09.22.10

Statement Of Senator Patrick Leahy On The Democracy Is Strengthened By Casting Light On Spending In Elections Act (DISCLOSE Act)

As Prepared For Delivery

This week, the Senate will again try to take action to help stem the tide of corporate influence unleashed when, earlier this year, five Supreme Court Justices overturned one hundred years of precedent in the Citizens United decision.  When we last sought to consider the DISCLOSE Act prior to the August recess, Republicans filibustered the bill, never allowing the Senate to even debate the legislation.  Since that time, the very real concerns of many Americans after the Citizens United decision have borne out, and massive corporate spending is drowning out the voices of hard-working Americans.  With Election Day less than two months away, hundreds of millions of dollars from corporate and interest group funds have been spent or are pledged to be spent on political advertising and election activities.  The American people deserve better. 

We have seen filibusters, once a rarely used part of Senate procedure, become a regular tool for obstruction in the Senate on issue after issue.  That obstruction has led to delays in considering legislation meant to protect the American people, as well as an alarming rise in judicial vacancies.  Here, in an area fundamental to our democracy, it is clear that the American people will continue paying the price unless Congress takes action.  Americans should expect bipartisan support for any legislation designed to prevent corporations from taking over our elections.  This legislation does that, and I hope that Senators on both sides of the aisle will allow us to proceed to debate on this important issue. 

In Citizens United, five Supreme Court justices cast aside a century of law and opened the floodgates for corporations to drown out individual voices in our elections.  The broad scope of the decision was unnecessary and improper.  At the expense of hardworking Americans, the Supreme Court ruled that corporations could become the predominant influence in our elections for years to come.  We have already seen the consequences of this decision as corporations have injected more money than ever into primary races, and now general elections, across the country.  Legislation is needed to add some transparency to this newfound access.

Americans of all political affiliations have expressed overwhelming concern over the impact of the Citizens United decision, as the threat it poses to our electoral process is readily apparent.  We have a constitutional duty to work to restore a meaningful role for all Americans in the political process.  A vote to again filibuster the motion to proceed to this legislation is a vote to ignore the real world impact this decision is already having on our democratic process. 

The DISCLOSE Act, is a measure I support to moderate the impact of the Citizens United decision.  The DISCLOSE Act will add transparency to the campaign finance laws to help ensure that corporations cannot abuse their newfound constitutional rights.  This legislation will preserve the voices of hardworking Americans in the political process by limiting the ability of foreign corporations to influence American elections, prohibiting corporations receiving taxpayer money from contributing to elections, and increasing disclosure requirements on corporate contributors, among other things.    

It is difficult to overstate the potential for harm in the aftermath of the Citizens United decision.  The DISCLOSE Act is necessary to prevent corruption in our political system, and to protect the credibility of our elections, which is necessary to maintain the trust of the American people.  While some on the other side of the aisle have praised the Citizens United decision as a victory for the First Amendment, what they fail to recognize is that these new rights for corporations come at the expense of the free speech rights of all Americans.  That much is clear already.  There is no longer any doubt that the ability of wealthy corporations to dominate all mediums of advertising risks quieting the voices of individuals.    

Citizens United is only the latest example in which a thin majority of the Supreme Court placed its own preferences over the will of hard working Americans.  The landmark McCain-Feingold Act’s campaign finance reforms were the product of lengthy debate in Congress as to the proper role of corporate money in the electoral process.  Those laws strengthened the rights of individual voters, while carefully preserving the integrity of the political process.  However, with one stroke of the pen, five justices cast aside those years of deliberation, and substituted their own preferences over the will of Congress and the American people. 

Vermont is a state with a rich tradition of involvement in the democratic process.  It is also a small state, and it would not take much for a few corporations to outspend all of our local candidates combined.  It is easy to imagine corporate interests flooding the airwaves with election ads and transforming the nature of Vermont campaigning.  This is simply not what Vermonters expect of their politics.  The DISCLOSE Act is a first step towards ensuring that Vermonters, and all Americans, can remain confident that it is their voices that will be heard in the political process. 

The Citizens United decision grants corporations the same constitutional free speech rights as individual Americans.  This is not what the Framers intended in drafting the opening words of our Constitution, “We the People of the United States.”  In writing the Constitution, the Founders spoke of and guaranteed fundamental rights to the American people -- not to corporations, which are mentioned nowhere in the Constitution.  The time is now to ensure that our campaign finance laws reflect this important distinction.

The American people want their voices heard in the upcoming election.  I look forward to working with all Senators to pass this important legislation, and to ensure that the DISCLOSE Act is enacted into law.  At the very least, our constituents deserve a debate in the Senate on this legislation. 

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