Sen. Franken on Senate Floor: DISCLOSE Act Would Improve Public Dialogue, Help Americans Make Better-Informed Election Decisions
Sen. Delivered Remarks as Part of Late Night Debate Session on Campaign Disclosure Law
Yesterday, U.S. Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) spoke on the Senate floor about the importance of passing the DISCLOSE Act, which would prohibit secret campaign contributions and ensure that Minnesotans know who is flooding the airwaves with ads. The speech was part of a "midnight vigil" during which several Senate Democrats - led by the Citizens United Task Force, of which Sen. Franken is a member - gave late night speeches to bring greater attention to the issue of secret election spending. Yesterday, Senate Republicans blocked the bill from moving to the floor for debate.
"[The DISCLOSE Act] will bring much needed sunshine to our political system, which will go a long way toward reducing the number and dishonesty of negative attack ads that further corrode our public dialogue and ultimately threaten our democratic system," Sen. Franken said in his speech. "The public has every right to know who is bankrolling these ads-so that it can better understand what motivates these messages before deciding whether to pay attention to what they have to say."
The DISCLOSE Act would blunt one of the worst effects of the Supreme Court's Citizen's United decision by requiring corporations, unions, and other organizations that make political expenditures to disclose all donations over $10,000, among other things.
The full text of Sen. Franken's speech is below.
STATEMENT ON THE DISCLOSE ACT
As prepared for delivery
Senator Al Franken
Minnesotans are proud of our participation in civic life and believe strongly in hearing each other out. In the last presidential election, 78 percent of eligible voters in my state turned out to vote-well above the national turnout of 64 percent of voting age citizens in 2008. In fact, Minnesota has led the nation for voter turnout over the last six elections. This is really remarkable, and it is one of the reasons I am so proud to represent Minnesota.
But when the Supreme Court upended 100 years of law with Citizens United, it yanked the microphone away from average Minnesotans and turned it over to a handful of millionaires, billionaires, and corporations intent on controlling the outcome of our elections.
Now a single person writing a check for $1 million-or $10 million, or $100 million-can drown out the voices of everyone else. And they can do so in total secrecy.
We have heard about a handful of millionaires and billionaires that have written fat checks to bankroll presidential candidates. But what is most terrifying about this-is that we only know about those people because they decided to let us know. For every billionaire who tells us he is writing a check to a candidate, there are probably 10 or 100 corporations and ultra-wealthy individuals who are writing similar checks in secret. Even one of the ones we know about because he's told us - he now says he's going to also give secretly.
I was listening to CSPAN radio in the car, and they had on a woman who is a journalist who reports on money and politics for a major American daily newspaper. They were taking calls, and one caller basically said that this is all about privatizing Social Security and Medicare so Wall Street folks can get their hands on the money from those programs. Then this expert said, and I'll paraphrase, ‘This is a misconception, and actually everyone thought the corporations would give money, but mainly it's been super wealthy individuals.' Then she paused and said, ‘Of course we don't know that because so much of the money is secret.'
I thought to myself, here's a woman with this area of expertise-she thinks about it 8 to 10 hours a day. And because of this secret money, even she is capable of being confused or not understanding the implications of all of this, even if just for a few moments. That's the purpose of getting up here tonight, to talk about the proliferation of secret money post-Citizens United and its implications on our democracy.
Americans may not like it-I know I don't. But the Supreme Court ruled, and at least for now, Citizens United is here to stay. The Supreme Court isn't final because it is right; it is right because it is final. We need to accept that absent a constitutional amendment, Congress can no longer limit corporate contributions or campaign contributions to outside groups. And as much as we may want to, we can't stop corporations and ultra-wealthy individuals from flooding our elections with massive amounts of money.
But the Supreme Court said we can shine a light on the shadowy interests behind these unprecedented contributions. We can force these corporations, organizations, and ultra-wealthy individuals to disclose.
Justice Anthony Kennedy said in his majority opinion in Citizens United that, quote, "prompt disclosure of expenditures can provide shareholders and citizens with the information needed to hold corporations and elected officials accountable for their positions and supporters. Shareholders can determine whether their corporation's political speech advances the corporation's interest in making profits, and citizens can see whether elected officials are in the pocket of so-called moneyed interests." Unquote.
Justice Kennedy went on to say, quote, "The First Amendment protects political speech; and disclosure permits citizens and shareholders to react to the speech of corporate entities in a proper way. This transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages." Unquote.
I could not have said it better myself. And this is in his opinion on Citizens United. My colleagues and I have taken Justice Kennedy's words to heart, and we have drafted a bill that will bring transparency and accountability to the electorate-so they can make the decisions about who should lead our country. And that's critical, because elections matter.
Elections determine who is going to get to go to Washington to make decisions on behalf of the rest of the nation. Americans need to know who is spending tons of money to get candidates elected.
And that is why we are all here today to talk about the DISCLOSE Act. This bill is not a panacea. It won't overturn Citizens United. And it won't stop the tsunami of money pouring in from corporations. But it will require that all of that special interest money be disclosed publicly. And that will have tremendously beneficial effects for this country.
We may not be able to stop the tidal wave of unlimited cash, but we can, and we should, at a minimum, know who is writing those big checks. Not only will this type of disclosure discourage backroom deals conducted under a cloak of secrecy, but more importantly, it will discourage donors from unleashing negative, misleading, or deceptive ads against politicians who are trying to do the right thing.
But that is not our world today. Companies don't want you to know that they're giving lots of money to elect or defeat someone. So they do something that looks like money laundering, except that it's absolutely legal.
They might create and give money to a shell corporation, which in turn donates to a Super PAC. When you look at the records for the Super PAC, you'll see the shell corporation, but not the original source of the money.
A company might give money to one shell corporation, which in turn could give money to a PAC or another shell corporation, and so on, until it finally reaches the ultimate Super PAC. And it's nearly impossible to trace back to the original corporation.
Or the company can just give money to a 501(c)(4)-a so-called social welfare organization-which is under no obligation to disclose a single thing. Of course, there are rules in place to ensure that these "non-profits" are truly social welfare organizations and deserving of their privileged tax-exempt status. Specifically, they must spend less than 50 percent of their money on political activities. Unfortunately, the IRS has not been aggressively enforcing this rule.
But no matter how companies or wealthy individuals secretly funnel their money into elections, we all lose. We lose because we don't know who is paying for the negative attack ads that are constantly dominating our TV, or the newspaper ads, or the web ads online, or the robo-calls that interrupt dinner, or the misleading mailers, or the field operations that knock on your door or call you on Saturday mornings.
Minnesotans believe strongly in hearing each other out, and they want honest, informed debate. They want to hear all sides of an issue before they make up their minds. They want to listen to the competing priorities and visions for our state and our nation, before they decide who to vote for at the polls.
Unfortunately, Minnesotans can't listen to all sides when worthwhile debate is being drowned out by a tsunami of corrosive, negative, and often deceptive ads paid for by outside special interests. These days, especially if you are in a swing state, you can't put on a television without seeing them.
But it's not just volume that drowns out legitimate debate and turns off voters, it's what these ads are saying. More and more are negative or deceptive-or both. According to the Annenberg Public Policy Center, 85 percent of the dollars spent on presidential ads by the four top-spending 501(c)(4)s-or so-called social welfare organizations-were spent on ads containing at least one deceptive claim. No wonder people are disenchanted with our political system.
Anonymity fuels this. It's easy to pay for ads which deceive voters when you don't have to attach your name to them-and so have no accountability. It's easy to launch personal attacks when you're doing so in secret-under the cloak of anonymity. And it is these so-called social welfare groups that are responsible for so many deceptive ads that have absolutely no requirements to disclose their donors.
The public doesn't know when they watch political ads whether they are true or deceptive. And that is a problem because there is no question that advertising works. People watch TV-they love TV. I love TV. There are commercials, and commercials work. You know the show Mad Men? It's popular, and it's about advertising, how it works. They discovered all of this a long time ago, and it's still true. Advertising helps influence what we buy, where we shop, and which politician we will support when we go to the polls.
Most Americans don't watch CSPAN in their spare time. And most Americans aren't engrossed in politics or keeping track of every vote we take here in Congress. And that is why political ads can really make or break how Americans feel about a candidate come election day.
The Supreme Court recognized this in Citizens United when it noted that it had previously upheld disclosure laws in order to address the problem of purportedly-independent groups running election-related ads while, quote, "hiding behind dubious and misleading names."
It is these generic, and sometimes misleading, names for outside groups-with vague words like America, or freedom, or prosperity in their titles-that are manipulating the public now. In the 2010 election, these outside groups spent more than $280 million on campaign ads-which was more than double what they spent in 2008-and more than five times what they spent in 2006. Even more shockingly, there are estimates that outside groups will spend more than a billion dollars on independent expenditures this election cycle.
So it's no surprise that these outside groups are spending more than the Democratic and Republican Party committees.
The public has every right to know who is bankrolling these ads-so that it can better understand what motivates these messages and take what they say in some context and with a grain of salt.
Just as importantly, what we are not seeing, what has been drowned out by all of these negative, deceptive ads, is debate and discussion about the issues that most Americans care about: How am I going to pay my mortgage? How am I going to put my kids through college? How am I going to find a job in this difficult economy? Will I really be able to retire and enjoy my golden years?
Why is this happening? Why aren't ads focused on these issues? The answer is really quite simple. Ads that dominate the airwaves are expensive. And these ads are being bought by corporations and ultra-wealthy individuals to further their own interests.
Corporations aren't evil. Far from it. There are many great corporations in Minnesota. But it's their duty to maximize shareholder profit. Their focus is on cutting costs and consolidating their position in a market-or on reducing the number of regulations they need to comply with to keep their workers safe and our rivers clean.
They aren't interested in helping the middle class, and they aren't going to spend money from their general treasuries on ads urging candidates to keep college affordable for working families-- or to push for funding for Pell Grants or Head Start.
But the bigger issue-and the reason why disclosure matters so much in our political system-is that corporations don't just buy ads to make their views known. They use ads as a weapon against politicians. This is a real problem. It is happening today, and it is only going to get worse and worse now that corporations can spend as much as they want, whenever they want, in our elections with no transparency.
Candidates know that if they don't support the policies that corporations are pushing, they likely will face a torrent of negative ads funded by that corporation or that industry when they are running for election. And all of those ads will come from a shell organization with a vague name like the American Prosperity Fund for America's Prosperity in the Future. The public won't know that a corporation, or a wealthy individual, is behind those ads. But the candidate will. And the candidate will be powerless to stop it.
This is why I think the Supreme Court got it wrong in Citizens United when it found, and I quote, "independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption." Unquote. The Court made that statement without any citation to legal authority-and without any citation to evidence. This statement was plucked from thin air. It doesn't pass the smell test - any Minnesotan knows intuitively that it is just flat out wrong.
The reality, unfortunately, is that money does equal power in this country. Elections cost money. A lot of money. And with each election cycle, it is costing more and more. When a corporation or a wealthy individual can spend a truckload of cash to support its favorite politician, and kick out a courageous politician who may have hurt its bottom line, our entire democratic system is undermined.
And if this continues, we risk becoming an oligarchy, which would be terrible for the middle class and would really quash the working poor's aspirations of entering the middle class. It will be harder to get a wage that could put a roof over your head, harder to afford child care, harder to send a kid to college. There will be an even greater disparity between the rich and everyone else.
Already since the 1970s, our nation has been growing apart as the rich get richer and the poor and middle class fall further and further behind. They have seen little return on their increased productivity and longer working hours. If money and power continue to accumulate among a few individuals and companies, it will only get worse. There will be less money for education and less unemployment insurance; it will be harder to get health insurance if health care reform is repealed, and they might even be successful in pushing for privatized Social Security or Medicare. This will not benefit working families.
Your power to sway your elected representatives should be the same regardless of whether you are a CEO of a Fortune 500 company or a police officer in a small town. And unfortunately we are careening toward a world where that is no longer the case and where the voices of average Minnesotans are drowned out by all of the special interests monopolizing our public discourse.
Thomas Jefferson once said that "the end of democracy and the defeat of the American Revolution will occur when government falls into the hands of lending institutions and moneyed incorporations." I fear, M. President, that we are on the brink of just that.
The DISCLOSE Act will not fix all of the harms of Citizens United, but it is certainly a step forward. And it will bring much needed sunshine to our political system, which will go a long way toward reducing the number and dishonesty of negative attack ads that further corrode our public dialogue and ultimately threaten our democratic system.
I am disappointed that my colleagues do not recognize just that, and that they have refused to even let us have a full debate on this important bill.
I understand we may be taking up a motion for reconsideration, and I urge my colleagues to reconsider and join with me in supporting this important piece of legislation. If it's allowed to come up for an up-or-down vote, I'm confident this body would pass it, and would be cheered by the American public for doing so.
In closing, I would like to remind this body of an exchange Benjamin Franklin had with one of the delegates at the closing of the Constitutional Convention in 1787. When asked whether we have either a republic or a monarchy, Dr. Franklin responded "A Republic, if you can keep it."
The Founders created the greatest nation in history. It is our job here to keep it that way and make sure that a nation premised on equality and freedom does not become a nation beholden to just the rich and powerful.