How Citizens United Altered the Climate Debate
As delivered on the Senate floor
Thank you, Madam President, this is my seventy-fifth “Time to Wake Up” speech,something of a minor benchmark, I suppose. I come here urging my colleagues to wake up to the threat of climate change. I do this every week that we are in session, hoping that someday spark will hit tinder. But even as the evidence of climate change deepens, the dialogue here in Washington remains one-sided.
Climate change was once a bipartisan concern. In recent years, something changed. I think I know what changed, and I will get to that. But first, let’s reminisce about the bipartisanship.
If we take a look back, in this body we have Republican colleagues who once openly acknowledged the existence of carbon-driven climate change, and, and who called for real legislative action to cut carbon emissions. Imagine that. It wasn’t that long ago.
We have a former Republican presidential nominee,amongst us, who campaigned for the presidency on addressing climate change.
We have Republicans who have spoken favorably about charging a fee on carbon, including an original Republican cosponsor of a bipartisan Senate carbon fee bill.
We have a Republican colleague who cosponsored carbon fee legislation in the House, and another who voted for the Waxman-Markey “cap and trade” bill when he was in the House.
For years,for years there was a steady, healthy heartbeat of Republican support for major U.S. legislation to address carbon pollution. Let me be specific.
In 2003, Senator John McCain was the lead cosponsor of Democrat Joe Lieberman’s Climate Stewardship Act, which would have created a market-based emissions cap and trading program to reduce carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping pollutants from the biggest U.S. sources.
Here is what Senator McCain said at the time: I’ll quote him, “While we cannot say with 100 percent confidence what will happen in the future, we do know the emission of greenhouse gases is not healthy for the environment. As many of the top scientists through the world have stated, the sooner we start to reduce these emissions, the better off we will be in the future.”
His Climate Stewardship Act actually got a vote. Imagine that!
And when it did not prevail, Senator McCain reintroduced the measure himself in the following Congress. Republican Senators Olympia Snowe of Maine and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island—my predecessor—were among that bill’s cosponsors.
Other Republicans got behind other cap-and-trade proposals: Senator Tom Carper’s “Clean Air Planning Act”, at one time or another, counted Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Senator Lyndsey Graham of South Carolina and Senator Susan Collins of Maine among its supporters.
In 2007, Republican Senator Olympia Snowe was a lead cosponsor of then-Senator Kerry’s “Global Warming Reduction Act.” Senators Murkowski and Stevens from Alaska, and Senator Specter of Pennsylvania, then a Republican, were original cosponsors of the Bingaman “Low Carbon Economy Act.” And that same year, Senator Alexander introduced the “Clean Air/Climate Change Act.” Each of these bills sought to reduce carbon emissions through a cap-and-trade mechanism. Said Senator Alexander, and I’ll quote him, “It is also time to acknowledge that climate change is real, human activity is a big part of the problem, and it is up to us to act.”- 2007
That bipartisan heartbeat remained strong in 2009. Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois, while he served in the House of Representatives, was one of eight Republicans to vote for the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade proposal.
In that same year, 2009, Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, then representing Arizona in the House, was an original cosponsor of the “Raise Wages, Cut Carbon Act,” to reduce payroll taxes for employers and employees in exchange for equal revenue from a carbon tax. On the House Floor, then-Representative Flake argued the virtues of this approach. Here’s what he said:
If we want to be honest about helping the environment, then just impose a carbon tax and make it revenue neutral, give commensurate tax relief on the other side. Myself and another Republican colleague have introduced that legislation to do just that. Let’s have an honest debate about whether or not we want to help the environment by actually having something that is revenue neutral where you tax consumption as opposed to income.
Was a good idea then, and it is still a good idea now. Those words were echoed that year in the Senate by Senator Collins, a lead cosponsor of the “Carbon Limits and Energy for America’s Renewal Act,” Senator Cantwell’s carbon fee bill. “In the United States alone,” said Senator Collins, “emissions of the primary greenhouse gas carbon dioxide have risen more than 20 percent since 1990. Clearly climate change is a daunting environmental challenge,she said, but we must develop solutions that do not impose a heavy burden on our economy, particularly during these difficult economic times.”
2009, Think of it—there was once, not too long ago, clear and forceful acknowledgement, from leading Republican voices, of the real danger posed by climate change, and of Congress’s responsibility to act.
So what happened? Why did this heartbeat of Republican climate action suddenly flatline?
Madam President, I believe we lost the ability to address climate change in a bipartisan way because of the evils of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. Our present failure to address climate change is a symptom of things gone awry in our democracy due to Citizens United. That decision did not enhance speech in our democracy; it has allowed bullying, wealthy special interests to suppress real debate.
I’ve spoken before on the Senate Floor about the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision—one of the most disgraceful decisions by any Supreme Court; destined ultimately, I believe, to follow cases like Lochner v. New York onto the ash heap of judicial infamy.
But we’re stuck with it for now.
In a nutshell, the Citizens United decision says this: corporations are people; money is speech; so there can be no limit to corporate money influencing American elections. If that doesn’t seem right, it’s because it’s not.
Phony and improper fact-finding by the five conservative activists on the Supreme Court concluded that corporate spending could not ever corrupt elections, just couldn’t do it.By some magic, it’s pure. That’s a bad enough finding on its face, but they also didn’t get that limitless, untraceable political money doesn’t have to be spent to damage our democracy. Unlimited corporate spending in politics can corrupt, not just through floods of anonymous attack advertisements; it can corrupt, secretly and more dangerously, through the mere threat of that spending, through private threats and promises. The presiding officer was the Attorney General of her state, and she well knows how much mischief can be done in backrooms by threats and promises, that’s what Attorney Generals see when they go out and investigate.
And as we’re evaluating the effect of Citizens United on our climate change debate, let’s remember one thing; a lot of this special interest money has been spent against Republicans. I’ve had Republican friends tell me, “what are you complaining about?” They’re spending more against us, than against you. There have been times when that has been true. When the Koch Brothers’ polluter money can come in and bombard you in a small primary election, that’s pretty scary. And when the paid-for right-wing attack machine can be cranked up against you in your Republican primary, that’s pretty scary, too. And what the polluters can do with political spending, they can threaten or promise to do, in ways that the public will never see or know—but the candidate will know. The candidate will know, for sure.
So, I wrote a “friend of the Court” brief to the Supreme Court with Senator McCain to highlight for the justices some of the failings and pitfalls of their shameful Citizens United decision. “The dominating influence of super PACs,” we wrote, “makes it all the easier for those seeking legislative favors and results to discreetly threaten such expenditures if Members of Congress do not accede to their demands.” I think we were right.
So how does this bear on climate change?
All that bipartisan activity I talked about preceded Citizens United. After that, polluter attacks funded by Citizens United money, and the threat of those polluter attacks,perhaps promises not to make those attacks, if you behave cast a dark shadow over Republicans who might work with Democrats on curbing carbon pollution. Tens, perhaps even hundreds of millions of dark-money dollars are being spent by polluters and their front organizations, and God only knows what private threats and promises have been made.
The timing is telling. Before Citizens United, there was an active heartbeat of Republican activity on climate change. Since then, the evidence has only become stronger. But after Citizens United uncorked all that big, dark money, and allowed it to cast its bullying shadow of intimidation over our democracy, Republicans—other than those few who parrot the polluter party line that climate change is just a big old hoax— they have all walked back from any major climate legislation.
We have Senators here who represent historic native villages, now washing into the sea and needing relocation because of climate change and sea-level rise. We have Senators who represent great American coastal cities, now overwashed by high tides because of climate change. We have Senators representing states swept by drought and wildfire. We have Senators whose home-state forests—by the hundreds of square miles—are being killed by the marauding pine beetle. We have Senators whose home states’ glaciers are disappearing before their very eyes. We have Senators whose states are having to raise offshore bridges and highways before rising seas. We have Senators whose emblematic home state species are dying off, like the New Hampshire moose, for instance swarmed by ticks, by the tens of thousands that snows no longer kill.
Yet almost none will work on a major climate bill. It’s not safe to, ever since Citizens United allowed the bullying, polluting special interests to bombard our elections, and threaten and promise to bombard our elections, with their attack ads.
Well, despite all the dark money, despite the threats and intimidation, I still believe this can be a courageous time. We simply need conscientious Republicans and Democrats to work together, in good faith, on a common platform of facts and common sense, to protect the American people and the American economy from the looming effects of climate change in our atmosphere, on our lands, in our oceans. We simply need to shed the shackles of corrupting influence and rise to our duty.
In courageous times, Americans have done far more than that. It’s not asking much to ask this generation to stand up to a pack polluters, just because they have big checkbooks. In previous generations, Americans have put at risk their very lives, fortunes and sacred honor—to serve the higher interests of this great republic. We know it can be done, because it’s been done.
We do not have to be the generation that failed at our duty. We are headed down a road to infamy now, but it doesn’t have to be that way. We can leave a legacy that will echo down the corridors of history, so that those who follow us will be proud of our efforts. But sitting here, doing nothing, yielding to the special-interest bullies and their Citizens United money, pretending the problem isn’t real, that won’t accomplish that.
As I have said before seventy-four times, and as I say tonight for the seventy-fifth time, it is time for us to wake up.
I yield the floor. I thank the presiding officer.
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