Sen. Whitehouse Praises RI’s Phil West at Common Cause Meeting in Washington
Washington, DC – Last night, U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) attended the National Governing Board Meeting of Common Cause in Washington, DC. Whitehouse spoke at the meeting to thank the organization for its efforts on a range of issues including campaign finance reform, and to introduce Phil West, the former Executive Director of Common Cause Rhode Island.
“Phil embodied the dogged spirit of justice, equality, and accountability that has always been the touchstone of Common Cause’s mission,” Whitehouse said in his remarks.
West was in attendance to give a presentation about his new book. Other Rhode Islanders in attendance included John Marion, the current Executive Director of Common Cause Rhode Island, and Jane Austin, a board member of Common Cause Rhode Island.
Whitehouse and West worked together most notably to push for a separation of powers amendment in the Rhode Island constitution. As West has recounted, he went to speak to Whitehouse about a state ethics bill in 1992 when Whitehouse was working for then-Governor Bruce Sundlun. After commending the work of West and Common Cause on ethics, Whitehouse then noted that, “you won’t cut the deep root of Rhode Island’s corruption until you get to separation of powers.”
Whitehouse’s advice motivated West to embark on a years-long fight to amend the outdated state constitution that allowed state legislators to appoint the boards that implemented various laws. West has said he was shocked to see “how many state boards were filled with legislators who controlled the execution of their own laws.” After years of work, West, Whitehouse, and other supporters were able to successfully push for the approval of a separation of powers amendment that ended legislative control of public boards.
Whitehouse’s remarks, as prepared for delivery, along with his extemporaneous introduction of West, are below.
Thank you. It’s a special treat to be here tonight with my old friend Phil West. Ronald Reagan once called Bob Edgar “the most dangerous man in America.” Well, for years, a lot of folks in the Rhode Island State House called Phil the most dangerous man in Rhode Island—and some worse names than that. That’s because Phil embodied the dogged spirit of justice, equality, and accountability that has always been the touchstone of Common Cause’s mission. It is reflected in the work of every Common Cause state affiliate, your dedicated national staff, and here with the leadership of the Governing Board.
From strengthening fundamental voting rights to fighting the scourge of money in our politics, Common Cause’s commitment to a democracy and an economy that works for all Americans serves as a counterweight to the heavy influence of special interests in Washington.
You spoke out forcefully for core democratic principles of fairness and transparency in the debate on trade promotion authority. The first deal waiting to get through under TPA is the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP. This mechanism includes the horrible Investor State Dispute Settlement mechanism, or ISDS, that allows big multinational corporations and their investors to challenge a country’s domestic environmental and public health rules and regulations outside of traditional judicial processes. That process is so dark and unaccountable as to be almost presumptively corrupt.
Thank you for your clear call in the battle for a trade deal that safeguards citizens’ voices, human rights, labor, and the environment.
Unfortunately, this is just one front in the battle. In 2010, the Supreme Court issued its disastrous 5-4 decision in Citizens United v. FEC. Unlimited, dark money has overwashed our elections and flooded the halls of Congress, in what one newspaper called “a tsunami of slime.”
With that feat of judicial activism, the conservative bloc of the Supreme Court overturned the laws of Congress and the will of the American people, giving big corporations the power to spend millions of dollars against a candidate. With the power to spend came the power—the darker power—to threaten to spend.
In the 2014 elections, the flood of dark money, the Washington Post reported, was at least 31 percent of all independent spending. That doesn’t even count spending on so-called “issue ads,” which is also not reported. And who knows what effect dark, private threats and promises have had.
Unless the Court reverses itself, only a constitutional amendment clarifying that only people are actually people can fully rid our elections of improper corporate influence. In the meantime, however, the DISCLOSE Act, which I reintroduced in January standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Common Cause, would let voters know who is behind the “tsunami of slime.” Republicans used to support disclosure:
Sen. Alexander, for example, has said, “I support campaign finance reform, but to me that means individual contributions, free speech, and full disclosure.”
“I don’t like it when a large source of money is out there funding ads and is unaccountable,” said Sen. Sessions. “To the extent we can, I tend to favor disclosure.”
Or as Sen. Cornyn put it, “I think the system needs more transparency, so people can more easily reach their own conclusions.”
The Majority Leader, Sen. McConnell, once summed it up nicely: “Virtually everybody in the Senate is in favor of enhanced disclosure, greater disclosure. That’s really hardly a controversial subject.”
And he was right—until Citizens United opened up the dark money of their wealthy funders.
Three-quarters of Republican voters want greater disclosure of campaign spending, a poll showed just this week. Together, we need to keep the pressure on Republicans in Congress to stand with the individual voters they were sent to Washington to represent, not the big special interests seeking improper influence in our democracy.
I filed an amendment to the Keystone XL pipeline bill to require companies that would profit off that project to disclose their political spending. I filed an amendment to the Defense authorization bill, requiring disclosure from big defense contractors. Along with several of my Democratic colleagues, I have urged President Obama by executive order to require disclosure of political spending by all government contractors and their senior leadership. And I know you will keep up the fight for a democracy powered by individuals, not industries. Bob Edgar said “government is how we express ourselves and our values as a people.” I agree. But for many, government is a prize to be taken, to amplify their advantages and increase their wealth and power, at public expense. The payback is huge, so their effort is persistent. So persistent is what we must be too.
Thank you. I am proud to be your partner.
*Following a brief Q&A, Whitehouse delivered this extemporaneous introduction of Phil West:
I want to leave you with the visual image of a long, dark, marble hallway in the Rhode Island State House – a big and beautiful building. And it’s gotten late, most of the lights have been turned off, and a late hearing that Phil was waiting to testify at... has finally ended. He would have delivered his unwelcome message without hesitation, and without cavil, and when it’s over he’d have put his rain coat on and walked down that long hallway – very empty – with everything pretty much done. It’s a lonely image but it’s a brave image, and it’s one of many images I have of Phil. Thank you for recognizing Phil West.
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