Lawmakers Weigh Ruling On Campaign Finance

All over Capitol Hill, supporters of campaign finance rules expressed deep concerns about Thursday's Supreme Court decision to strike down some restrictions on corporate money in political campaigns. Other lawmakers hailed the ruling as positive.

"At a time when people are feeling estranged from their democracy, this is going to make it so much worse," said Sen. Charles Schumer, a Democrat from New York. "This threatens the viability of our democracy."

Schumer predicted that the decision will lead to an unlimited flow of money and an unlimited number of campaign ads anywhere in the country.

"It's poisonous," he said. "It's poisonous to our democracy."

The court did uphold the restriction prohibiting corporations and unions from making direct contributions to candidates. But Schumer said Congress must pass new laws in an effort to restrain the gusher of cash that's sure to come. Democrats in both chambers, along with some Republicans like Arizona's John McCain, have pledged to come up with new ideas. Fast.

Many Republicans saw the decision as great news.

"I think the Supreme Court decisions today are a big win for the First Amendment and a step in the right direction," said House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio. In his view, the Constitution's protection of free speech extends to campaign contributions. No organization — business, union, whatever — should be limited by the government, Boehner said.

Instead, he wants groups to disclose every dollar they spend on campaigns. "Let the American people decide how much money is enough," he said. "Sunshine really does work if you allow it to."

Then again, this view of "free speech" gives corporations a giant megaphone, said Rep. Rush Holt, a Democrat from New Jersey. And that could easily reduce the average voter's voice to a squeak.

For example, take the congressional district of Rep. John Yarmuth, a Democrat from Kentucky. It has one television and radio market — Louisville — and all campaign ads air there, Yarmuth said.

"If a corporation decided to spend $5 or $10 million in my district the last two weeks of an election, they would buy up every spot that was available," he said.

Leaving no space for Yarmuth or any other candidate — local or regional — who wanted to run an ad. So any big company, Yarmuth said, could control any election there.

"I mean, they just write a check," he said. "I mean, the implications of this are far greater than just the influence that there might be on a particular election. The implications systemwide are huge and dangerous."

Yarmuth and others would like to overhaul the public financing of elections, so voters could at least easily tell which candidates are accepting help from big corporations and which are not.

Another idea several Democrats talked about in the wake of the decision was giving corporate shareholders some say over how their company's campaign cash is spent.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat from Maryland, said lawmakers have to use the decision to help voters understand how broken the system is. "This has got to be a wake-up call to every citizen that they cannot allow the big corporations to call the shots on these elections," he said.

But with this Supreme Court in place, Democrats will have to draft any new campaign finance rules very carefully, lest they too be struck down.

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