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Public Statements

Disclose Act

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC


Mr. KERRY. Mr. President, I appreciate the opportunity to say a few words about the DISCLOSE Act, which we are debating on the floor of the Senate.

I have been involved in this issue of campaign finance reform since I first entered politics, when I first became involved in the political discourse of our country in the late 1960s and early 1970s--a long time ago now.

With 27 years as a Member of the Senate, I have seen this debate over money in American politics. I have seen it endure its highs and also its lows.

Looking back in history, I can remember back in 1990 when we summoned 59 votes in the Senate--mostly Democrats, which will tell you a lot about this issue, and 4 Republicans, including Senators Cohen of Maine; Jeffords of Vermont; McCain of Arizona, who is still here and fighting on this issue; and Senator Pressler from South Dakota. We passed a restraint on spending in American politics, a balanced bill which would have, in fact, required disclosure and limitations on spending, with a certain ability of people to be able to be held harmless if people were millionaires and spent extraordinary amounts of money. It made the playing field in America fair, and it gave the best opportunity for the American citizen--about whom this entire exercise is supposed to be focused--an opportunity to know they were not going to be bombarded with unbelievable amounts of money that distort the American political debate. We thought we had a chance, but unfortunately that bill was vetoed by the President.

It is not a coincidence that only four Republicans supported that bill. It is not a coincidence today, as we come to the floor of the Senate, that maybe no Republican or very few--very few, I think is a fair way to say it--will be willing to vote to disclose where our money comes from.

We are not even here seeking a limitation on the amount of spending. We ought to be, but we are not. We are here simply trying to get the American people the right to know who is giving the money, who is paying these millions of dollars in order to affect the debate in America and, in most cases, I will tell everyone, frankly, to distort the debate. I believe the amount of money in American politics today is stealing America's democracy. It is robbing Americans of the right to have the kind of representation and the kind of discussion Americans deserve.

When I was first here back in 1985, we were working with people such as Bill Bradley from New Jersey and David Boren from Oklahoma and Joe Biden, now the Vice President, obviously, and George Mitchell, the former majority leader and Senator from Maine, all of whom were dedicated to trying to take the big money out of politics and replace it with a public match for Senate and House races. Fundamentally, the status quo won. The status quo stopped us, and the status quo is winning today.

In response to the soft money scandals--maybe people have forgotten we had our scandals in the 1990s--we finally passed the McCain-Feingold bill, modest as it was. All it did was put a ban on soft money, the soft money, which is the big amounts of money that get poured into the political system. That ban had the unintended consequence of pushing everybody to look for the biggest loophole they could find, and they found a loophole. The 527 groups, as we have come to know them, came out and the debate was again taken away from the candidates and given to outside groups that had huge amounts of money.

A lot of Americans are not aware of that. A candidate could be running and have one thing he or she wants to actually say, but outside groups can come in with enormous amounts of money and completely flood the ability of a candidate to control the message of that particular campaign and certainly have a profound impact on it. Never did we imagine then, however, that with one decision, the Supreme Court would tilt the voice of our democracy and our discourse so heavily in favor of large unaccountable interests at the expense of the average American. That, my friends, is what happened when the Supreme Court made the Citizens United decision, which is certainly the worst decision in 100 years, if not more.

What we are talking about today is a system that is simply broken. It is as fundamentally broken as the campaign system in our country has ever been. I worry personally, deeply, about what it has done to our ability to govern in the public interest and what it does today to threaten the ability of this institution to function.

In explaining why she is leaving the Senate, our Republican colleague Senator Snowe wrote: This body is not living up to what the Founding Fathers envisioned. She spoke of our Founding Fathers' vision for the Senate, where we could reach consensus in an orderly manner. There is nothing orderly and there is no consensus. Does anyone believe we can make that kind of Senate occur today, given the kind of campaign finance system we have, where all our time--or a huge amount of our time is a fairer way to say it--is spent raising money? I have heard the majority leader and the minority leader complain they can't have Senators here Mondays, Fridays, and other periods of time because everybody is governed by the campaign schedule. We now have secret donors who blow candidates out of the water with on-air distortions that are simply mind-boggling. I lived through many of those distortions in 2004, when I ran for President, so I know what I am talking about when I talk about the power of the lie with a lot of money put behind it. I don't think anybody here believes the amount of money in the system today doesn't have the ability to drown out the voices of people who get into public service in order to get things done but who don't have that kind of money and don't have access to that kind of money.

Frankly, the fundamental reason why there is such a disparity between the numbers of Democrats who want to have a fair playing field and the number of Republicans who vote against campaign finance reform is, obviously, they have a lot more money. Corporations have a lot more money, big billionaires who don't want to be taxed in a fair way in America have a lot more money to throw at the system. So we have one guy out in Las Vegas who can put millions of dollars behind a candidate for President and keep a candidacy alive when normally it would have died long ago. The only life it had was the money. That is what happens today.

That is not what the Founding Fathers intended for this institution. Ours is a system where billions of dollars can be spent by any millionaire or billionaire or the largest corporations in the world to distort our democracy, diminish the voices of candidates, pollute our airwaves with spending whatever and wherever, and the average American doesn't even get to know where the money is coming from. They have the ability in the United States of America to do it secretly--secretly. It is secret money. The sources are unspecified and the American people don't know who is behind it.

I think it is an insult to the freedom every Senator extols the virtues of all the time in this Senate. It is an insult to the notion regarding our liberty and our equality and our fairness. It violates the rules of honorable discourse and debate, and it is a threat to every single public servant running for office in this Nation because it means their ideas can be drowned by the dollars.

I got an e-mail the other day from somebody in another country who e-mailed me and said: You guys are beginning to look like the oligarchies of the world, where the amounts of money buy anything they want.

The increased influence of special interest money, big money in our politics is robbing the average citizen of their ability to be able to set the agenda. The agenda is set by the money because the money is what runs the campaigns. As a result of the Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United, all any CEO or billionaire has to do is turn over billions of dollars to somebody who goes out and runs a media campaign.

Senator McCain, as we all know, feels passionately about this issue. He recently said: ``I think there will be scandals associated with the worst decision of the United States Supreme Court in the 21st century.''

I agree with Senator McCain. There already are scandals, but not everybody sees them. But I will tell you this, a lot of Senators know exactly what they are.

This imbalance we have will result in escalating media wars, where candidates are reduced to mere proxies in the process. Somewhere, at some time, those winning candidates are going to be asked to pay up on some special interest need or to tow the line on an agenda that is set by a kind of new terror that enters into our politics.

All one has to do is think about the trajectory we are on today. Will Rogers once said that ``politics has gotten so expensive that it takes a lot of money to even get beat with.'' That has never been more true. Will Rogers would be stunned by the amount of money in politics today.

In 2008, a record total of $5.2 billion was spent in Presidential, Senate, and House races. That broke the 2004 record the year I ran of $4.1 billion, and that broke the 2000 record of $3.1 billion. In other words, every single year more and more money. But now, in 2010, in the first campaign after Citizens United, there was a fourfold increase in the expenditures from super PACs and other outside groups compared to 2006--fourfold increase--in a 2-year period of time. Anonymous spending--anonymous spending--rose from 1 percent of the outside spending to 44 percent in a 2-year period of time.

That is what we get when the Supreme Court of the United States rules in a 5-to-4 decision--one vote--that corporations and big interests have the same rights to speech as individuals. I mean it is stupefying to think about it. I remember from law school that a corporation was a fictitious entity--a fictitious entity--created to provide a veil of protection for the people who form it in order to permit commerce in America. Nobody ever created a corporation with the notion it would have the same rights as a person. Corporations don't get married. They don't have kids. They don't cry. Sometimes, I suppose, when Wall Street falls apart, a few people may. But the notion that somehow corporations can have the same rights of people is an insult to the drafters of the Constitution of our country and the corollary that somehow they, therefore, get to spend the same amount of money in an election cycle as an individual.

As a result, we are now seeing a spending blitz by shadowy groups that is projected to reach billions of dollars--money that is impossible to trace to its source, money that is kept in shadows, away from the average American's ability even to ask who is paying the bills for those ads, who is behind those ads, whose interests do those ads represent? The sums of money we are talking about will mean little to the corporations compared to what they may get in return, and that is what this is all about: blocking legislation, blocking a regulation, preventing a change in the tax law that takes away a preference that has no relationship to today's economy.

There are hundreds of examples, and I have seen them through the years, where money drives the agenda of the Congress and of our politics, way in excess of what it ought to be when we measure it against the real concerns of the average family trying to make ends meet or find a job in America.

Today, we will vote on a bill--a vote that ought to go unopposed by any Member of this institution who swore to uphold the Constitution of the United States--and this vote could go a long way toward making the fight between the public interest and corporate interest, if not fair, at least transparent. The American people are smart and, given that opportunity, will begin to make some judgments about exactly what is at stake.

The DISCLOSE Act is not an act to amend the Constitution. It doesn't even overturn the decision of the Supreme Court that equated the right of corporations to people, nor does it constitute campaign finance reform. It is none of those things. Those would be structural solutions. I, frankly, am for them. I think we ought to do them. I think we need a constitutional amendment at this point in order to rectify what the Supreme Court has had difficulty discerning. But all the DISCLOSE Act would do is shed light on who is giving money--transparency.

This bill ought to receive unanimous support. It is an effort to shine the disinfectant of sunlight on corporations and faceless organizations trying to buy and bully their way into influence in Washington through campaigns that are run against the Members who disagree with them. All we need to do is look at the amount of money that has been spent against some of our colleagues who are running this year--millions of dollars dumped in anonymously in these States to try to affect those races.

In short, the DISCLOSE Act requires corporations, organizations, and special interest groups to disclose their political advertising just like a candidate for office does. That is all it requires. What could be more normal in America, what could be more American than allowing the American people to know who is trying to speak to them? I don't think it is radical, and I don't think it is prohibitive. It simply removes the fallacy that Americans are voluntarily somehow organizing to pursue some public interest. That is a farce. That is not what is happening in these instances. The truth is that Americans aren't organizing or mobilizing to bring you the vast percentage of the advertisements that are seen on TV. The truth is that corporate special interest money is being compiled and targeted to pursue a special interest and send a loud televised message to those who disagree with them that they are going to be punished and tempered. And not only is it going to tip elections, it is going to cripple the legislative process.

When the Citizens United decision was handed down, the voices that were seeking corporate largess said at that time that it is not going to have any impact. They said we need not worry about funneling new funds to candidates. But the truth is that Karl Rove has admitted that based on the Citizens United decision, he formed two new groups to influence the 2010 elections with $52 million worth of ads bankrolled anonymously by special interests. And now that the Supreme Court has opened that door to these anonymous ads, similar groups are already planning to spend approximately $300 million on the election this fall.

So whether or not you agree with the message those ads and organizations are sending, at a minimum you ought to support the idea that these messages should be sent openly and that those who send them ought to be held accountable. As I have said before, this ought to be something every U.S. Senator supports.

As chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, I have the privilege of trying to press our interests in many different parts of the world, and I meet with people in various parts of the world who look back at us and ask a lot of questions of us about our democracy. Increasingly, people are asking whether the United States of America can deliver. Increasingly, people are looking at us incredulously and questioning our political system because we go to the brink over a default on the debt ceiling or because we can't get a budget passed because we don't do the fundamental business. And one of the most profound reasons we don't do that--and I have seen it change here--is that the power of the money, the power to influence the election has a profound impact on what colleagues are prepared to take up, what they are prepared to vote on, and how they are prepared to vote.

It is a dollarocracy that is beginning to call the shots, and the American people know it. That is why they are so disappointed in what is happening--or not happening--in Washington, DC. That is why the ratings for the U.S. Congress are so low--because it doesn't produce, it can't produce, it won't produce. And the money almost guarantees that.

This is not a new fight in our country. Teddy Roosevelt, a Republican, fought this fight in the early 1900s, and he took on the great malefactors of wealth, he took on the concentration of power, and he was the great trust buster. It was an extraordinary period of time in America confronting power.

Back in 1910, in Osawatomie, KS, Teddy Roosevelt said:

The Constitution guarantees protections to property, and we must make that promise good. But it does not give the right of suffrage to any corporation.

He urged his listeners again and again to demand an especially national restraint upon unfair money-getting, as he called it, and the absence of that restraint, he noted, has tended to create a small class of enormously wealthy and economically powerful men whose chief object is to hold and increase their power.

What Teddy Roosevelt said in 1910 is perhaps even more true today. The reason is that during the 1990s and subsequently, we have created greater wealth in America than during the period when we did not have an income tax. People today are wealthier, comparatively, than the Pierponts, the Morgans, the Rockefellers, the Carnegies, the Mellons, and all of those famous names of the 1900s who helped build this country. Today, the wealth far exceeds that wealth, and the disparity between the average American and the wealthy has grown wider and wider than at any other time in American history. While the average American family sees their income getting squeezed and going down, the upper 1 percent has seen 10, 20, 30 times increases in their income. And that is what is playing out in the American political system today in this Citizens United decision.

All we ask today--although we ought to be asking for more. We know we can't get it now, but at least we ought to be able to get the ability of the American people to know who is putting the money into the system, who is trying to affect these votes, who is trying to set the agenda, whose interests are really at stake. That is what is at stake in this vote today, and I hope all our colleagues will vote for the right to disclose those funds to the American people, who have an inalienable right to know exactly from where they are coming.


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