. Freed by the Supreme Court from spending limits, all manner of special interests are opening the spigots to buy influence.'' That is exactly right, ``All manner of special interests are opening the spigots to buy influence,'' and because their money is secret, the American public doesn't even know who is behind the negative political attack ads other than the phony name.

Here is how my home State paper, the Providence Journal, reacted to the original Citizens United decision that has unleashed this torrent of secret special interest money:

The [Citizens United] ruling will mean that, more than ever, big-spending economic interests will determine who gets elected. More money will especially pour into relentless attack campaigns. Free speech for most individuals will suffer because their voices will count for even less than they do now. They will simply be drowned out by the big money.

The Providence Journal could not have been proven out more correctly by the events that have taken place since.

Senator John McCain said earlier this year:

I predicted when the United States Supreme Court, with their absolute ignorance of what happens in politics, struck down [the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law], that there would be a flood of money into campaigns, not transparent, unaccounted for, and this is exactly what is happening.

Senator McCain was right. Campaigns are no longer waged by candidates and parties fighting over ideas; they are now waged by shadowy political attack groups posing as social welfare organizations, run by political operatives, linked to specific candidates, and fueled by millions of undisclosed dollars from secret special interests. When these secretive special interests take over our elections, it puts in jeopardy the key supports of a strong middle class, supports such as Social Security, Medicare, Pell grants, a progressive tax system, and things that have paved the way for generations to achieve the American dream.

Why do I say that? I say that because these special interests have motives to spend this kind of money. If those motives were good for America, would they be so desperate to keep what they are doing secret? I don't think so.

Americans who worry now that Washington listens too much to the special interests, strap in, look out, and hang on to your wallet because a secret special interest avalanche is underway. According to a study in April, 90 percent of the money being spent by super PACs, nonprofits, and other outside groups to elect the President of the United States is coming from secret sources, secretive corporations, and billionaires whose names and motives the voters may never know and who will have no accountability for how that money is spent.

When there is no accountability for how money is spent because the phony front organization that purports to be spending it isn't real and the real party and interest has hidden behind a veil of secrecy, then there is no limit on what people will say. It is accountability that keeps public dialog in reasonable check. That is why you and I, Mr. President, are obliged at the end of our campaign advertisements to say: I am Senator Whitehouse, and I approve this message. I am Senator Coons, and I approve this message.

Well, relieved from that accountability, about 70 percent of the ads in this election cycle have been negative. That is up from 9 percent in 2008. I will say it again: 70 percent, up from 9 percent, as this flood of secret special interest money has hit.

Even worse, if we look at the four top-spending political 501(c)(4)s--the secret organizations, the ones that hide their donors--and what they have done in the last 6 months, an estimated 85 percent of their election spending was spent on ads that contained deceptions, according to a recent analysis by the Annenberg Public Policy Center. So we unhinge any real person from accountability for this spending. The special interests behind it remain secret, and the ads become virtually exclusively negative attack ads and they are riddled with deception.

This is what the Supreme Court thought free speech looked like. This is all the result of that disastrous decision by the Supreme Court in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission which opened the floodgates of secret, anonymous special interest money. I think it was a deliberate decision, but that is a discussion for another day. For today, our purpose is to point out that the campaign finance system, as a result, is broken and it lends itself to corruption in new and unprecedented ways.

The Supreme Court, in the Citizens United decision, in its blissful ignorance, never even considered what happens behind the scenes. They talked only about the public debate and the public expenditure of this money. They assumed it would be independent of the candidates, and they were wrong. They assumed it would be transparent as to who was behind

it, and they were wrong. They also assumed that what was put on the air was the end of the issue. They took no consideration of the behind-the-scenes meeting where the special interest comes in to meet the Congressman and doesn't spend $5 million in secretly funded negative attack ads but threatens to. And if the threat works, they buy the vote, nobody ever sees an ad, and the institution of government is corrupted.

It is one thing if it is a company and they say: Well, I am going to be against you, and my CEO is going to have a party and raise money in $5,000 increments against you, and our PAC is going to give a $10,000 check to your opponent. We are going to tell our workers that you are not a good person for our industry.

OK, that is not great, but it is nowhere near as dangerous as being able to say: We are going to put $5 million into a secret campaign of negative attack ads against you, and nobody is going to know it is us. If you play right and do what you are told, we will lay off, but otherwise, look out, we are coming after you. It will be hidden, it will be negative, and it will be nasty.

That is no way to run a democracy. So today the majority leader has moved to a bill that will bring at least transparency and accountability to our elections. At least these big special interests will have to say who they are. Then we as Americans can evaluate what their motives are, what the deal might be, whether we are actually aligned with their interests, and we can evaluate what they are saying about candidates. We will have more information. We will have a better quality of free speech. This is not a Democratic or Republican issue. In fact, disclosure has never before been a Republican or Democratic issue. This is about protecting our democratic process as Americans.

I really look forward to debating this important measure with my colleagues in the upcoming days. I am joined by Americans of all political stripes who are disgusted by the influence of this unlimited secret money pouring into our elections.

We are disgusted by campaigns that succeed or fail, that last or don't last, depending on how many billionaires the candidate has funding their campaign through these special organizations. More and more around this country, particularly in Rhode Island--the people I hear from at home--people feel this government responds only to wealthy and corporate interests. They feel the middle class can't catch a break, that nobody is listening, that everything is done for the big guys. They see their jobs disappear. They see their wages stagnate. They see bailouts and special deals for the big guys, and they lose faith that their elected officials are actually listening to them. If we thought that was a problem before, when at least it was public and at least we knew who the registered lobbyists were and who had made the campaign contributions and at least we knew there were some reasonable limits on all that--all those gates have been knocked down. It is the Wild West now, and it is secret.

Six in ten Americans say the middle class will not catch a break in this economy until we reduce the influence of lobbyists, big banks, and big donors. Guess what. With these fountains of secret money behind them, their influence isn't being reduced; it is going to be dramatically increased--and increased in ways that lend themselves to corruption.

One out of every four Americans actually says they are less likely to even vote because they believe big donors and super PACs have so much more influence over elected officials than they do that they feel pushed out of the process, so why bother. That is a terrible blow to American democracy.

Nearly 7 in 10 Americans, including a majority of Democrats and Republicans, agree with this proposition: New rules that let corporations, unions, and people give unlimited money to super PACs will lead to corruption. One would think that is a blindingly obvious proposition. It escaped the five conservative members of the Supreme Court who decreed that was not going to be the case. Seven out of ten Americans disagree with them. I disagree with them. The closer we get to elections, the more we see that proposition is foolhardy.

So we have the DISCLOSE Act, a bill that Republican and former Federal Election Commission Chairman Trevor Potter said is appropriately targeted, narrowly tailored, clearly constitutional, and desperately needed. I very much hope we can join in this debate; that we can get this bill passed in the Senate; that we can clean up our elections and begin to do something about this foul avalanche of negative attack ads--again, 85 percent of them containing deception--that are now polluting our public discourse.

Prior to the Citizens United decision and prior to the floodgates actually opening, there was a long and rich bipartisan tradition in this Senate of demanding disclosure of spending in elections. Many of our Republican colleagues in the Senate have loudly and clearly supported disclosure in the past, and I hope they will join us in passing this important piece of legislation. The fundamental principle of a government of the people, by the people, and for the people is a government that will listen to the people, not just to the big special interests that can afford massive secret money.

I urge my colleagues to support the DISCLOSE Act of 2012.

I thank the Presiding Officer.


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