- The Washington Times
Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Buoyed by polls showing the public is fed up with money influencing politics, Democrats are beginning to settle on options for curbing the Supreme Court’s recent ruling that freed corporations and unions to enter the political fray with unlimited ads.

While lawmakers have proposed solutions ranging from amending the Constitution to creating a voluntary public-financing system for congressional campaigns, Democratic leaders are instead leaning toward a list of more manageable tweaks they say can be in place before November’s congressional elections, said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, Maryland Democrat.

Party leaders tasked Mr. Van Hollen to work with Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, to write a bill to walk back parts of the 5-4 decision in Citizens United v. FEC, which extended free-speech protections to corporate and labor group political ads.

The court’s ruling has galvanized Democrats, who say it’s another example of big-moneyed interests gaining an upper hand over average citizens. They see an opportunity to pass a popular and potentially bipartisan bill in the near future, delivering a much-needed legislative win.

“I support a constitutional amendment, but that will not be part of the legislation that Sen. Schumer and I introduce. We are very focused on trying to pass something that will blunt the impact of the court’s decision; but again, our goal is to get something that can be implemented sooner rather than later,” Mr. Van Hollen said.

He said they are looking at several approaches: banning foreign-controlled corporations from being able to run political ads; trying to curb the ability of companies that take federal contracts from running ads, since taxpayer dollars would in essence be used to campaign; and to require either approval or notification of shareholders before corporations run ads.

Mr. Van Hollen also said they will try to beef up disclosure requirements to make sure corporations and unions can’t hide behind sham front groups.

The Jan. 21 ruling overturned several Supreme Court precedents and held that corporations and unions are entitled to First Amendment protections, just the same as an individual would be. Corporations and unions still cannot contribute directly to candidates or parties, but they can now run ads on their own without having to form political action committees and meet strict fundraising requirements.

The Federal Election Commission announced recently that it would no longer enforce its rules on union and corporate political advertising, bringing it into compliance with the decision.

The ruling has sent some states scrambling, since about half also banned corporate and union political spending.

Colorado will ask its state Supreme Court to review the ruling and decide what parts of the state’s Constitution must be thrown out to bring the state into compliance, the Associated Press reported Tuesday.

Those who defend the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision say states that don’t ban corporate and union ads aren’t more corrupt than the other states, signaling that the court’s ruling will not usher in a campaign-finance apocalypse.

Stephen M. Hoersting, vice president of the Center for Competitive Politics, told a Senate committee that federal law already bans foreigners from participating in U.S. elections. He warned that any “fixes” Congress tries to make “are unconstitutional violations of speech, association or equal protection.”

Still, the legislative momentum is on the side of those looking to walk back parts of the ruling, with President Obama criticizing it in his State of the Union address - and drawing a reproachful look from Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., who was part of the majority in the ruling.

House and Senate committees have held hearings on options to curb the ruling, laying the groundwork for speedy action when Mr. Van Hollen and Mr. Schumer produce a bill. Mr. Van Hollen said he hopes to have a proposal ready in about 10 days.

They got additional support from a poll released Monday that showed voters are fed up with what they see as growing influence of money in politics.

The poll, paid for by groups that were angered by the Supreme Court ruling, found that politicians who vote to crack down on money in campaigns will benefit at the polls, while voters are ready to punish those who stand in the way of new legislation.

“It’s a losing proposition for Republicans to be supporting a position which basically says corporations and unions need more influence and more money,” said Mark McKinnon, a Republican strategist who worked on the poll with leading Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg. “I don’t think there’s a single voter in America that agrees with that position - or frankly that corporations and unions need more First Amendment rights.”

For Democrats, there’s another reason to act: According to the survey, most voters say special interests have more influence on the political process now than they did a year ago when Mr. Obama took office.

“People think special interests are dominant,” Mr. Greenberg said.

While the poll numbers suggest opposition across party lines, in Washington the ruling has primarily struck a nerve with Democratic lawmakers.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, said he’s never before taken to the floor of the Senate to decry the Supreme Court, but he’s now done that twice since the decision was announced.

“It is easy to imagine large corporations flooding the airwaves with election ads and drowning out the voices of Vermont’s citizens,” he said Tuesday.

He warned that other parts the campaign-finance system are being challenged in SpeechNow.org v. FEC, which would undercut disclosure rules. That case is now pending in a federal appeals court.

Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, Connecticut Democrat, said he will introduce a constitutional amendment to give Congress the authority to regulate political spending at the federal and state levels, which would overturn the court’s ruling.

Meanwhile, a bill to create a voluntary public-finance system has picked up some steam in the days since the court ruling.

One challenge for Democrats will be to try to find Republican partners with whom they can work.

Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, who championed the last round of campaign-finance laws, was critical of the court ruling, but has sounded uncertain of whether any congressional action can be taken.

Other potential Republican supporters include Sen. Olympia J. Snowe of Maine, who issued a statement critical of the ruling. On the House side, a couple of Republicans have signed on, along with more than 130 Democrats, as co-sponsors of the voluntary public-financing system.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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