U.S. Senator Ben Cardin

Letters From Ben

September 24, 2022

Sunlight is the Best Disinfectant

Dear Fellow Marylanders, 

As you’ve seen from my letters lately, the Senate has been on a roll. We have been getting major legislation passed, like the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the Inflation Reduction Act, and clearing President Biden’s judicial and other nominees. This week, however, we hit a roadblock. On Thursday, we took a procedural vote to start debate on a bill that I cosponsored, the “Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light On Spending in Elections Act of 2022.” You may have heard it called by its acronym – the DISCLOSE Act.

Senate procedures can get a little technical (aka archaic), but, essentially, the legislation needed a supermajority of 60 votes to move forward. Every Democrat present voted to move forward with the bill. Every Republican voted no. In an evenly divided Senate, this is how important items get stuck.

At issue: Americans have a right to know who is bankrolling candidates and trying to influence our elections and courts. The DISCLOSE Act does exactly that. It requires organizations – including super PACs and 501(c)(4) dark money groups – to disclose their campaign spending if they spend more than $10,000 on elections or in support of judicial nominations, and to disclose their big donors. It would require better disclosure of top funders from outside groups that pay for ads that promote or attack a candidate, but stop short of expressly advocating for a vote or against a candidate. It also would strengthen the current foreign money ban by making it illegal to set up shell companies to conceal political activity. 

By definition, dark money groups are cloaked in secrecy, allowing unknown wealthy corporations, special interest groups, billionaires and even foreign governments to push their own agenda without accountability.

The Supreme Court’s awful 2010 decision in the Citizens United case unleashed a torrent of dark money expenditures into our political system. Studies show this anonymous, dark money spending totaled less than $5 million in 2006, growing to $300 million in the 2012 elections, and then ballooning to more than $1 billion in the recent 2020 presidential election. 

Dark money groups spent at least $52 million to block Merrick Garland from a seat on the Supreme Court and to support conservative nominees Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett. One secret donor gave $34 million of those funds – one secret donor!

The weight of dark money spending distorts our political process, and has regularly blocked Congress from taking action on pressing issues of the day, such as voting rights, reproductive freedom, environmental protection, worker safety, public health, and of course campaign finance reform. Dark money groups also regularly fund state-level voter suppression and disinformation campaigns.

Dark money erodes public trust in our democratic institutions of government, and elections themselves. We cannot allow our courts, for example, to be captured by dark money groups, as the independence of our courts is one of the crown jewels of our Constitution and rule of law in this country. The Supreme Court promises “Equal Justice Under Law” to all who enter its hallowed chambers, not only the powerful. 

As Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said over a century ago: “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” This mantra of transparency and good governance remains true today and is a hallmark of a strong civil society. It is what we, as a nation, encourage from partners around the world. The United States of America should be setting a global example of how to be more transparent, rather than an example of how hidden money can undermine democracy and hollow out the rule of law.

Congress can protect our courts, elections and our democracy by passing the DISCLOSE Act. This vote may have been blocked, but I can assure you that this legislation will return until we can get it over the finish line.

Thank you for your time today. Please feel free to reply to this email with your thoughts on this topic and others. Or use my website to share your opinion.  

Sincerely,

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Ben Cardin

L’Shana Tovah or Happy New Year, to all who celebrate this weekend.