December 13, 2018

Whitehouse Floor Remarks on the Congressional Review Act and Dark Money

Mr. President, I am honored to join the senior Senator from Oregon in support of this important resolution. As I think everybody on this floor has observed, there is a rot in our American democracy, and there is a shadow over the Halls of Congress. The rot is dark money, and the shadow is special interest influence empowered by that dark money.

A lot of this goes back to the extraordinarily misguided decision of the U.S. Supreme Court—or, I should say, five Republican appointees to the U.S. Supreme Court—in Citizens United, which took the astonishing position that the integrity of our elections should receive a value of zero in their calculus and their solicitude should be exclusively for the wealthiest forces that bring their power to bear on American democracy, because, after all, if what you are doing is unleashing the power of special interests to spend millions of dollars, by definition, you are only powering up the group that has millions of dollars to spend and a reason to spend it.

That is, perhaps, the segment of the American population entitled to the least solicitude in our great American debate. Yet it was the exclusive interest of the five Republican appointees on the Court. It was an evil balancing of priorities but, sadly, part of a long tradition—going back to the Bellotti decision—of Republican appointees to the Supreme Court expanding the role and influence of corporations and special interests.

In their foolishness, the five Republican judges who gave us the Citizens United decision claimed that the spending they unleashed was going to be transparent—not so. Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent to append to my remarks at the end with an article pointing out that secret political spending in elections in the United States of America is on track to hit a $1 billion milestone[1].

Not only is the secret spending a menace, but once you allow unlimited spending—particularly, if you allow unlimited secret spending—there is another dark problem, which is that if you are a big special interest that is able to spend unlimited money, and perhaps secret unlimited money against a candidate, what else have you been given the power to do? You have been given the power to go to that candidate and say: We are coming after you unless you do what I tell you.

It opens threats and promises that are always going to be secret. So even were there not these evil channels for dark money to pollute and influence our democracy, Citizens United would still be misguided with respect to the darkness of the threats and promises that it empowered. Of course, when you remove accountability for the advertising and the sleazy campaigns that this supports, you get a lot more negative advertising. That is why one of the consequences of all of this has been described as a tsunami of slime.

Whether you want to rid dark money channels, whether you want to diminish secret threats, or whether you want to combat the tsunami of slime, there is every reason to take a stand against what has become of our democracy. If you think this is just an academic pursuit, take a look at the climate change dispute.

In 2007, 2008, and 2009, when I was a new Senator, we did bipartisan work on climate change every one of those years. We had bipartisan hearings. We had bipartisan bills. I think we had four of them in the Senate. Along comes Citizens United in January of 2010. From that moment forward, bipartisanship was dead because the fossil fuel industry that asked for the Citizens United decision and that got the Citizens United decision from the five Republican appointees was instantly ready to bring that new power to bear. They went to the Republican Party, and they said: Anybody who crosses us on climate is dead. They took representatives like Bob Inglis and put him out of his job to demonstrate their seriousness.

From that moment, from the day the Citizens United decision was announced, there has not been a serious piece of climate legislation that any Republican has been willing to sign onto. If you doubt the effects of dark money, take a look at where we are on climate change. In this weird way, the pollution of our democracy is directly connected to the pollution of our atmosphere and oceans.

And, of course, once you open a channel for a dark money influence—an American dark money influence; ExxonMobil, the Koch brothers, Big Pharma, you name it—when you open a dark money channel for that influence to wreak its power, you can’t control who comes through it. Dark is dark. And there is every reason now to believe that foreigners are taking advantage of our dark money channels to exert influence in our elections. I ask unanimous consent to have printed in the record at the end of my remarks an op-ed in Politico entitled ‘‘Foreign Dark Money is Threatening American Democracy,’’ written by former Vice President Biden[2].

Today’s Congressional Review Act measure is a small step. It won’t provide much public disclosure; it will only require that companies and entities that are using these dark money channels continue to report to the IRS. So there is not going to be an enormous difference made here, but there is an enormous difference in which side this body will choose to be on in this vote today on Senator TESTER’s resolution.

It is a very simple and a very stark choice. We can choose, one by one. Each one of us will make this choice today. We can choose to be on the side of dark money. We can choose to decide to be on the side of special interest influence, we can choose to decide to be on the side of whispered threats—I will tell you that dark money and special interest influence and whispered threats have a disgraceful force in this building right now, thanks to Citizens United and the dark money channels that it empowered—or we can choose to be on the side of America as a city on a hill. Why do we call America a city on a hill? Because everyone can see it. And a city on a hill does not do its business through the dark money sewers that run under the city; it does its business in the plain marketplace and open spaces of that city, and that is what we should be for. I ask unanimous consent to have printed in the RECORD a report on this issue by a terrific bipartisan group, called ‘‘Issue One,’’ as a third appendant to my remarks[3].