June 21, 2016

Time to Wake Up: We the People

Mr. President, I am here for the 141st time to urge my colleagues to wake up, in this case more specifically to the political influence, particularly the dark money that perpetuates the climate blockade in Congress.

In 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville traveled the United States to write his famous Democracy in America. De Tocqueville described our American style of government as “quite exceptional.” He wrote about it with affection and with fascination. He may have been the first American exceptionalist.

As the son and grandson of Foreign Service officers, I can personally attest to the importance of America as a paragon of government across the globe, as an aspirational model of self-governance, and as a country that others count on that comes to help, not to loot or conquer.

The roots of our American exceptionalism are found in the three simple words that introduce our Constitution: “We the People.” The notion that the government belongs to the people seems unremarkable now, but in its day, it was literally revolutionary.

Today, this proposition is under threat from few very well-heeled special interests and their shadowy front groups, all powered up by the Supreme Court’s disastrous 5-to-4 Citizens United decision. In that decision, the Court’s conservative bloc overturned long-standing laws of Congress, rejected the common sense of the American people, and gave wildly outsized influence over our elections to a little stable of Big Money interests, creating what one newspaper in Kentucky has aptly called a “tsunami of slime.”

The evidence is in. The evidence is found in our elections, where the tsunami of outside cash has wiped out previous campaign spending records and created whole new campaign spending categories that never existed before, like dark money. And the evidence is found in this Chamber, where before Citizens United we had a thriving bipartisan debate on climate change. Now we have exactly the silence the polluters want from the Republican side.

It wasn’t very long after de Tocqueville published his famous book on American democracy that the physicist John Tyndall wrote about excess heat trapped by the buildup of certain gases in the atmosphere. He wrote: [T]o account for different amounts of heat being preserved to the earth at different times, a slight change in [the atmosphere’s] variable constituents would suffice for this. Such changes in fact may have produced all the mutations of climate which the researches of geologists reveal.”

Those “variable constituents” to which Tyndall referred included carbon dioxide, methane, and water vapor; he was writing about what we now call the greenhouse effect. We have understood this greenhouse effect for a century and a half. Abraham Lincoln was President when this was published. It is nothing new or controversial in real science, as I think every single one of our major State universities would attest, and it is starting to have a pretty pronounced effect.

NOAA just reported that the Earth passed what they call “another unfortunate milestone.” Carbon dioxide concentrations passed 400 ppm at the South Pole last month. That was a first in 4 million years. NOAA also announced that the globally averaged temperature over land and ocean surfaces for May 2016 was the highest for any May in the NOAA global temperature record. This marks the 13th consecutive such month, breaking its monthly global temperature record–the longest streak in NOAA’s 137 years of keeping records.

We understand what is going on. So why is Congress stuck, asleep at the wheel?

Why? Because since the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United, the big fossil fuel polluters and their network of front groups–a well-documented crowd now in academic literature and in journalism–have poured money and threats into our politics. Just one group, the Koch brothers-backed front group Americans for Prosperity, openly proclaimed that if Republicans support a carbon tax or climate regulations, they would “be at a severe disadvantage in the Republican nomination process.” It would mean their “political peril.”

The threat is plain. It is funded by the very deep pockets and the highly motivated schemes of the fossil fuel industry, enabled by Citizens United, and much of it is largely hidden from public disclosure. Candidates get it; it is the public that doesn’t see what is going on behind the scenes.

Every election since Citizens United has broken spending records, and this year is on track to do it again. Super PACs, anonymous so-called social welfare 501(c)(4) groups, and other outside groups have so far spent nearly $400 million in this election, and we are still nearly 5 months from election day. Politico has reported that donations to super PACs are expected to exceed $1 billion this election cycle. Gee, for $1 billion, what could they possibly want?

We know where this money will go. It will fund an onslaught of the ugly, noxious, negative campaign ads that Americans hate. They hate the negative messages smearing the ad’s targets. But they also hate another message. They hate the message that this smear was paid for by some shadowy group that they know perfectly well has no role in their State or in their life and that they usually have never heard of but has suddenly commandeered their TV screen to deliver the smear attack. That secondary payload, which has delivered negative ad after negative ad, is piling up, and its message to the American viewer is clear: “This has gotten weird. This has gotten out of hand, and you don’t count.”

Not surprisingly, Americans are becoming more and more disillusioned with our politics. According to a Bloomberg poll, 72 percent of Americans report being fed up with politics and politicians, and 59 percent feel the “political system is broken.” According to a recent Rasmussen poll, three-quarters of voters believe the wealthiest individuals and companies have too much influence over elections, and 8 in 10 agree that wealthy special interest groups have too much power and influence. They are not wrong. That Citizens United decision has even helped make Americans feel by a ratio of 9 to 1 that an ordinary American will not get a fair shot against a corporation in the U.S. Supreme Court.

It is a dirty circle. The strength of America lies in its people. Stoking distrust and contempt for our political system breeds cynicism, and that cynicism gives special interests more influence in their age-old battle to loot the public. That failure also jeopardizes the exceptionalism that has made America an example for good throughout the world–fat chance that we are an example for good on climate change when the fossil fuel industry has done what it has with its campaign spending.

It is a mess, and to clean it up a group of us have assembled a “We the People” suite of legislation. The “We the People” legislation is a collection of straightforward reforms designed to loosen the grip of big money on our elections, reduce the influence that wealthy special interests have over our government–often behind the scenes–and return America’s democracy to its true owners, the American people.

How do we do this? Well, first, we bring transparency back to our elections with an updated DISCLOSE Act, a bill I have introduced in the last three Congresses. DISCLOSE would require every organization spending money in elections, including super PACs and tax-exempt 501(c)(4) groups, to promptly disclose donors who give $10,000 or more during an election cycle and to get the spending information online within 24 hours. It would prevent super PACs from acting as de facto extensions of a candidate’s campaign, and it would reform the Federal Election Commission to break the partisan deadlock that cripples enforcement of existing campaign finance laws.

Second, we undo the Court’s dreadful Citizens United decision. Citizens United was wrong in treating corporations as if they were people. It was wrong that corporate money will not corrupt. It was wrong not seeing that whatever special interests are allowed to do politically, they can threaten and promise to do, and those threats and promises are corrupting.

Finally, it overlooked that a small class of special interests can actually make a bundle buying influence.

The fossil fuel industry, for instance, even when it spends $750 million in one election, is still making a bundle protecting the massive subsidies that support fossil fuel in this country. According to the IMF, that number is about $700 billion every year in effective subsidies.

So “We the People” includes Senator Udall’s constitutional amendment to give Congress the power to once again pass commonsense measures regulating presently unlimited corporate cash in our elections. Finally, “We the People” includes proposals championed by Senators Bennet and Baldwin to stop the spinning, revolving door that so often makes officials beholden to corporate special interests.

It was not long after Alexis de Tocqueville described our unique American democracy and it was about the same time John Tyndall described the basic science of the greenhouse effect that President Lincoln reminded a war-weary nation of the point of all that bloodshed–that “government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth.”

Allowing special interests to secretly buy elections and influence government officials gives away an American patrimony that was dearly bought. Make no mistake, without Citizens United, and without the maligned and dishonorable use of its weaponry by the fossil fuel industry, we would have had by now a bipartisan solution to climate change. A faction on the Court that unleashed that new political weaponry, an industry that took shameful and remorseless advantage of it, and a party that has willingly subordinated itself to that influence to keep the money flowing all share the blame for where we are today  

We need to clean this up. The polluters don’t just pollute our planet; they are polluting our very democracy.

I yield the floor.