Democrats Vow to Mitigate Effects of Court’s Ruling

Posted January 21, 2010 at 2:43pm

Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill pledged to explore legislative alternatives to mitigate Thursday’s Supreme Court ruling that lifted long-held bans on corporate and union spending in federal elections, while Republicans cheered the ruling as a restoration of First Amendment rights to free speech.

The high court has been deliberating for months on the case, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which originally involved whether a conservative advocacy group could distribute and promote its made-for-television production “Hillary: The Movie— during the mandatory blackout periods preceding the 2008 presidential primaries.

Before Thursday’s ruling, “Hillary: The Movie— was considered prohibited “electioneering communications— because it was considered the “functional equivalent— of prohibited “express advocacy— by outside groups. Corporations, unions and most trade associations are prohibited from bankrolling broadcast political ad campaigns — either directly or through outside groups — in the 30 days before a primary and 60 days before a general election.

But in its 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court tossed out those curbs on direct corporate purchases of political advertisements by companies, unions and nonprofit organizations. Those soft-money bans were instituted by campaign finance reform legislation authored by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) eight years ago. The court did keep in place requirements that those ad buys must be disclosed to the Federal Election Commission.

“The justices decided that more information from more speakers in the political marketplace is good,— said Patton Boggs campaign finance lawyer William McGinley, a Republican. “The court doesn’t want to limit the number of speakers in the marketplace.—

Robert Lenhard, a Democratic campaign finance lawyer at Covington & Burling, agreed that maintaining the disclosure requirements — while throwing out the ban on direct outside spending — are the two main planks of the justices’s massive 183-page explanation of their decision.

“There are two important things they are saying: First, the First Amendment prohibits the government from limiting corporate spending onindependent expenditure ads that advocate the election or defeat of candidates,— the former FEC commissioner said. “Secondly, they are saying that the First Amendment does not bar the government from requiring the disclosure of the spending and disclaimers on those ads.—

‘Parasites Striking at Our Very Roots’

Lawmakers were quick to react to Thursday’s much-anticipated decision. Conservatives generally heaped praise on the high court’s ruling, while President Barack Obama and Democratic Congressional leaders pledged that their lawyers would be scouring the exhaustive court decision in the hopes of exploring possible legislative remedies.

“We’re studying it,— Obama told reporters at a Thursday press conference.

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) called the decision a “very, very sad day for American democracy,— speculating that large corporations like insurer American International Group will be “able to turn around to spend money to advertise against people— who voted to limit their bonuses.

“This is a scandalous decision,— Van Hollen said.

Senate Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) also criticized the decision, saying that Chief Justice John Roberts “has turned back the clock on our democracy by a quarter-century— and that the high court has “just predetermined the winners of next November’s election: It won’t be Democrats, it won’t be Republicans, it will be corporate America.—

“Now robber barons can act like parasites striking at our very roots,— Schumer said. “We will not let this decision go unchallenged.—

The former Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee chairman also said that within weeks the Senate Rules and Administration Committee will hold hearings on new campaign finance legislation, which he said could be in place by this year’s midterm elections.

Meanwhile, many Republicans used Thursday’s landmark decision as an opportunity to applaud the Roberts court in the Citizens United case. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who filed a lawsuit against McCain and Feingold’s 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, said in a statement following the decision that “for too long, some in this country have been deprived of full participation in the political process.—

“With today’s monumental decision, the Supreme Court took an important step in the direction of restoring the First Amendment rights of these groups by ruling that the Constitution protects their right to express themselves about political candidates and issues up until Election Day,— McConnell said. “By previously denying this right, the government was picking winners and losers. Our democracy depends upon free speech, not just for some but for all.—

Feingold also said in a statement that he will pursue new legislative alternatives to Thursday’s Supreme Court decision and chided the court for going back on political spending bans that were “firmly embedded in our law.—

But McCain, his onetime fellow campaign finance crusader, issued only a brief statement on the case, stating that he was “disappointed by the decision.— The 2008 GOP presidential nominee could face a tough primary this year and presumably is trying not to provide additional fodder for conservatives looking to defeat him.

Groups Differ on Fallout

Campaign finance reform organizations immediately railed the Supreme Court’s decision, predicting that corporations and unions will crowd parties and individual donors out of the political process.

Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer said the decision was “a disaster— and “a very dark day for the Supreme Court.—

“This decision will unleash unprecedented amounts of corporate influence seeking money on our elections,— Wertheimer said. “This is the most radical and destructive campaign finance decision in the history of the Supreme Court.—

Common Cause President Bob Edgar, a former House Democrat from Pennsylvania, said the “decision is the Super Bowl of really bad decisions.—

And while his boss was trying not to strike the ire of conservatives, McCain campaign lawyer Trevor Potter bashed the high court for a decision he said has “the potential to seriously corrupt and distort our democratic system in Congress and in the states.—

“This court decision shows no deference to Congress,— Potter said.

But not every campaign finance group was singing the blues on Thursday afternoon. Brad Smith, chairman of the Center for Competitive Politics, said the decision will undoubtedly increase the amount of money in the political system. But the former Republican FEC commissioner argues that such an uptick would be a positive development.

“This case will lead to more political spending in elections. Speech is important, and this will be good in allowing unions and corporations to speak. Unions and corporations often have a particular point of view as unions and as corporations about how candidates and issues will affect them.—

“It’s important that those voices are heard,— he added.

Keith Koffler and John Stanton contributed to this report.