June 20, 2018

Time to Wake Up: DISCLOSE

Mr. President, as 2010 dawned, in what now seems like another era of political time, the U.S. Congress was poised to tackle the problem of climate change. The House of Representatives had just passed a cap-and-trade bill, and there was bipartisan support for climate action in the Senate. Then, on January 21–a date that ought to live in judicial infamy–five Justices on the U.S. Supreme Court–all Republican appointees–delivered Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission and unleashed unlimited special interest money into America’s political system.

The fossil fuel industry was looking for a way to stop climate legislation; it got Citizens United. Fossil fuel interests asked those Justices for, anticipated, and immediately seized on the political opportunity Citizens United provided them.

Citizens United instantly changed the game in Congress for big political interests, such as the fossil fuel industry. Before that fateful day, Congress had held regular, bipartisan hearings and even votes on legislation to limit the carbon emissions causing climate change, but Citizens United allowed the fossil fuel industry to strike at this bipartisan progress, and it struck hard. The fossil fuel industry set its political forces instantly to work, targeting pro-climate-action candidates, particularly Republicans. Outside spending in 2010’s congressional races increased 75 percent–75 percent–by more than $200 million over the previous midterm’s levels.

Citizens United gave the fossil fuel political forces another power–not just the power to spend but the power to threaten. As powerful a cudgel as actual election spending is to wield, it is also powerful to threaten to wield that cudgel. Threats are not only powerful, they are less expensive than actual spending–you get to keep the money, and the threats are likely to be secret.

The sudden barrage of unlimited money, dark money, and political threat had its desired effect: The political hit men of the fossil fuel industry stopped bipartisan climate action in its tracks. Pro-climate Republicans had a choice: either stop advocating for climate action or become a casualty.

The clear before-and-after point is 2010’s Citizens United decision and the immediate weaponization of that new power by the fossil fuel industry to protect its polluting status quo–a status quo, by the way, that the International Monetary Fund estimates provides fossil fuel a subsidy of $700 billion–billion with a “b”–every year, just in the United States.

The Republican appointees who delivered the Citizens United decision claimed that there would be a regime of “effective disclosure” that would, as they said, “provide shareholders and citizens with the information needed to hold corporations and elected officials accountable for their positions and supporters.” Of course, this has not happened. Instead, we have witnessed billionaires and corporate interests spending unlimited secret money in elections. Outside groups have already spent $140 million in the 2018 election cycle, nearly half of which is from groups with no or only partial disclosure.

The head of the Koch brothers’ dark money group, Americans for Prosperity, announced that the Kochs’ political network plans to spend $400 million in the 2018 cycle–60 percent more than it spent in 2016. Just last month, a single anonymous donor contributed $26.4 million to the American Action Network, a dark-money organization with close ties to Speaker Paul Ryan.

Secrecy is the key to the fossil fuel polluters’ toxic control of our democracy. Light will drive them back. As a Foreign Service officer’s son living overseas in impoverished tropical countries, I remember that the cockroaches would come out at night. When you would go into the kitchen to get a drink, you would hit the light switch, the lights would flicker on, and you would see and hear the cockroaches scuttling for the protection of the shadows, fleeing the light.

Well, we need a little bit of that light in our democracy. So, with my Democratic colleagues, I am reintroducing my legislation to bring about the so-called “effective disclosure,” which even the Supreme Court that decided Citizens United acknowledged is necessary for the American people to have full faith in our political system.

The DISCLOSE Act of 2018 offers a commonsense solution to restore transparency and accountability in our political system. The DISCLOSE Act would rein in what has been called a “tsunami of slime” by requiring organizations spending money in American elections–including super PACs, unions, tax-exempt 501(c)(4) groups, all of them–to promptly disclose donors who give $10,000 or more during an election cycle. Big, sneaky donors will try to hide behind shell corporations that disguise who they are, so the bill includes robust transfer provisions to prevent dark-money operatives from using complex webs of phony front groups to hide real donor identities.

The DISCLOSE Act also strengthens the ban forbidding election spending by foreign nationals. One of the problems of our present dark-money infestation is that foreign actors can hide their political influence activities in the exact same dark-money channels used by the big special interests. Once you tolerate dark-money channels of influence in American elections, you can’t police who uses those dark-money channels. Anonymity is anonymity; anyone could be hiding in the dark. Vladimir Putin could be hiding in the dark. We don’t know until we turn on the lights.

Last, the bill requires people spending money on election advertising to “stand by your ad” so that the ad itself identifies who is behind the advertising.

Can we get this done? The public certainly wants us to, and it wasn’t too long ago that Republicans supported disclosure. They were right back then, but now Republicans, who once extolled the principles of openness and accountability in our elections, have changed their tune. Gone is their distaste for secretive election spending; indeed, a new appetite for secret spending has emerged.

This is how the special interest rot of our democracy occurs: The big special interests not only want to win in Congress, they want to change the rules of democracy to make it so they can always win in Congress, and they use those changed rules to make sure their party goes along with it.

Back in 2014, the Rules Committee actually held a hearing on DISCLOSE. I hope we can get another hearing because since that time, the problem of dark money has only gotten worse. President Trump promised to drain the swamp and then turned his administration over to the biggest dark-money swamp monsters that exist. For example, nearly two dozen dark-money organizations fronting for God knows who–but one can guess–backed the nomination of Scott Pruitt to be the Environmental Protection Agency Administrator. Indeed, Administrator Pruitt himself raised millions of dollars in dark money while serving as Oklahoma’s attorney general, and he has never disclosed what business those interests that funded him now have before the EPA.

Americans correctly feel that the tsunami of anonymous dark money drowns out their voices in Washington and washes them to the margins of our political arena. The DISCLOSE Act of 2018 offers a commonsense solution to restore transparency and accountability into our political system. With the Senate now in session through most of the summer, there is ample time for this body to examine the merits of clearing dark money out of our political system. The problem of dark-money spending and threats is too big to ignore.

This is why we are failing at addressing climate change. The corruption and fear Citizens United set loose in our politics in 2010 sickeningly empowered big special interests, and to the lasting shame of our Nation, it allowed the fossil fuel industry to purchase veto power over our national policymaking on climate change. We have allowed the biggest interest with the biggest conflict of interest to acquire veto power over what the Congress of the United States does on this vital issue.

This has been a double evil: It has been poisonous to the American democracy we cherish, and by preventing action to address climate change, it is poisonous to our entire planet.

By introducing this legislation, we are giving our Republican colleagues a chance to show the American people where they stand–with the individual voters we were all sent here to represent, who massively want there to be climate action, or with the billionaires and corporate interests pursuing a quiet, hostile takeover of American democracy using dark money and threats.

The cockroaches are everywhere. I say, let’s turn on the lights.

I yield the floor.