Thursday, September 23, 2010

I rise to speak about an issue of critical importance to the future of our democracy. I have in my hand the majority opinion titled, “Citizens United.”

This Supreme Court decision, decided on the narrowest of grounds, is of profound importance to our nation and how the voices of citizens get heard or get drowned out. This decision, Citizens United, is a dagger poised at the heart of American democracy.

Our nation is unique in world history in that it was founded not on nationality or hereditary bloodlines but on a simple idea, a simple yet revolutionary idea that the country’s people are in charge.

As was so often the case, Abraham Lincoln said it better than most. He said the United States is a “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” What that means is that we elected officials work for the people. They elect us. They are in charge.

But this formula, government by and for the people, cannot survive if our elections are not open, free, and fair, and Citizens United ends open, free, and fair elections in America. This decision says that unlimited secret and foreign funds can be spent on elections in the United States of America. Let me restate that. This decision – Citizens United – says unlimited secret funds can be spent on elections in the United States of America.

This is not just some hypothetical. Reports estimate that over the last few weeks, $24 million has been spent in secret spending, with no ability to trace who put it into campaigns. The results are negative attack ads barraging candidates in state after state after state, under, I am sure, pleasant-sounding names such as “Citizens for a Strong America” or “Citizens for Blue Skies” or “Citizens for a Better Nation.” Front groups that are using this secret money are allowed by this decision to drown out the voice of the American citizen in elections across this land.

Government is not by and for the people if corporations and even foreign corporations and giant government contractors are able to hijack our electoral process to run millions of dollars of attack ads against any candidate or legislator who dares put the public interest ahead of the company’s bottom line.

Our constitution, through the first amendment, puts the highest protection on political speech, recognizing how important it is that citizens be able to debate the merits of candidates and ideas. But the essence of the first amendment is that competing voices should be heard in the marketplace of ideas. The Citizens United decision gave the largest corporations a stadium sound system to drown out the voices of our citizens.

Let me give you some sense of this. Take a single corporation in 2008, Exxon Corporation. Exxon Corporation made a lot of money in 2008. If it had spent just three percent of the total net revenue it had that year it would exceed all the spending by Presidential candidates for the 2008 election. Three percent of a single corporation’s net revenues would drown out all the dollars spent by citizens in the Presidential race in the 2008 election. That is the stadium sound system I am talking about.

Think about the scale. My senate race was far and away the most expensive election in Oregon history. Two candidates together spent about $20 million. To translate that back to a single corporation, Exxon, that would be the amount of money in net profits they made every 10 hours. You get some sense, then, of the challenge.

If you like negative ads, you will love the impact of Citizens United. Imagine what corporations will do to put favored candidates in office. The sheer volume of money could allow corporations to handpick their candidates, providing unlimited support to their campaigns, and take out anyone who dares to stand up for the public interest.

The DISCLOSE Act we are debating is not a perfect solution to this attack on American democracy. But it does change one critical feature: secret spending becomes publicly disclosed spending.

My colleagues on both sides of the aisle have spoken time and time again about the importance of public disclosure and democracy. One of my colleagues from Texas said, “I think the system needs more transparency so people can reach their own conclusions.” In other words, people should know who is funding that campaign ad.

One of my colleagues from Tennessee said, “To me, campaign finance reform means individual contributions, free speech, and full disclosure.” In other words, any individual can give whatever they want as long as it is disclosed every day on the Internet. Otherwise you restrict free speech and favor super rich candidates, candidates with famous names, the media and special interest groups, all of whom can spend unlimited money.

That is a strong statement by my friend and colleague from Tennessee in support of disclosure. The Republican floor leader, speaking in 1997 said, “Public dealerships of campaign contributions and spending should be expedited so voters can judge for themselves what is inappropriate.”

How can a voter judge the content of the ad if they do not know what money is behind it? So disclosure is something that has been a bipartisan concept. Folks have referred to it as “sunshine is the best disinfectant.” So this bill brings transparency. The DISCLOSE Act makes the CEO of a company stand by his words. The CEO would have to say at the end of the ad that they approved this message, just like political candidates have to do right now.

It is common sense. If a company is willing to spend millions working against a candidate, voters – our citizens – have a right to know who is involved instead of allowing them to hide behind shadowy front groups. Similarly, this bill would require 527 groups, which exist solely to influence elections, to be transparent about who is funding them. Voters have a right to know where ads and campaign dollars come from.

A second issue this act takes on is the pay-to-play issue; that is, the concept that groups that are competing for government contracts and winning those contracts have a particular conflict of interest when it comes to spending large volumes on campaigns. So this gets rid of that conflict of interest. It says it bars government contractors from running campaign ads or paying for other campaign activities on behalf of a federal candidate.

We understand this conflict of interest. We have the Hatch Act. We understand federal employees have a conflict of interest. We also understand government contractors have a conflict of interest. This bill also takes on the issue of foreign-owned corporations. It says that if a company is twenty percent foreign-owned it is not eligible to allow these massive expenditures on behalf of particular political candidates or causes.

Do we want to leave the door open to foreign corporations spending unlimited sums here in America to change the course of our nation? I do not think so. I do not think any red-blooded American wants foreign corporations dictating the future of the United States of America. That is what this act is about.

Essentially, what the Citizens United decision did, it created a “super-citizen” who can operate in secret with unlimited funds to influence American elections.

A few years ago, I was with my son on the first floor of the Lincoln Memorial, down under the stairs. I saw a quote that had been posted on the wall. It said something to the effect of: “The greatest threat to the success of our Republic is that the citizens have an equal voice.”

I thought that was an interesting quote coming from a President in wartime, in a civil war, dealing with slavery. So I asked the ranger: “Say, do you know the background of that quote?” Because I was surprised President Lincoln did not say the biggest threat was the war or slavery or reuniting the sides or preserving the Constitution. But he said, the citizens’ voice, preserving the citizens’ voice. The ranger lit up and said, “Yes, actually, I do know the background to that. During the civil war, President Lincoln was very concerned that the military contracts that were being let by the government were resulting in numerous representatives of companies coming to DC and lobbying intensely to get those contracts. He was concerned that voice would drown out the voice of the people.”

It is no wonder. It fits right with a President who understood the heart of the genius of American democracy that we are talking about: Government by and for the people.

Well, Lincoln’s concern about that conflict of interest is one that should be magnified many times today in the context of Citizens United. Citizens United allows unlimited secret donations and foreign donations to influence the course of American elections.

President Lincoln reminds us that the essence of our nation, the cause that brought a generation of patriots to challenge the greatest military power of the 18th century — the idea that has inspired people to leave everything to come to our shores is a government of the people, by the people, for the people.

So let’s say no to secret spending. Let’s say no to foreign corporations. Let’s say no to the conflict of interest of government contractors using their profits from their contracts to weigh in and try to influence and getting favoritism with candidates. Let’s say yes to government by and for the people.

 We need some profiles in courage today to preserve the heart of our democracy: government by and for the people.