Wyden Statement on Vote to Overturn Treasury’s Pro-Dark Money Rule
Tester-Wyden measure restores transparency, allows law enforcement officials to crack down on corruption and foreign meddling in US elections
Washington, D.C. – Senate Finance Committee Ranking Member Ron Wyden, D-Ore., today delivered a statement on the Senate floor ahead of a vote on his resolution with Senator Jon Tester, D-Mont., to overturn a Treasury ruling that shields the identities of large dark money donors from U.S. tax authorities.
“The Trump administration’s dark money rule made it easier for foreigners and special interests to corrupt and interfere in our elections. Senator Tester and I want to make it harder,” Wyden said. “The rule change pushed through by the Trump administration this summer is all about darkness. It’s all about secrecy. It’s all about giving the well-connected even more of a say in how our government works.”
“Having more disclosure and more sunshine in our elections used to be a bipartisan proposition,” Wyden continued. “That’s a big part of the legacy of the late John McCain. A few years ago, I introduced a bipartisan disclosure bill with my friend Senator Murkowski. Big bipartisan majorities passed campaign finance legislation in the 1970s. That’s what Senator Tester and I believe the Congress ought to get back to. Throwing out the Trump dark money rule would be a good first step.”
Wyden’s full remarks as prepared for delivery
Senator Tester and I are here to open up debate on our proposal to throw out the Trump pro-dark money rule under the Congressional Review Act. Right at the outset I’d like to thank my colleague Senator Tester for his leadership on this issue of bringing sunshine to our elections. Anybody who knows a little history about the Montana Copper Kings knows why Montanans always lead this fight, so I thank him for all his work. Now let me state very clearly what he and I are trying to accomplish.
The Trump administration’s dark money rule made it easier for foreigners and special interests to corrupt and interfere in our elections. Senator Tester and I want to make it harder.
I believe deeply that when you’re facing down secret money shifting between shadowy groups who want to buy elections, sunlight is the best disinfectant. If you’re concerned about foreign actors hostile to the U.S. illegally funding the candidates who will do their bidding, sunlight is the best disinfectant. If you’re worried about anonymous political insiders with deep pockets tightening their grip on Washington, sunlight is the best disinfectant. And colleagues, sunlight should not be a partisan proposition.
But the rule change the Trump administration pushed through this summer is all about darkness. It’s all about secrecy. It’s all about giving the well-connected even more of a say in how our government works.
Let me go back to the day this rule was announced, because it’s a perfect encapsulation of how this policy gets it wrong.
July 16th, 2018. Monday morning. The American people wake up to news of the arrest of an accused Russian spy in Washington named Maria Butina. She came to the U.S. years earlier and set out infiltrating conservative organizations, principally the NRA. She cultivated relationships with political insiders. She worked to organized “back channel” lines of communication for the benefit of the Russian Federation. She set up a shell company in North Dakota with an NRA-connected operative. And for months, her lawyer claimed she was nothing more than a typical college kid, enjoying life in the nation’s capital.
Now it’s been a few years since I was in college, but I don’t hear about many students at Portland State or Southern Oregon crossing state lines to set up shell companies and organizing lines of communication with the Kremlin. Most college kids are too busy being college kids to infiltrate conservative political circles on behalf of a hostile foreign power.
Just hours after the vast majority of the American public heard Maria Butina’s name for the first time, on July 16th, the Trump administration dropped its dark money bombshell. It announced a new policy that would allow even more untraceable dark money from foreigners and special interests to inundate our elections. For people like Maria Butina who want to furtively invade, twist and corrupt America’s democracy, the job just got a little easier.
Shadowy political spending groups used to be required under tax laws to disclose the identities of their major donors. After this recent change, they won’t have to disclose at all. Federal investigators will be blind to bad actors using dark money groups to do their bidding. Even if the IRS and state tax authorities suspect a particular spending group is guilty of wrongdoing, they won’t know who provided its cash.
Now, since this is a tax policy change, it falls under the jurisdiction of the Finance Committee, where we do a lot of work on issues dealing with tax exemptions. But let’s make one thing clear -- this change got no debate in the Finance Committee. It got no debate on the Senate floor. The American people had no opportunity to comment on the rule change, as they typically do on regulatory changes.
Now I want to take a minute or two to address some arguments I’ve seen on the other side of this issue. First, that disclosure is a violation of privacy. I take a back seat to nobody on the issue of privacy rights in America. But allowing foreigners and mega-wealthy corporations to buy elections in secret is not a matter of privacy -- it’s a position that’s anti-democratic. And furthermore, I’d like to point out that the group fueling this privacy argument online is a dark money group!
Next, since the announcement, the Trump administration has tried to downplay the significance of the new rule. The deputy Treasury secretary told the Finance Committee that cutting off disclosure was all about working to, quote, “further efficient tax administration.” That sounds to me like dry Washington shorthand for “enforcing the pro-sunshine law is a pain, so we’re not going to bother.” Others simply claim it will have no real consequence.
I have two responses to that. First, if the dark money rule change is no big deal, then why did the Trump administration work so hard to block the Congress from challenging it? They keep the rule change off the official books for as long as they could, presumably hoping to run out the clock on our oversight. It was unprecedented gamesmanship.
Here’s the second problem with the argument that cutting off disclosure won’t have harmful consequences. If the existing rule requiring disclosure of major dark money donors to the IRS wasn’t casting enough sunshine, that’s not a reason to bring on total secrecy and darkness. It’s a reason to opt for more sunshine. It’s a reason to make donor disclosures public information.
Colleagues, one thing is clear to me from my conversations with voters in Oregon this election season. What voters do not want is more secret spending from more anonymous wealthy donors and foreigners leading to more political advertising. It is now impossible to escape political ads on television. Short of pitching a tent and camping out in the woods until the second week of November, you cannot get away from it.
People hear these charged-up political ads one after the other, but much of the time they have no way of determining who’s behind them. You get to the end of the ad, and a voice says it was paid for by a oddly-named group you’ve probably never heard of. Americans United for Patriotic Priorities. Grandparents for This and That. Families for Stuff.
There are real-life examples that are actually that absurd. Some will remember Don Blankenship, whose mining company broke safety laws and lost 29 employees in the worst mine explosion in decades. A number of years ago he wanted, more or less, to buy a West Virginia Supreme Court seat. So he set up a political spending group called “And For The Sake Of The Kids,” dropped a mountain of cash on the election, and his prefered candidate won. Let me repeat that for anybody who might think they misheard. A dirty energy baron started a political spending group to protect his dirty energy interests, and he named it “And For The Sake Of The Kids.”
Colleagues, the dark money rule change feeds right into this system of malignant, secretive politics that Americans are sick of. And it gets to the heart of a larger problem. Across the country, our right to vote, our elections, and our democracy are under assault. Let’s just tick through a few examples of what that means:
Since the Citizens United decision, the amount of outside money spent by shadowy groups on our elections has gone into the stratosphere.
Congressional districts are gerrymandered to such an extreme that millions of Democratic voters are essentially denied equal representation. In Wisconsin, for example, Democrats got 54 percent of the vote but only 37 percent of the seats in the legislature.
Republicans ignore the advice of Trump administration intelligence experts ringing the alarm bells over election security, and they ignore the cybersecurity experts who tell us that paper ballots and risk-limiting audits are the best way to defend against attacks on our voting system.
Tens of millions of Americans cast their votes on insecure, hackable machines produced by companies that buy off election officials and evade oversight by the Congress.
The Trump administration and its allies have invented a fake crisis of voter fraud out of thin air, and they’ve used it as a pretext to purge millions of voters from the rolls and discourage Americans from casting a ballot.
State officials have targeted communities of people of color, shutting down polling places where they live and restricting opportunities to vote early or absentee.
Americans are learning more and more about what happened in one district in North Carolina, where Republican party operatives allegedly schemed to confiscate and destroy mail-in ballots belonging to likely Democratic voters.
And in some states where Democrats have won elections -- look at Wisconsin and North Carolina -- outgoing Republican lawmakers have sabotaged the powers of incoming governors in defiance of the voters who elected them.
Trump’s dark money policy reinforces that corruption in the system. It concentrates power in the hands of those special interests that can afford to cut a big check and buy the election results they want. It takes power away from individual people. Away from mothers and fathers who vote to give their kids a brighter future. Away from seniors who vote to protect Medicare and Social Security. Away from young people who vote to combat the devastation of climate change and the rising cost of education.
Having more disclosure and more sunshine in our elections used to be a bipartisan proposition. That’s a big part of the legacy of the late John McCain. A few years ago, I introduced a bipartisan disclosure bill with my friend Senator Murkowski. Big bipartisan majorities passed campaign finance legislation in the 1970s.
That’s what Senator Tester and I believe the Congress ought to get back to. Throwing out the Trump dark money rule would be a good first step. So this is an opportunity to vote for sunshine in our elections. I’m hopeful that once again that’ll be an idea both sides can support. So I urge my colleagues to vote for our proposal, and I yield the floor.
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