Before Rules Committee, Whitehouse Calls for Passage of DISCLOSE Act to Fight Tsunami of Unlimited, Anonymous Money in Politics
DISCLOSE Act would combat dark special interest money flooding elections and judicial nominations
Washington, DC – U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse today delivered testimony in the Senate Rules Committee calling for passage of the DISCLOSE Act to combat the flood of anonymous special interest spending corrupting American politics and to restore power to regular citizens.
“I submit to you that the distress in our Republic has much to do with corrupting political influence acquired via unlimited anonymous dark money. That dark-money influence has created a disconnect between what Americans want their government to do and what it actually does,” said Whitehouse.
Citizens United and subsequent Supreme Court rulings permit super PACs and certain types of tax-exempt groups, such as 501(c)(4) nonprofits, to spend unlimited sums in elections. Many of those groups are not required to disclose their donors, allowing wealthy corporations and individuals to spend unlimited, undisclosed – or “dark” – money without being tied to the television attack ads and other electioneering activity the groups carry out. Since the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, spending by corporations, ultra-rich ideologues, and secretive front groups has exploded. Dark money in particular has skyrocketed, even though the Supreme Court has long upheld disclosure requirements as a means for citizens and shareholders to hold elected officials and corporate spenders accountable—including by an 8 to 1 margin in Citizens United itself.
The DISCLOSE Act requires organizations spending money in elections – including super PACs and 501(c)(4) dark money groups – to promptly disclose donors who have given $10,000 or more during an election cycle. In addition to election disclosure requirements, the bill requires groups that spend money on ads supporting or opposing judicial nominees to disclose their donors.
“If we get rid of the damned stuff, this horrible decade of dark-money corruption can come to an end, and Congress can begin to serve America again,” concluded Whitehouse.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) first introduced the DISCLOSE Act in the wake of Citizens United in 2010, and Whitehouse has introduced the legislation in every subsequent Congress. Majority Leader Schumer also spoke in support of the DISLCOSE Act in today’s hearing.
“So why are we here today? Because across our democracy the disease of dark money has spread unchecked like a cancer,” Schumer said before the Committee. “Today I’m proud to join with my colleagues to support the DISCLOSE Act, which I’ve long championed and I’ve promised to bring on the floor for a vote. In free and fair elections – one person, one vote – American voters alone should have the power to determine our nation’s leaders, without fear that their voices will be drowned out by powerful elites or special interests.”
Below is the text of Whitehouse’s as-delivered testimony. Watch the full clip here.
Thank you Chair Klobuchar and Ranking Member Hagerty for inviting me to testify on the DISCLOSE Act.
Twelve years after Citizens United, Americans know something is deeply amiss in our democracy. Huge majorities see America headed in the wrong direction. Fifty-eight percent of voters say our government needs major reforms or a complete overhaul. Only 25 percent of Americans say they have confidence in the Supreme Court. They see government actually erasing rights on which generations of Americans relied.
Is all of this some weird collective phase we’re going through, or are the people actually right that something is wrong?
I submit to you that the distress in our Republic has much to do with corrupting political influence acquired via unlimited anonymous dark money. That dark-money influence has created a disconnect between what Americans want their government to do and what it actually does.
Dark money by design can be impossible to trace. But people instinctively know it when their voices are being drowned out and big corporations always seem to come out on top. They can tell when the ad on their television was put up by some fake front group they’ve never heard of.
Floods of dark money caused this mess, so we can fix it. The DISCLOSE Act, first introduced by Leader Schumer in 2010 and reintroduced by me in every Congress since, will fix this.
Even the Citizens United justices recognized that unlimited political spending without transparency would be corrupting. That they got right: we’ve seen a tsunami of slime distort our politics and corrode our democracy since. What the justices got wrong — indisputably, factually wrong — is their unlimited-money tsunami being either transparent or independent.
The wreckage from the dark-money aftermath of Citizens United is staggering.
Dark money political spending went from under $5 million in 2006 to more than $1 billion in 2020. Megadonors and special interests had a bonanza. Billionaire political spending increased by a factor of 70, from $17 million for the 2008 election to $1.2 billion for 2020. In 2018, super PACs and other dark-money groups collectively outspent even candidates’ own campaigns in 16 federal races.
If you think things are different – well, they are. Academic studies found that economic elites and business interests have huge influence on government policy, while average citizens have little or none. Whatever the American people want, the big donor interests now win nearly every time.
Look at climate change. Before Citizens United, there was a steady heartbeat in the Senate of bipartisan climate bills. John McCain ran for President with a solid climate platform. With Citizens United, that heartbeat flatlined. The fossil fuel industry used its unlimited dark-money weaponry to stamp out bipartisanship, creating a lost decade of legislative failure, for which I fear we will pay very dearly.
Far-right special interests even turned their dark-money guns on the federal judiciary. They funded a $580 million secretive network to pack the courts with judges selected to greenlight donor-friendly policies, and to run multi-million-dollar ad campaigns to keep those confirmations on track. This network involves dozens of front groups, some of which are mere “fictitious names” for other secretive front groups.
Now, we have a Court gone wild. In a matter of days, the newly-radicalized Court overturned Roe v. Wade, manufactured new polluter-friendly legal doctrines, and threw out centuries-old gun safety regulations—all of it wildly unpopular with most people.
Dark-money groups funded and organized the rally before the January 6 attack on the Capitol, and perpetuate the Big Lie today. Bad enough. But behind and beside the Trump mob’s violent insurrection attempt, has run a slow-motion coup d’etat by secretive special interests surreptitiously, incrementally, taking over government power. Madame Chair, left to fester, dark money will rot the very foundation of our Republic. Remember, justices who signed off on Citizens United conceded dark money was corrupting. That part was 8-1.
We need to pass the DISCLOSE Act so citizens can see who is spending the big money in politics — donors who spend over $10,000. Even foreign enemies can now try to corrupt us through dark money channels — after all, secret is secret.
And by the way, the American people love this idea. Poll after poll shows Americans overwhelmingly, by margins of 85 to 90 percent, want this. Even Republicans criticize dark money. Well, Republicans should have a chance to join us in ending it. If we get rid of the damned stuff, this horrible decade of dark-money corruption can come to an end, and Congress can begin to serve America again.
Meaghan McCabe, (401) 453-5294
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