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Speaking in support of DISCLOSE Act, Shaheen asks: ‘Who are these donors and groups who want to participate in our political process anonymously? What are they hiding?’

July 17, 2012

(Washington, D.C.) – U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) spoke on the Senate floor today to voice her support for the Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light on Spending in Elections (DISCLOSE) Act, which would bring transparency to corporate and special interest spending in elections. Shaheen is an original cosponsor of the legislation. Earlier in the day, an effort to bring the DISCLOSE Act up for a vote failed.

Shaheen’s remarks, as prepared for delivery, are below:


Mr. President, I rise today to support the DISCLOSE Act, which would bring much needed transparency to our political process. 


Since the Supreme Court’s decision two years ago in Citizens United, we have seen a new system emerge.  Without limits on donations or spending by outside groups like Super PACs, we have been inundated with negative political advertisements while candidates from both sides of the aisle struggle to raise more and more money just to keep up.  Nearly $170 million has been spent so far this election cycle by outside groups, and that doesn’t include how much the candidates themselves have spent.


The rising influence of millionaire donors and corporations is a problem.  But the larger issue, and what I want to talk about today, is the prevalence of secret money that is increasingly making its way into our campaigns. 


Millions of dollars of untraceable money has already been spent during this election.  This is unacceptable, because there is too much at stake in this election for Americans who are struggling.  I’m not talking about the secret donors who can afford to spend millions on secret political ads; I’m talking about middle class families who are struggling with their mortgages, trying to pay for college and fighting to get their credit card payments mailed in on time.  These Americans need our attention, and they deserve to know who paid for the most recent negative ad they have to sit through after dinner.


The truth is that middle class will not be able to catch a break unless we start by reducing the influence of special interests, big donors and corporate lobbyists.  That’s what the DISCLOSE Act is about, and that’s why it deserves our support.


Certain political groups keep their contributors secret by disguising themselves as “social welfare” organizations.  They do this by registering with the Internal Revenue Service as 501(c)(4) organizations, allowing them to hide donors from voters.  Although groups with this designation are required to operate primarily to promote social welfare, many spend the majority of their funds on political ads.  Sometimes they set up shell corporations to create more barriers to transparency.


It leaves you wondering: Who are these donors and groups who want to participate in our political process anonymously?  What are they hiding? 


It’s hard to get accurate answers to these questions because the groups have done a good job of obscuring the truth.  But we can get a glimpse of what interests these donors support by examining who runs these “social welfare” organizations and what they support.  The Center for Responsive Politics has found some revealing connections.


For example, there’s a 501(c)(4) called Americans for Prosperity (AFP) that was founded by David Koch, one of the billionaire Koch brothers.  The Koch brothers own oil refineries in several states and have a combined wealth of $35 billion.  According to the Center for Responsive politics, the AFP received donations from the American Petroleum Institute, the oil industry trade group who has opposed several efforts to repeal subsidies to oil companies.


This so-called “social welfare” group run by the billionaire Koch Brothers also got a $1.6 million contribution from the Pope Foundation.  That groups creator, James Pope, has given money to at least twenty-seven groups supported by the Kochs, including organizations opposing environmental regulations, unions and, not surprisingly, campaign-spending limits.  Pope, in fact, helped fund the legal center run by James Bopp, the lawyer who initiated the Citizens United case that struck down limits of corporate campaign contributions.


We have a small window on who is behind these groups, but as long as these donor lists are kept secret, there’s no accountability for what these ads say. 


To make matters worse, these groups are exempt from paying taxes because of their “social welfare” status, and donors often write off contributions as business expenses. 


It isn’t right.  It isn’t fair.  We need to change the system. 


Some have objected that requiring disclosure of donors somehow undermines free speech.  Let me address that. 


Our democracy is based on the free exchange of ideas, and political speech enjoys the highest level of protection.  This is because we recognize that citizens should always have the right to speak and be heard, especially on matters as important as who should be their representative in government.  They should never fear government interference with this most sacred tradition of challenging ideas, speaking truth to power and hoping the merits of your argument prevail in the minds of other voters.


It is precisely because we need to make sure citizens stay involved in the political process that we need this reform.  Freedom of speech does not mean freedom of secrecy.  Anonymous political speech by these organizations has no place in our democracy. 


Accountability, transparency and credibility must be preserved in our political system.  We can’t have one without the other two.  Restoring transparency is a first step, and I’m hopeful that we can begin to rebuild Americans’ trust in government.  We need more citizens need to engage in politics and see it as a process they want to be a part of. 


When I talk to voters in New Hampshire these days, they are not optimistic about being heard in Washington, DC.


According the Granite State Poll at the University of New Hampshire, three-quarters of New Hampshire adults (76%) think members of Congress are more interested in serving special interest groups.  One-quarter of New Hampshire adults (25%) think that they have no influence at all on what the federal government does. 


People in New Hampshire and throughout the country don’t believe their interests are being represented. 


But, Mr. President, they support the reform we’re engaging in today.  Three-quarters of New Hampshire adults (73%) strongly support a law that would require corporations, unions and non-profits to disclose their sources of spending when they participate in elections. 


This support is not limited to New Hampshire. 


According to a Greenberg/Quinlan poll, 77% of voters, regardless of party, say reforming our campaign finance system is very important.


Mr. President, I have been involved in politics at the local, state and national level, and communicating with my constituents is one of the aspects of the work I enjoy most.  While I can’t speak with all of them face to face, thousands of them write me letters each month.  Most of them sign their name.  And because they sign their name, I know who they are and I can respond, or correct a misunderstanding, or engage in a dialog.


The same is true for political speech.  Justice Antonin Scalia once wrote: "Requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage, without which democracy is doomed."

Donors must own their participation.  This is what the DISCLOSE Act will require, and that’s why we should all vote to support it.  I yield the floor.