Menendez: Our Democracy Has Been Hijacked by Powerful Special Interests
July 16, 2012
Washington – US Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) spoke on the Senate floor tonight immediately following a vote on the DISCLOSE Act which would require any group that spends $10,000 or more on election ads, or any other political activity, to file a disclosure report with the Federal Election Commission (FEC). The motion to proceed to deliberation of the measure failed when no Republican Senator joined Democrats in favor of it.
The Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC opened the floodgates to unlimited corporate and special-interest money in elections, bringing about an era where corporations and other wealthy interests can exert vastly disproportionate influence in our political system, including through anonymous donations.
Here are Senator Menendez’s remarks as prepared for delivery:
“For the last two years, our democracy has been hijacked by powerful special interests. And tonight we had the opportunity to begin repairing the fabric of our nation before permanent damage is done. Unfortunately Republicans decided not to put our democracy back on the right track.
“Out there, in this presidential election season, murky special interests are spending unlimited amounts of corporate money. It’s possible that foreign governments could determine it’s in their interest to funnel vast amounts of money to influence American political elections.
“We have a patriotic obligation to protect our electoral system from that kind of influence. These anonymous, secretive interests – mostly corporations -- aren't spending money because they just want to feel like a part of the process. They’re spending money for a purpose. They have a reason and no doubt a self-interest. Is this what our founding fathers had in mind? We should know who they are and what their agenda is.
“Since the Supreme Court made its ruling in Citizen’s United, allowing corporate interests to spend money unlimitedly, the money has not been trickling in. No, the money has been a torrent, a tsunami of unlimited cash.
“According to the New York Times, independent groups have spent at least $118 million since the start of the presidential campaign. One Super PAC, has spent over $57 million alone. If you don’t believe me, listen to Michael Toner, the former Chairman of the Federal Election Commission, who said quote, "I can tell you from personal experience, the money's flowing.”
“And this begs the question: where is this money flowing from and where is it going? Who’s behind the cash, and what is to prevent foreign government interests to be influencing our elections? What is to stop foreign influence in American elections other than complete disclosure?
“If corporations are spending money to influence elections, it’s for the sole purpose of improving their own bottom lines. And this undermines the very essence of our democracy, where individual citizens are the ones who should determine the outcome of the elections, not murky, shadowy, multi-billion-dollar corporate interests, or worse, a foreign government.
“Disclosure, full disclosure! That is what we need and it’s what we should demand before the people lose control of our electoral process. That’s why I introduced the Shareholder Protection Act, a commonsense proposal that gives real people a say in the process. Since the corporation’s money belongs to the shareholders, it is only right that they have a voice on how their money is going to influence elections. My bill would require shareholder approval of corporate political spending.
“This basic step will ensure that corporations’ political activities accurately reflect the will of their shareholders. If, as the Supreme Court ruled, corporations have free speech rights, then their shareholders should have control of that speech. The Shareholder Protection Act does just that by giving shareholders the opportunity to exercise their free speech rights.
“But until we reach consensus on my proposal, the least we can give the American people is the right to know who is trying to influence them. There are basic principles in our democracy that both parties should be able to agree on.
“Imagine the influence of the Big 5 oil companies on American elections. In March, 47 U.S. Senators voted against repealing $24 billion in oil subsidies over the next 10 years. What we know from their publicly disclosed donations is that these 47 Senators received over $23 million in donations from oil companies over the course of their careers. After they fought tooth and nail to protect the taxpayer subsidies, which cost taxpayers $76.00 a second,[i] do you think they won't spend millions more in support of what they want? And now they can give unlimited amounts to Super PACs without even disclosing the contributions.
“In another example, Alliance Resource Group, a coal company, gave over $2.4 million to Karl Rove’s Super PAC American Crossroads which then turned around and funded advertisements targeting important environmental protection regulations. They are using unlimited corporate funds to influence our elections and our nation’s energy policy to protect their bottom line. Basically spending whatever it takes to buy their right to continue to pollute the air that we breathe.
“I could go on and on and on with examples of what special interests would very well spend in our elections to dictate policies that ultimately would hurt everyone but the special interests. That's what we're fighting against. This legislation is the first step in undoing that. The American people deserve to know who's giving more than $10,000. I don’t believe that’s too much to ask.
“I see why we can't get a vote on the other side of the aisle, because overwhelmingly they are receiving the benefits of this undisclosed, shadowy money, but is that really the American way? Is that what the average voter wants to see in terms of their democracy?
“I don't think so. I leave you with this simple message: Our democracy was founded on the principle of open and honest debate. But without disclosure, we get neither.”
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