October 12, 2023

Whitehouse Delivers Address at University of Rhode Island Honors Colloquium

Kingston, RI – U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse yesterday delivered a keynote address at the University of Rhode Island (URI) Honors Colloquium before students and the University community.  Whitehouse’s remarks focused on the intersection of dark money, climate change and the corporate capture of the U.S. Supreme Court.  Following Whitehouse’s address, he participated in a discussion moderated by Professor Ann-Marie Sacco and URI student Grace Legere.

The Honors Colloquium is an annual, university-wide fall lecture series hosted at the University of Rhode Island.  In celebration of the centennial of the College of Business and the 60th anniversary of the annual Honors Colloquium, the 2023 colloquium examines how business activities affect stakeholders, including the natural environment. 

Senator Whitehouse’s remarks, as-delivered, are below.  Video of the full event is available here.

I get around Rhode Island quite a lot and the thing that I’m asked most about my Senate life is, “what’s wrong with our country, and what can we do about it?”  When I engage with young people, the question usually is “why are we so bad on climate, and what can we do about it?”  And most recently it’s “what’s happened to our Supreme Court, and what can we do about it?”

I think the answers to all three questions are related, and the common theme revolves around corruption.  Corruption is a tough word, I’ve prosecuted cases of political corruption, but remember the word corruption covers a lot of activity.  There’s criminal quid pro quo corruption, like a bribe; there’s the corruption that America’s founding generation wrote about, of unhealthy governance, of disease in the body politic; and then there’s the moral corruption in our own human hearts when we allow ourselves to become accepting of the unacceptable. 

So, what’s gone wrong?  I think people in America understand in a very deep way that this representative democracy of ours is not so representative any more.  My own experience, and peer-reviewed academic studies, and public polling all agree.  Government is often failing to heed the American people, at least in many key areas.  Why is that? 

The Watergate scandal made famous the phrase, “follow the money.”  So, let’s follow the money.  

There’s always been too much money in politics, and it’s always had too much influence.  That’s not new.  Money has been called the “mothers’ milk of politics.” It’s been said that the “two most important things in politics are money, and I can’t think what the other thing is.”  

So money’s influence has long been a problem, but the Citizens United decision from the Supreme Court put the political power of money into hyperdrive, and the Supreme Court allowing all that new political money to be spent anonymously, turned that influence toxic.  

Basic information about the political arena, basic information necessary for people to be good and active citizens, was denied to the public.  Power shifted dramatically to political interests that had the means and the motive to spend unlimited amounts of money in politics.  And politics changed.  

Creepy new political beasts like SuperPACs emerged in the political landscape.  Nowadays every serious presidential candidate has to have their private SuperPAC.  Before Citizens United, those things didn’t even exist.  After Citizens United, an influential interest can ask for a private meeting, and promise a party leader to make hundreds of millions of dollars secretly available.  They can run the hundreds of millions through arrays of front groups, with friendly names like Americans for Prosperity.  And they can make secret demands in return. 

What’s wrong with our country?  We’ve let unlimited secret money into politics — a rough count now is 4 billion secret dollars spent.  All that secret money has distorted our democracy, powered up the special interests, and powered down the people.  And voters felt it, and became disheartened, and frustrated, and angry.  Frankly, they should be.  Hell, I’m angry.

Which brings us to climate.  Congress’s collapse on climate coincides perfectly with Citizens United.  Before Citizens United, there was bipartisan Senate work on climate that produced multiple bipartisan proposals.  In 2008, my friend John McCain ran for president as a Republican on a serious climate platform.  After January 2010, when Citizens United was decided, bipartisanship was snuffed out — dead.  

Climate is now a partisan issue, but it’s a partisan issue only because the fossil fuel industry spent hundreds of millions of dollars secretly, through front groups, to make it partisan, to eliminate Republican support for any serious climate bills. 

We got lucky last Congress, when the House and the Senate and the presidency aligned politically, and a Senate budget rule allowed 51 Senate Democrats to pass what’s called a “reconciliation bill” through a process that defeats the 60-vote Senate filibuster rules.  

That’s how the big climate provisions in the Inflation Reduction Act got passed.  That’s also how we broke the grip of Big Pharma on drug pricing, and the grip of corporate America on some of its excessive corporate tax preferences.

We’re not so lucky now.  The House is in fossil fuel hands.  If you want a stat on that, the House proposal, their demand to spare us a government default on our U.S. credit, was a 315-page bill, 275 pages of that 315-page bill were fossil fuel giveaways.  So the chances now of Congress doing more on climate are near zero.  Indeed, they don’t even have a Speaker.  

There are things the executive branch can do within existing laws.  Here are five: 

  1. getting offshore wind back on track, and I’m hounding them on that; 
  2. effectively implement the IRA, a complicated task which the White House seems to be handling pretty well; 
  3. a vigorous methane leak enforcement task force, which has recently been formed, but whose structure, and pace and vigor remain uncertain (this could be a big deal since satellites can now identify and track major methane leaks); 
  4. a government-wide social cost of carbon — that’s actually now wending its way through the EPA at $190 per ton of carbon emissions, a serious, forceful carbon price.  And the Office of Management and Budget has just issued guidance for that social cost of carbon to be implemented throughout all executive agencies.  I will be policing that effort as to breadth and vigor of implementation, but step one is to clear the $190 per ton cost through the Administrative Procedures Act process and into law at the EPA;
  5. a positive response by the Biden administration to the EU CBAM, a recently adopted European border tariff that will penalize goods imported from high-polluting countries.  A carbon border tariff, a pollution fee on imports, gives a big economic incentive for high-polluting countries to clean up their act.  America should have one, and I’m working on a bipartisan one.  

Two fun facts for the background on all of this.  Fun Fact One: the International Monetary Fund calculates that the fossil fuel industry floats on an annual subsidy, in the United States alone, of over $700 billion.  Defending a subsidy of that magnitude, the fossil fuel polluters will not go quietly.  You can spend a lot of dark money to defend a $700 billion annual subsidy.  It may be the most lucrative thing the fossil fuel industry does.

Fun Fact Two: the entire, planet-wide energy production of the human species amounts to about half a zettajoule.  (A joule, as the scientists in the room will know, is the standard unit of measure for heat energy.  A zettajoule is a number so big the number has 21 zeroes.)  The pollution from the fossil fuel component of that half-zettajoule of human-produced energy, creates in turn an atmospheric greenhouse effect that drives 14 zettajoules of heat every year into our oceans — that’s multiple Hiroshima-sized nuclear blasts worth of excess heat into the oceans per second.  And it’s a nearly 30 to one penalty for the energy derived from fossil fuels.  So if you want to know why Narragansett Bay is three degrees warmer, why sea levels are rising, why ocean starts are worse, why Florida is becoming uninsurable, look to the zettajoules. 

So from these two fun facts, the enormous subsidy and the enormous effect, we know two things. One, we have to fix this fast.  And two, to do is going to be a fight.

Last is the Supreme Court.  There is a practice you can read about in university libraries, called agency capture or regulatory capture.  If you want to spare yourself reading that robust academic literature, imagine 19th-century railroad barons, seeing to it that the railroad commission that set the rates they could charge was stacked with their cronies and their operatives, and you get regulatory capture.  

I’ve tracked for years how that happened to our Supreme Court.  I wrote a book about it.  I speak about that Scheme on the Senate floor frequently.  This was a decades-long regulatory capture operation, run as clandestinely as a covert intelligence operation — as secretly as they could.  And that secrecy got a big boost from dark money.  The target of course was not some regulatory agency, not some railroad commission.  The target was the United States Supreme Court.

So let’s wrap it up.  What’s wrong with our politics, and what’s wrong with our climate policies, and what’s wrong with our Court, all converge, and they converge around dark money.  Secret influence through dark money weaves through all three.  In politics, politicians pivoted towards the new dark-money power elite, turning their backs on the American people, and the American people noticed.  On climate, real climate policies were crushed in hyperdrived political warfare –  warfare easily funded with just a fraction of the $700 billion annual subsidy Congress permits for fossil fuels.  And at the Court, dark money flooded the Federalist Society when it chose the Supreme Court justices the big money folks wanted; and dark money flooded the Judicial Crisis Network, to fund advertising campaigns for the chosen justices’ confirmations; and dark money flooded Senate leadership SuperPACs, as the rank and file voted to confirm even very troubled nominees; and today dark money washes into dozens of front groups that appear in Supreme Court cases to advise the chosen justices how they should rule.

The bad news from all this mess is indeed bad: democracy in America is vulnerable; we’re on the edge of a planetary emergency of human habitability; and we have a Court that has become the secret weapon of secretive right-wing billionaires.

The good news from all this mess is that we can get rid of dark money and make a new morning in American politics.  We have the policy tools to steer the world toward climate safety, once politics permits that.  And as people increasingly understand what went wrong at the Court, the aperture for reforms will open, and we can put the Court back on proper track as a real court again.

I always used to wonder why it was considered a Chinese curse “to live in interesting times.”  Now, it’s getting so interesting, that I’m starting to understand.  Before it gets too interesting, please make sure you get involved as citizens and demand the necessary repairs. 

There are times in history when the duties of citizenship are light, the burden is easy, and democracy needs little attention.  In interesting times, the demands are real, the burdens can be heavy, and it’s on us to measure up.  

This is one of those demanding, interesting, historic times.  It’s not our first.  Other American generations met their moment.  I hope we measure up too.  Thank you very much. 


Meaghan McCabe, (202) 224-2921

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Meaghan McCabe, (202) 224-2921