January 21, 2015

Time to Wake Up: Citizens United Crushed the Debate on Climate Change

Mr. President, this week marks a somewhat dark milestone, which is the five-year anniversary of the Supreme Court’s, in my view, reprehensible decision in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission.  This was some feat of activism by the conservative bloc of the Supreme Court. It overturned the laws of Congress, it overturned the will of the American people, and it gave wildly outsized influence over our elections to corporations and big-money interests, creating what one newspaper in Kentucky called a “tsunami of slime.” 

Well, five years on, the evidence is in.  The evidence is in our elections, where the dam-burst of outside cash has wiped out previous campaign spending records.  And the evidence is in this chamber, where we once had a thriving bipartisan conversation on climate change and instead of that we’ve now we been reduced this Keystone XL Pipeline bill, this show of force for the fossil fuel industry and virtual silence from the other side of the aisle on climate change.

I will say that today marked an unusually bright spot in that darkness when 98 out of 99 Senators voting voted that climate change was real and not a hoax, and when we came so close to an amendment that climate change was real and caused by human activity that the sponsor of the amendment had to vote against his own amendment in order to keep the number under 60. There were enough votes at one stage of the vote count for that bill to pass even the filibuster threshold. So that made it an interesting day today, but normally we’re in blockade.  

The purpose of the effort that we have been on has been to fast-track the Keystone XL pipeline, a tar sands pipeline that may at this present oil price be an economic zombie, basically dead pipeline walking. Canadian authorities say that the tar sands can’t be extracted properly under $85 dollars a barrel.  The report from the State Department said that the break price, where you could take it out by train as an alternative to the pipeline was at $75 dollars per barrel, and the price today is about $50 dollar per barrel. So, we really don’t know if this pipeline has an economic future what we do know would that if it was to operate it would pass enough tar sands through it to unleash additional carbon pollution equal to 6 million added cars on the road each year for fifty years.

You take a look at this conversation here, other than the votes we forced today, the effect of climate change on our politics is pretty plain to see, I’m sorry , the effect of Citizens United on our politics is pretty plain to see.  Citizens United has not expanded debate in the Senate; it has crushed debate in the Senate.

Why?  Because since the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United the big fossil fuel polluters and their network of interests have become among the biggest spenders, relying heavily, by the way,  on undisclosed, untraceable dark money.  According to the Center for American Progress, oil, gas, and coal companies and electric utilities alone reported spending more than $84 million on the 2014 elections.  And that’s just what they report.  The industry’s undisclosed spending, through groups that are not required to disclose their donors and so-called “issue ads,” that don’t need to be disclosed, the total is estimated to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Well, money talks and in politics it talks plenty loud, and a $100 million has a lot to say.

One example, Americans for Prosperity, a Koch Brothers venture, disclosed election spending of $6.4 million to the FEC for last year’s midterm elections.  But that group’s own officials have boasted that the real number is as much as $130 million. $130 million in just one election by just one group. It is that kind of extravagant spending has bought the Koch Brothers’ a vast political network, with employees in critical states, with voter databases tied to consumer data, with advertising and media buying specialists. Indeed, that sophisticated Koch Brothers electioneering capacity has now been reported in the general media to rival or exceed that of the Republican National Committee. Think about that. A few very wealthy individuals in the fossil fuel business, huge polluters, are now such big players in our politics that they rival our national parties. Small wonder that is hard to have an honest conversation about carbon pollution in the Senate, and most of it is hidden.

The Washington Post has reported that at least 31 percent of all independent spending in the 2014 elections—, which were by the way the most expensive midterm elections in our history—was spent by groups that are not required to disclose their donors.  The Washington Post also noted that this 31% does not even include “issue ads”— they are also not disclosed.   So we don’t know how bad the influence of the fossil fuel polluters is—but we sure know it’s bad.

Interestingly, that same Supreme Court that decided Citizens United as part of that decision decided 8-1 that disclosure of outside spending was necessary and appropriate.  The majority said this; I’ll quote the decision “prompt disclosure of expenditures can provide shareholders and citizens with the information needed to hold corporations and elected officials accountable.”  Yet these intervening five years have seen a concerted effort to prevent and frustrate disclosure.  Dark-money spending by so-called “independent” groups with no disclosure requirements has more than doubled since 2010.

Ludicrous fact-finding by the Court’s five conservative activists concluded that corporate spending could not ever corrupt elections.  It’s laughable on its face, but that laughable conclusion also overlooks a very clear fact; limitless, untraceable, political money doesn’t even have to be spent to corrupt our democracy.  It can corrupt through the threat of spending, or through the promise of spending.  What Citizens United gave corporations and their political instruments the power to do, it also gave them the power to threaten to do.  And we in the public will never see those back-room corporate threats and promises, or the deals that results. The candidate will know, the special-interests will know, but the public will be the ones left in the dark.

Now, some lobby groups are bolder: the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity openly promised to wipe out candidates who support curbs on carbon pollution.  The group’s president said if Republicans support a carbon tax or climate regulations, they’d and I quote, “be at a severe disadvantage in the Republican nomination process. . . . We would absolutely make that a crucial issue.”  The threat is plain: step out of line and here come the attack ads and the primary challengers—all funded by the deep pockets of the fossil fuel industry, enabled by Citizens United, and largely protected from disclosure. So, it’s the public that can’t see what’s going on.

Mr. President, the effect of Citizens United has been particularly clear here in the Senate.  There once was an active heartbeat of Republican activity on climate change.  Senator McCain ran for president on an active, robust program of addressing climate change. Senator Collins did a bipartisan bill on climate change. Senator Kirk voted in the House for the Waxman/Markey cap and trade bill. Senator Flake wrote articles supporting a carbon fee as long the taxes were reduced elsewhere to offset the increased revenue from the carbon fee. And on, and on. My first exposure to this was the Warner-Lieberman bill, and the Warner was Republican senator, John Warner. Well, that’s been a while.

Since 2010, the year that Citizens United was decided, this honest debate about how we address this problem for the benefits of the American people has flat-lined. Now, since 2010, the climate evidence has only become stronger.  NASA and NOAA just officially declared 2014 the hottest year ever recorded.  Ever.   “[E]asily breaking the previous records,” the agency said.

But as the climate alarm bells grow louder, as the earth sends her signals to us through our scientists, through their measurements about what is happening to the oceans, measuring the acidification of the oceans, about what is happening in our atmosphere, measuring the carbon concentration in the atmosphere. As all that information has advanced, there has been this silence in this building since then. Instead of talking about what carbon pollution is doing to our atmosphere and oceans, instead number one, the first agenda of the new majority, we’re talking about letting polluters pump more tar sands crude, one of the most toxic fossil fuels on the planet out onto the global market. Citizens United did not enhance speech in our democracy;  instead it allowed wealthy special interests to suppress and silenced real debate.

So I have filed an amendment to the Keystone bill to see what corporate influence pervades this effort.  My amendment would require any company that stands to make over $1 million from the pipeline, or from development of the tar sands, to disclose its campaign spending over $10,000 from the last election cycle and going forward. The public needs to be able to connect the dots.

And, I am also reintroducing the general disclosure act, called the DISCLOSE Act to require groups spending on elections to report their large expenditures and their high-dollar donors.  The Supreme Court has said that we can’t keep corporate interests from meddling in our popular elections. They are people, too. So now that the corporations are people, too,  let’s at least show the voters who is trying to sway their votes.  It’s a pretty simple idea.  It’s what the Supreme Court justices themselves prescribed.  And it’s an idea that Republicans over, and over, and over have supported in the past.

The fact that we must face here in the Senate is that polluter money has polluted our democracy, just as their carbon pollution has polluted our atmosphere and oceans.  So, it’s time to disclose.

And on climate change, where we’ve got an overwhelming scientific consensus; where we’ve got the American people, majorities of Democrats and Republicans supporting strong congressional action on climate; where we’ve got American businesses, small and large, that see the folly of ignoring the looming risk; and where we’ve got the national security community, our armed forces, actively preparing to face the threat climate change poses to American safety and international stability. And here by the way just as an example is the Department of the Army’s high level climate change vulnerability assessment. I don’t think they are kidding us, I don’t think they are part of a hoax. Mr. President, I thank you for your patience this evening, and I will conclude with the remarks that I ordinarily conclude these speeches with: it’s time to wake up.

I yield the floor.