07.17.12

On Senate Floor, Leahy Urges Republican Senators To Support DISCLOSE Act

. . . Legislation Addresses Supreme Court’s Citizens United Campaign Finance Decision

WASHINGTON  – Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), a leading cosponsor of legislation to mitigate the impact of the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case, spoke on the Senate floor Tuesday morning about the need to restore the nation’s campaign finance laws.

In a Senate vote Monday night, Republicans filibustered a procedural motion to debate the Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light On Spending in Elections Act (DISCLOSE Act).  The legislation would help curtail corporate influence in elections, a growing and harmful trend made possible by the Citizens decision.  Last month the Supreme Court again sided with corporations over citizens when it summarily struck down a 100 year-old Montana state law barring corporate contributions to political campaigns. 

“Like most Vermonters, I strongly believe that something must be done to address the divisive and corrosive decision of the Supreme Court in Citizens United,” said Leahy.  “That decision was wrong, the damage must be repaired, and the harmful ways it is skewing the democratic process must be fixed.”

The DISCLOSE Act would strengthen campaign finance laws to ensure that individual Americans – not corporate entities and other organizations – are still the primary players in the country’s elections.  The House of Representatives passed a version of the legislation in 2010, but the legislation was then filibustered by Republicans in the Senate.  Next week the Senate Judiciary Committee will hear testimony on the corrosive impact that the Citizens decision has had on the American political system and explore remedies to roll back its harmful implications.

Leahy continued, “At a time when we are seeing a renewed effort to deny millions of Americans their right to vote through voter purges and voter ID laws that serve as modern day poll taxes, the comparison some have made between our effort to bring sunlight and those dark says is as shameful as it is wrong.  In a democracy, our ballots should be secret – not massive corporate campaign contributions.”  

# # # # #

Statement Of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.)
On Ending the Republican Filibuster
Of The DISCLOSE Act Of 2012
July 17, 2012

 

For the last two and half years, the American people have seen the devastating effects of the Citizens United decision.  That decision by five Supreme Court justices overturned a century of law designed to protect our elections from corporate spending, and unleashed a massive flood of corporate money into our elections.  Many of us in Congress and around the country worried at the time of the Citizens United decision that it turns on its head the idea of government of, by and for the people.  We worried that the decision created new rights for Wall Street at the expense of the people on Main Street.  We worried that powerful corporate megaphones could drown out the voices and interests of individual Americans.  Two and a half years later, it is clear those worries are supremely valid, and the damage is devastatingly real.

Since the Citizens United decision struck down longstanding prohibitions on corporations from direct spending in political campaigns, hundreds of millions of dollars from undisclosed and unaccountable sources have flooded the airwaves with a barrage of negative advertisements.  Nobody who has watched our elections or even tried to watch television since the Citizens United decision can deny the enormous impact that decision has had on our political process.  Nobody who has strained to hear the voices of the voters lost among the flood of noise from SuperPACs can deny that by extending First Amendment rights in the political process to corporations, the Supreme Court put at risk the rights of individual Americans to speak to each other and, crucially, to be heard.

Yet just last month, without a hearing, the same five Justices who in Citizens United ran roughshod over longstanding precedent to strike down key provisions of our bipartisan campaign finance laws doubled down on Citizens United when they summarily struck down a 100-year-old Montana state law barring corporate contributions to political campaigns.  In doing so, they broke down the last public safeguards preventing corporate megaphones from drowning out the voices of hardworking Americans.

These Supreme Court decisions not only go against longstanding laws and legal precedents, but also common sense.  Corporations are not people.  Corporations are not the same as individual Americans.  Corporations do not have the same rights, the same morals or the same interests.  Corporations cannot vote in our democracy.  We could elect General Eisenhower, but General Electric and General Motors cannot serve as the President.  They are artificial legal constructs meant to facilitate business.  The Founders understood this.  Vermonters and Americans across the country have long understood this.  A narrow majority on the Supreme Court apparently did not.

Like most Vermonters, I strongly believe that something must be done to address the divisive and corrosive decision of the Supreme Court in Citizens United.  That decision was wrong, the damage must be repaired, and the harmful ways it is skewing the democratic process must be fixed.  That is why I held the first congressional hearing on that terrible decision in the weeks after it was issued.  That is why we have scheduled a hearing next week in the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Constitution Subcommittee to look at proposals for constitutional amendments to address Citizens United

But today the Senate can take action.  By passing the DISCLOSE Act we can restore transparency and accountability to campaign finance laws by ensuring that all Americans know who is paying for campaign ads.  This is a crucial step toward restoring the ability of Vermonters and all American voters to be able to speak, be heard and to hear competing voices, and not be drowned out by powerful corporate interests.

When I cosponsored the first DISCLOSE Act after the Supreme Court’s decision in 2010, I hoped Republicans would join with Democrats to mitigate the impact of the Citizens United decision.  From the depths of the Watergate scandal forward, until only recently, the principle of disclosure was a bipartisan value.  A clear-cut reform like the DISCLOSE Act would have easily drawn bipartisan support.  I hoped that Senate Republicans like Senator John McCain, who had once championed the bipartisan McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, would join with us to help ensure that corporations could not abuse their newfound constitutional rights.  Regrettably, Republicans successfully filibustered the DISCLOSE Act in 2010,  and despite a majority in both Houses of Congress and the American people being in favor of passing this disclosure law, it fell one vote short of breaking the Republican filibuster in the Senate.  

Senate Republicans are continuing their filibuster of this common sense legislation, denying the American people an open, public, and meaningful debate on the importance of transparency and accountability in our elections.  Last night, they again filibustered this bill, despite a majority standing in support of it, and refused to even proceed to debate the bill in the Senate.  By doing so, they ensure the ability of wealthy corporations to dominate all mediums of advertising and to drown out the voices of individuals, as we have seen and will continue to see in our elections.  Despite the clear impact of waves of unaccountable corporate campaign spending that has led Senator McCain to concede that Super PACs are “disgraceful,” a minority in the Senate consisting exclusively of Republicans continue to prevent passage of this important law. 

Why are they against this bill?  Why, when so many Senators of both parties used to champion disclosure laws and supported knowing who is paying for campaign ads do they continue to prevent us from even having a debate?  Why, when the Supreme Court made clear even in the Citizens United decision that disclosure laws are constitutional does the Senate Republican leadership insist on stalling this reform?    

We know disclosure laws CAN work because they DO work for individual Americans donating directly to political campaigns.  When you or I give money directly to a political candidate, our donation is not hidden.  It is publicly disclosed.  Yet those who oppose the DISCLOSE Act are standing up for special rights for corporations and wealthy donors that you and I do not have. 

We have seen since Citizens United that the line the Supreme Court imagined existed between individual campaigns and the SuperPACs is an all but meaningless one as SuperPACs have poured more and more money into influencing election campaigns.  In reality, SuperPACs have simply become a way to funnel secret, massive, non-disclosed donations to political campaigns.  The Citizens United decision has allowed corporations and large donors to evade the disclosure laws that apply to you and me by giving money to groups that then fund SuperPACs, as a way of laundering the money and keeping secret the real funders of these campaign ads.  There is no reason those funding these SuperPAC’s should not be bound by the same disclosure rules for giving directly to campaigns.  Public disclosure of donations to candidates has never chilled campaign funding, and has never prevented millions of Americans from participating freely and openly in our elections.

We have even seen some on the other side of this debate disgracefully compare the attempt we are making to ensure that the same disclosure laws that apply to you and me also apply to corporations to the shameful effort in the 1950s and 1960s to keep African Americans from exercising their right to vote.  There the chilling effect often took the form of violence.  We all remember the bridge at Selma and the blood that was spilled in the long effort for voting rights that led to the Voting Rights Act.  At a time when we are seeing a renewed effort to deny millions of Americans their right to vote through voter purges and voter ID laws that serve as modern day poll taxes, the comparison some have made between our effort to bring sunlight and those dark says is as shameful as it is wrong.   

When the race is on for secret money and election campaigns are won or lost by who can collect the largest amount of unaccountable, secret donations, it puts at risk government of, by and for the people.  In a democracy, our ballots should be secret – not massive corporate campaign contributions.  Disclosure of who is paying for election ads should not be kept secret from the public.

I can tell you what I am fighting for.  With too many Vermonters still looking for work, we need to continue looking for ways to spur job growth and economic investment in this country.  We need to continue our efforts to increase jobs, reduce unemployment, and support hardworking American families struggling to keep food on the table and roofs over their heads.  We need to protect Americans’ access to clean air and clean water and fight for their economic security by protecting Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.  We need to work together to move forward with reasonable policies to bolster economic growth and development and by ending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans – the tax cuts we cannot afford that contributed to the financial crisis facing us today. 

That is what I am fighting for.  What are the secret sources of funding for the SuperPACs fighting for?  What do they expect to gain from hundreds of millions in campaign ads?  And why are they hiding?

Vermont is a small state.  It would not take more than a tiny fraction of the corporate money flooding the airwaves in other states to outspend all of our local candidates combined.  I know that the people of Vermont, like all Americans, take seriously their civic duty to choose wisely on Election Day.  That is why more than 60 Vermont towns passed resolutions on Town Meeting Day calling for action to address Citizens United.  Like all Vermonters, I cherish the voters’ role in the democratic process and am a staunch believer in the First Amendment.  The rights of Vermonters and all Americans to speak to each other and to be heard should not be undercut by corporate spending.

I hope that Republicans who have seen the impact of waves of unaccountable corporate campaign spending reconsider their filibuster of a debate on this important legislation.  I hope Republican Senators will let us vote on the DISCLOSE Act and help us take an important step to ensure the ability of every American to be heard and to be able to meaningfully participate in free and fair elections. 

# # # # #