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Secret spending threatens democracy

By:  Senator Sheldon Whitehouse
Providence Journal

A conservative organization backed by Karl Rove, American Crossroads, is planning to spend over $300 million in this year’s elections — and he’s not planning on telling anyone where most of that money is coming from.

In fact, there will be over a billion dollars spent this year by Super PACs (political action committees) and other groups — and much of it is shrouded in secrecy.

It’s a direct threat to our democracy — and it’s a direct threat to the interests of ordinary, hardworking Americans. Because I can assure you, not one of these groups is spending this money to help America’s middle-class get back on its feet and back on the way to real opportunity. Education, clean energy, Medicare, Social Security — they are all being put at risk by the motives behind this huge infusion of secret cash into our elections.

The Supreme Court’s disastrous Citizens United decision opened the door for special interests and billionaires to spend unlimited amounts of money on advertising and other speech during elections, with many of these groups not required to disclose where their contributions come from. In the 2010 election cycle, outside organizations spent more than $135 million in secret contributions. According to a study in April, 90 percent of the outside money spent on the 2012 presidential election has been from secret sources, putting our elections and our democracy at risk of being dominated by a few secret and wealthy donors.

Why the secrecy? What are they hiding?

The special influence these secretive special interests will obtain will put in jeopardy the policies that have supported a strong middle class and paved the way for generations to achieve the American dream.

It will be harder to protect Medicare and Social Security when a few billionaires put their secret money behind a Super PAC that claims to be for “American Prosperity” but is funding candidates who want to slash these programs.

It will be harder to keep our air and water clean, when giant corporations can secretly put their money behind a Super PAC working to gut environmental regulations.

It will be harder to hold Wall Street accountable for financial fraud, when big banks want to protect their risky dealings behind a Super PAC whose goal is to undo Wall Street reform.

Countless Rhode Islanders have told me we need to take back control of our elections from the secretive special interests. Unfortunately, because of the Citizens United decision, Congress cannot set limits on the corporate spending. But at least we should shine a light so the public can see what special interests are behind these political activities.

Today, the Senate will consider the DISCLOSE Act of 2012, a bill I introduced that would require organizations that conduct political activity to disclose — in real time — all election expenditures and donations of more than $10,000. The bill applies across the board, to corporations, unions, billionaires — anyone engaged in political spending.

Disclosure is the only way voters can get the truth about who is trying to influence our elections. It’s the only way we can find out if there are bargains between certain candidates and donors. It’s the only way we can know which special interests are trying to buy their way into sweetheart deals and unfair tax loopholes.

The DISCLOSE Act is indisputably consistent with the Constitution. As the Supreme Court majority recently explained: “disclosure permits citizens and shareholders to react to the speech of corporate entities in the proper way. This transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages.” As Trevor Potter, the former chairman of the Federal Elections Commission, said, the DISCLOSE Act of 2012 is “appropriately targeted, narrowly tailored, clearly constitutional and desperately needed.”

This week, I’ll be fighting on the Senate floor to lift the dark cloud of secret money shadowing our elections. Through the DISCLOSE Act, we can renew our commitment to fairness and equality in our democracy, and can renew our commitment to the fundamental principle of a government that works for all Americans.