Mr. President, the Citizens United case has aimed a dagger at the heart of American democracy. So I rise today in support of the DISCLOSE Act, to stop that dagger aimed at our heart.
Our Nation is unique in world history in that it was founded not on nationality or royal bloodlines but on an 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 anyone–that the United States is a “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” What that means is that we, the elected officials, work for the people. They elect us. They are in charge. But this idea, this vision, this government by and for the people cannot survive if our elections are not open, fair, and free.
The government is not by and for the people if corporations and even foreign corporations and giant government contractors are able to hijack the electoral process to run millions of dollars of attack ads against any candidate or any legislator who dares to put the public interest ahead of a company’s interest.
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 the merits of ideas. But if the essence of the first amendment is that competing voices should be heard in the marketplace of ideas, the Citizens United decision just gave the largest corporations a stadium sound system with which to drown out the voice of American citizens.
Think about the scale of the spending this decision allows. My Senate race was far and away the most expensive election in Oregon history. The two candidates together spent around $20 million. ExxonMobil, a single corporation, made $20 million in profits every 10 hours in 2010, and that was during their worst year in a decade. If you like negative ads, you would love the impact of Citizens United. Imagine what corporations will do to put favorite candidates in office. The sheer volume of money could allow corporations to handpick their candidates, provide unlimited support, and take out anyone who would dare to stand up for the public interest.
The DISCLOSE Act will prevent special interests from drowning out the voice of American citizens. First, this bill will bring transparency to campaigns now that unlimited money is allowed to be spent on negative attack ads. If you are looking to buy a used car and someone tells you the engine looks great, you would want to know if the person saying that is your trusted mechanic or the used car salesman. Who is speaking is critical information in evaluating the message. With that principle in mind, the DISCLOSE Act makes the CEO of a company stand by their words. The CEO will have to say at the end of the ad that he or she approves this message, just as political candidates have to do today. It is common sense. If a company is willing to spend millions working against a candidate, the voters have a right to know about that company’s involvement instead of allowing it to hide behind shadowy front groups.
The second problem the DISCLOSE Act takes on is the system of “pay-to-play” where companies campaign on behalf of candidates in order to get access to government contracts. This legislation bars that form of corruption. It bars government contractors from running campaign ads and paying for other campaign activities on behalf of a Federal candidate.
Passing the DISCLOSE Act is key to sustaining the healthy democracy that represents the interests of American citizens. A healthy democracy requires transparency, an equal voice for all its citizens, not an amplified voice for those who represent very large corporations.
So I urge all my colleagues to support this legislation. As President Lincoln, a great Republican President, reminds us: The essence of the Nation, the cause that brought a generation of patriots to challenge the greatest military power of the 18th century, the idea that inspired people to leave everything behind to come to our shores is a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.
We are here because we work for the American people. Let’s pass the DISCLOSE Act today so our successors can say the same thing tomorrow.