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Whitehouse: Let’s Shine a Light on Big Money in Politics

The American people are making it clear that they’re fed up with a system that gives special treatment to special interests while middle-class families suffer.

Everywhere they look, it’s the same story: a tax system that allows multimillion-dollar earners to pay a lower tax rate than a truck driver or janitor; a banking system that allows credit card companies to ignore local laws and charge sky-high interest rates to consumers; and, thanks to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, a campaign system that allows corporations and billionaires to spend unlimited amounts of money anonymously in our elections.

It is time to fight back for fairness in our democracy. The “Buffett Rule” legislation would create a fairer tax system by requiring ultra-high income earners to pay a fair share. I’ve pursued legislation to crack down on unfair credit card rates.

But as this election year marches on, with unprecedented spending by super PACs and other supposedly independent Big Money groups, it’s becoming clear that restoring fairness requires fixing our campaign finance system.

That’s why more than two dozen Senators are coming together to establish badly needed disclosure rules for political contributions to groups such as super PACs.

The DISCLOSE Act of 2012 would require organizations involved in elections — including the super PACs and 501(c)(4) groups that have been bombarding our airwaves with negative campaign ads — to tell the public where they are getting their money on a timely basis.

The legislation would also require that the top executives and biggest donors of these groups “stand by their ads” by appearing in or placing their names on the ads themselves: No more hiding behind shadow organizations with phony names. The American people deserve to know who is really behind these ads and what their motives might be.

There’s no time to spare in moving forward with this legislation. In 2010, 501(c)(4) and (c)(6) organizations spent more than $135 million in unlimited, secret contributions, with anonymous spending rising from 1 percent of non-candidate spending in 2006 to 47 percent in 2010. There’s every reason to believe this trend will continue: The Federal Election Commission predicts that more than $11 billion will be spent on the 2012 elections, about double what was spent in 2008.

There is broad consensus that the status quo cannot continue. Editorial boards across the country, including my home state’s Providence Journal, have written about damage done by Citizens United to our elections. A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll found that 69 percent of registered voters believe super PACs should be banned.

Because of Citizens United, we may not be able to ban super PACs outright, but we can at least shine some light into their activities. Democrats and Republicans alike have acknowledged the importance of doing so, and I hope we can all come together to pass the DISCLOSE Act of 2012, what some call DISCLOSE 2.0.

Under the leadership of Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), we came within one vote of passing similar legislation in 2010. Working with Democratic Sens. Michael Bennet (Colo.), Al Franken (Minn.), Jeff Merkley (Ore.), Jeanne Shaheen (N.H.) and Tom Udall (N.M.), we’ve trimmed down DISCLOSE 2.0 for a successful legislative push. Now, with the public seeing the harmful effects of Citizens United firsthand in the Republican primary, the pressure is even greater to get this done.

Working together, we can make sure our government remains “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) is a member of the Judiciary Committee and leader of the Citizens United Task Force.

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