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Public Statements

Disclose Act

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC


Mr. FRANKEN. Mr. President, I wish to thank the Senator from Rhode Island for his leadership on this and so many other issues. I thank the Senator from Arkansas for his comments. I recommend them to anyone.

Minnesotans are proud of our participation in civic life. We believe very strongly in hearing each other out. In the last Presidential election, 78 percent of eligible voters in my State turned out to vote--well above the national turnout of 64 percent of voting-age citizens in 2008. In fact, Minnesota has led the Nation for voter turnout in the last six elections. This is really remarkable. It is one of the reasons I am so proud to represent my State here in the Senate. But when the Supreme Court upended 100 years of law with Citizens United, it yanked the microphone away from average Minnesotans and turned it over to a handful of millionaires and billionaires and corporations intent, as Senator Pryor said, on controlling the outcome of our election and controlling the decisions that are made that affect the men, women, and children in my State.

A single person writing a check for $1 million or $10 million or $100 million can drown out the voices of everyone else, and they can do so in total secrecy. We have heard about a handful of millionaires and billionaires who have written fat checks to bankroll Presidential candidates, but what is most terrifying about this is that we only know about those people because they decided to let us know. For every billionaire who tells us he is writing a check to a candidate, there are probably 10 or 100 or 1,000 corporations and ultrawealthy individuals who are writing similar checks in secret. Even one of the ones we know about because he decided to let us know now says he is also going to give secretly.

I was listening to C-SPAN radio in my car. That is right, I listen to C-SPAN in my car. They had a woman on who was a journalist. Her beat is money and politics. She writes for a major American daily paper. C-SPAN was talking calls, and one caller basically said all of this is about privatizing Social Security and Medicare so Wall Street folks can get their hands on the money from those programs and so insurance programs get their hands on Medicare money. You know there is truth to that. So the expert says in the answer--and I am paraphrasing--that is what we thought. Most people thought it was going to be corporations giving us money, but it turns out it is just ultrawealthy people who are doing it. Then she paused and said: Of course, we don't know that because so much of the money is secret.

I thought to myself, here is a woman whose whole area of expertise--this is what she thinks about 10, 12 hours a day--money and politics--and yet, even she, because this money is secret--even she is capable of being confused or not understanding the implications of all this secret money--even if it was just for her for a moment or a couple of moments.

That is the purpose of why we are up here tonight to talk about the proliferation of secret money post-Citizens United and its implications on our democracy. Americans may not like it--I sure don't--but the Supreme Court has ruled. At least for now Citizens United is here to stay. The Supreme Court isn't final because it is right; it is right because it is final. So we need to accept that. Absent a constitutional amendment, Congress can no longer limit corporate contributions or campaign contributions to outside or independent groups--so-called independent groups. As much as we may want to, we can't stop corporations and ultrawealthy individuals from flooding our elections with massive amounts of money. We can't stop it. But the Supreme Court said we can shine light on the shadowy interests behind those unprecedented contributions. We can force these organizations and ultrawealthy individuals to disclose.

Justice Anthony Kennedy said this in his majority opinion in Citizens United:

Prompt disclosure of expenditures can provide shareholders and citizens with the information needed to hold corporations and elected officials accountable for their positions and supporters. Shareholders can determine whether their corporation's political speech advances the corporation's interest in making profits, and citizens can see whether elected officials are in the pocket of so-called moneyed interests.

Justice Kennedy went on to say:

The First Amendment protects political speech, and disclosure permits citizens and shareholders to react to the speech of corporate entities in a proper way. This transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages.

I could not have said it better myself. This is in his majority opinion of Citizens United. My colleagues and I have simply taken Justice Kennedy's words to heart, and we have drafted a bill that will bring transparency and accountability to the electorate so they can make the decisions about who should lead our country. That is critical because elections matter.

Elections determine who is going to get to Washington, who is going to get here to make decisions on behalf of the rest of the Nation. Americans need to know who is spending tons of money to get candidates elected.

That is why we are here today to talk about the DISCLOSURE Act. This bill is not a panacea. It will not overturn Citizens United, and it will not stop the tsunami of money pouring in from corporations. But it will require that all that special interest money be disclosed publicly, and that will have tremendously beneficial effects for this country.

We may not be able to stop the tidal wave of unlimited cash, but we can, and we should, at a minimum know who is writing those big checks. Not only will this type of disclosure discourage backroom deals conducted under a cloak of secrecy but, more importantly, it will discourage donors from unleashing negative, misleading, and deceptive ads against politicians who are trying to do the right thing.

But that is not our world today. Companies don't want us to know they are giving lots of money to elect or defeat someone. So they do something that looks a lot like money laundering, but it is legal.

They might create and give money to a shell corporation, which in turn donates to a super PAC. When we look at the records for the super PAC, we will see the shell corporation but not the original source of the money.

A company might give money to one shell corporation, which in turn gives money to a PAC or another shell corporation, and so on, until it finally reaches the ultimate super PAC. It is nearly impossible to trace it back to the original corporation. That is in the super PACs.

The company can just give money to a 501(c)(4)--a so-called social welfare organization--which is under no obligation to disclose a single thing. Of course, there are rules in place to make sure these nonprofits are truly social welfare organizations and deserving of their privileged tax-exempt status. Specifically, they must spend less than 50 percent of their money on political activities. Unfortunately, the IRS has not been aggressively enforcing this rule. We suspect that many of these 504(c)(4)s are not spending more than 50 percent on nonpolitical ads.

But no matter how companies or wealthy individuals secretly funnel their money into elections, we all lose. We lose because we don't know who is paying for the negative attack ads that are constantly dominating our TV or the newspaper ads or the Web ads online or the robocalls that interrupt dinner or the misleading mailers or the field operatives who knock on our door or call us on Saturday mornings.

Minnesotans believe strongly in hearing each other out, and they want honest, informed debate. They want to hear all sides of an issue before they make up their minds. This is why we have such a high voter turnout in our State. They want to listen to the competing priorities for our State and our Nation because these issues are not simple. They want to hear all sides before deciding who to vote for at the polls.

Unfortunately, Minnesotans cannot listen to all sides when worthwhile debate is being drowned out by a tsunami of corrosive, negative, and often deceptive ads paid for by outside special interest groups. These days, especially if one is in a swing State, people can't turn on a television without seeing them.

But it is not just volume that drowns out legitimate debate and turns off voters; it is what the ads are saying. More and more are negative, deceptive or both. According to the Annenberg Public Policy Center--listen to this--85 percent of the dollars spent on Presidential ads by the four top-spending 501(c)(4)s--or so-called social welfare organizations--were spent on ads containing at least one deceptive claim--deceptive. No wonder people are disenchanted with our political system.

Anonymity fuels this. It is easy to pay for ads that deceive voters when they don't have to attach their name to them, and so they have no accountability. It is easy to launch personal attacks when they are doing so in secret--under the cloak of anonymity. It is these so-called social welfare groups that are responsible for so many of these deceptive ads that have absolutely no requirements to disclose their donors.

The public doesn't know when they watch political ads whether they are true or deceptive. That is a problem because there is no question that advertising works. People watch TV. They love TV. I love TV. I made a living in TV. When we watch TV, there are commercials, and commercials work. Do you know the show ``Mad Men''? It is popular and it is about advertising in the early 1960s and it is about how advertising works. They discovered this a long time ago, and it is true; it works. Advertising helps influence what we buy, what we eat, what we drink, where we shop and, yes, which politician we will support when we go to the polls.

Most Americans don't watch or listen to C-SPAN in their spare time. Most Americans aren't engrossed in politics, keeping track of every vote we take in Congress. That is why political ads can make or break how Americans feel about a candidate come election day.

The Supreme Court recognized this in Citizens United when it noted it had previously upheld disclosure laws in order to address the problem of purportedly independent groups running election-related ads while ``hiding behind dubious and misleading names.''

It is these generic and sometimes misleading names for outside groups--with nice words such as ``America'' ``freedom'' or ``prosperity'' in their titles--that are manipulating the public now. In the 2010 election, these outside groups spent more than $280 million on campaign ads, which was more than double what they spent in 2008 and more than five times what they spent in 2006. Even more shocking, there are estimates that outside groups will spend more than $1 billion on independent expenditures this election cycle.

The public has every right to know who is bankrolling these ads, so it can better understand what motivates these messages and take what they say in some context and with a grain of salt.

As important, what we are not seeing, what has been drowned out by all these negative deceptive ads is debate and discussion about the issues most Americans care about: How am I going to pay my mortgage? How am I going to put my kids through college? How am I going to find a job in this difficult economy? Will I be able to retire and enjoy my golden years?

Why is this happening? Why aren't ads focused on these issues? The answer is quite simple. Ads that dominate the airwaves are expensive, and they are being bought by corporations and ultrawealthy individuals for their own interests.

Corporations aren't evil--far from it. There are many great corporations in Minnesota. But it is their duty to maximize shareholder profit. Their focus is on cutting costs or consolidating their position in a market or on reducing the number of regulations they need to comply with to keep their workers safe, in some cases, or maybe to keep our air and water clean. Their first priority isn't helping the middle class, and they are not going to spend money from their general treasuries on ads urging candidates to keep college affordable or push for funding for Pell grants, Head Start or for medical research.

But the bigger issue--and the reason why disclosure matters so much in our political system--is that corporations don't just buy ads to make their views known; they use them as a weapon against politicians. This is a real problem. It is happening today, and it is only going to get worse and worse now that corporations can spend what they want, as much as they want, whenever they want, with absolutely no transparency.

Candidates know if they do not support the policies that corporations are pushing, they are likely to face a torrent of negative ads funded by that corporation or industry when they are running for election or reelection. All those ads will come from a shell organization with a name such as the American Prosperity Fund for America's Prosperity in the Future in America. The public will not know that a corporation or wealthy individual is buying these ads, but the candidate will, and the candidate will be powerless to stop it.

This is why I think the Supreme Court got it wrong in Citizens United--and this is a quote from the Supreme Court--when it found ``independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to the corruption or the appearance of corruption.''

Wow. That is what the Court said. They made that statement without any citation to legal authority, without any citation to evidence. This statement was plucked from thin air. It doesn't pass the smell test. Any Minnesotan knows intuitively that is just flat-out wrong.

The reality is, unfortunately, money does equal power in this country. Elections cost money--a lot of money. With each election cycle it is costing more and more. When a corporation or wealthy individual can spend a truckload of cash to support its favorite politician and kick out a courageous politician who may have hurt its bottom line, our entire democratic system is undermined. If this continues, we risk becoming an oligarchy, which would undermine our already undermined middle class and would quash the working poor's aspirations for entering the middle class. It would be harder to get a wage that could put a roof over your head, harder to afford child care, and harder to send a kid to college. There will be an even greater disparity between the rich and everyone else.

Already, since the 1970s, our Nation has been growing apart as the rich get richer and the poorer and middle class fall further and further behind. They have seen little or no return on their increased productivity and longer working hours. If money and power continue to accumulate among a few individuals and companies, it will only get worse. There will be less money for education, less money for unemployment insurance, and less money for basic research to cure diseases. It will be harder to get health insurance, if health care reform is repealed, and they might even be successful in pushing to privatize Social Security or Medicare. This will not benefit working families.

Your power to sway elected representatives should be the same regardless of whether you are the CEO of a Fortune 500 company or a police officer in a small town. Unfortunately, we are careening toward a world where that is no longer the case and where the average American's voice is drowned out by all the special interests monopolizing our public discourse.

Thomas Jefferson once said:

The end of democracy and the defeat of the American Revolution will occur when government falls into the hands of lending institutions and moneyed incorporations.

I fear, Mr. President, we are on the brink of just that.

The DISCLOSE Act will not fix all the harms of Citizens United, but it is certainly a step forward. It will bring much needed sunshine to our political system which will go a long way toward reducing the number and dishonesty of negative attack ads that further corrode our public dialogue and ultimately threaten our democratic system.

I am disappointed my colleagues do not recognize just that, and they have refused to even let us have a full debate on this important bill. I understand we may be taking up a motion for reconsideration, and I urge my colleagues to reconsider and join me in supporting this important piece of legislation and join those of us who are here tonight. If it is allowed to come up for an up-or-down vote, I am confident this body will pass it, and that would be cheered by the American public.

In closing, I would like to remind this body of an exchange Benjamin Franklin had with one of the delegates at the closing of the Constitutional Convention in 1787. When asked whether we have either a republic or a monarchy, Dr. Franklin responded: ``A Republic, if you can keep it.''

Our Founders created the greatest Nation in history. It is our job to keep it that way and make sure a nation premised on equality and freedom does not become a nation beholden to just the rich and the powerful.


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