Opposing Views Of Campaign Finance Decision

The Supreme Court ruled Thursday to roll back many prohibitions on corporations seeking to spend money on political advertising. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a longtime opponent of many campaign-finance restrictions, and Fred Wertheimer, founder and president of Democracy 21, a nonprofit group dedicated to campaign-finance reform, offer their insight.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Im Madeleine Brand in California.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And Im Melissa Block in Washington, where today the Supreme Court created what one veteran court watcher calls a small revolution in campaign finance law. In a sweeping ruling, the court said corporations can spend freely on political campaigns. The justices ruled five-to-four, striking down limits that have been in place for decades. The decision also struck down part of the McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Law from 2002.

We're going to hear two points of view now. In a moment, a longtime advocate of campaign finance reform, Fred Wertheimer. But, first, to Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House. He's an opponent of campaign finance reform. And, Mr. Gingrich, would it be fair to say you are elated by today's Supreme Court ruling?

Mr. NEWT GINGRICH (Former Speaker of the House): Well, Im delighted. And I think I would say that the real campaign finance reform under our Constitution would be to allow anyone to give unlimited amounts of after-tax money, with the understanding that they would file every night on the Internet what they're spending and how they're spending it, so everybody could see who was involved.

But the convoluted, very complex system that we built over the last 30 years has primarily been anti-middle class. It's been anti-middle class candidates. If you're going to retain constitutional freedom and allow people to criticize their politicians effectively and allow them to be engaged effectively, I think you want to really be engaged in allowing the maximum of resources to be in politics, not the minimum.

I think the fundamental underlying model of bureaucratic finance reform has been wrong. And it's not that Im against reform, but the reform we need is to liberate the American people to criticize their politicians.

BLOCK: And you say that liberation would mean no restrictions on campaign funding at all.

Mr. GINGRICH: I think as long as it's after tax money and as long as it's filed every night after the - on the Internet, that it would be actually very, very helpful.

BLOCK: You say that campaign finance restrictions are anti-middle-class. Im curious how you see this ruling as helping the middle class, as opposed to giving a lot more power to big business. The president said today this is a major victory for powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans.

Mr. GINGRICH: Well, the president was elected in part by labor unions who massed their resources of people, who have no choice but to have their money taken out of their dues. The president spent money that was donated through to a variety of organizations, including MoveOn.org, by very, very rich people.

Now, all Im saying is you as a citizen ought to the right to complain about your incumbent congressman, or your incumbent senator, or your incumbent president - and you should not be constrained by the government, you should not risk criminal proceedings. And thats what the Founding Fathers wrote. Thats why the First Amendment has the right of free speech and it has been I think stunningly perverted by the kind of regulations we've had over the last 30 years, and theyve been profoundly wrong.

BLOCK: You're saying that this ruling affects the average citizen expressing his or her voice, as opposed to corporations being allowed to spend freely.

Mr. GINGRICH: Im saying that it allows you to have a middle-class candidate go out and find allies and supporters who are able to help them match the rich. And able to help them match the incumbent. Remember, incumbents run with millions of dollars in congressional staff, congressional franking, congressional travel. And they have all the advantages of being able to issue statements from their incumbent office. And the challenger - the person out there who's the citizen who's rebelling, who wants to change things - is at an enormous disadvantage in taking on incumbents.

This will, in fact, level the playing field and allow middle-class candidates to begin to have an opportunity to raise the resources to take on the powerful and the rich.

BLOCK: Mr. Gingrich, when you bowed out of the presidential race in 2007, you mentioned McCain-Feingold as a reason. You said it penalizes being a citizen, that you couldnt campaign and at the same time run your group, American Solutions.

Do you think this ruling today changes that? And does that mean you might be a candidate in 2012?

Mr. GINGRICH: I actually dont know yet. Our attorneys are looking at the ruling, but it's a pretty long ruling and they haven't figured out what it means. But this is a different setting than 2008 and we would certainly look at it in a different way.

I do think this ruling makes it easier for, you know, pro free enterprise conservatives who are critical of government to acquire the resources to take on very, very wealthy liberals who want to buy seats.

BLOCK: And would that include you? Are you now thinking more seriously about a campaign?

Mr. GINGRICH: I might. We have to wait and see. If there's a movement for real change and if there's a real sense that we can recruit candidates at every level to change things, then (unintelligible), I would certainly have to look at it very seriously..

BLOCK: Newt Gingrich, thank you.

Mr. GINGRICH: Thank you.

BLOCK: Republican Newt Gingrich is former speaker of the House. He now chairs the group American Solutions, a conservative political advocacy organization.

And now we're joined by Fred Wertheimer, founder and president of the non-profit group Democracy 21, which is dedicated to campaign finance reform.

Fred Wertheimer, Newt Gingrich just now described his reaction to the ruling today as delighted. Whats yours?

Mr. FRED WERTHEIMER (Founder/President, Democracy 21): Well, my reaction is that this is an absolute disaster for the American people. With the stroke of a pen, five justices just wiped out a century of American history. I am anything but pleased with this decision. This is the most radical and destructive campaign finance decision in the history of the Supreme Court.

BLOCK: We just heard Newt Gingrich saying that the system as it is now is broken. And that if anything, it's anti-middle class the way it is now. That this ruling, in his view, levels the playing field for middle-class candidates, not for billionaires who can self-finance their campaign.

What do you make of that argument?

Mr. WERTHEIMER: Well, I think I start off from the standpoint of citizens and the idea that this levels the playing field for citizens is dead wrong. What this decision means is major banks, major insurance companies, major drug companies, major energy companies can spend five or $10 million or more directly to elect or defeat a federal candidate.

Now, what that means is a member of Congress or a candidate that is sitting there, knowing that if they vote against the interests of these major corporations, they will be blown out of the water by expensive campaigns the likes of which we have never seen.

BLOCK: The court's ruling today, though, doesnt apply just to corporations, right? Labor unions would also now be free to spend too.

Mr. WERTHEIMER: It applies to labor unions, and they will have similar opportunities to exercise influence buying corruption. But of course the labor unions simply are in a different world than corporations when it comes to the assets they have available. Labor unions are tiny compared to the corporate interests in this country and the assets they hold.

You know, the court reversed decisions from 1990, 2003 and 2007 without any changed circumstances to justify these abrupt reversals. The only change we've had is in the makeup of the court, and the Supreme Court is not supposed to issue decisions based on who happens to be on the Supreme Court for the moment. If thats the case, we will just have to wait till one of these justices leaves the court, and then assume we can get back the century-old history that has upheld these protections against corruption.

BLOCK: What do you expect to be emerging from Congress in the form of legislation that might blunt the impact of this ruling on campaign finance?

Mr. WERTHEIMER: Well, we want to see Congress explore all options to see what can be done to re-impose some restrictions on corporations and labor unions, in their efforts to spend money in federal campaigns.

This opinion will not stand the test of time or history, in my judgment. It simply will not. It is alien to everything that has come before it for the last century and beyond. And it is completely inconsistent with the interest of the American people in having a government free from corruption.

BLOCK: Fred Wertheimer is founder and president of the non-profit group Democracy 21. Mr. Wertheimer, thank you.

Mr. WERTHEIMER: Thank you.

BLOCK: And at our Web site you can find analysis of today's Court decision, along with a timeline tracing the evolution of campaign finance law. Thats at NPR.org.

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Supreme Court Rips Up Campaign Finance Laws

A Century Of U.S. Campaign Finance Law

The decades-old system of rules that govern the financing of the nation's political campaigns was partially upended by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling issued just ahead of the pivotal 2010 midterm congressional election season.

Thursday's landmark decision, approved by a 5-4 margin, could unleash a torrent of corporate and union cash into the political realm and transform how campaigns for president and Congress are fought in the coming years.

Republicans and Democrats scrambled to untangle the full implications of the decision to overturn a 20-year-old Supreme Court ruling that barred corporations from spending freely to support or oppose candidates.

"It's the most major Supreme Court decision in the area of campaign finance in decades — and a significant First Amendment decision," says Nathaniel Persily, a political scientist and law professor at Columbia University. "We don't know its practical impact yet, and I don't think it's the last word from the court," he said.

The new ruling blurs the lines between corporate and individual contributions in political campaigns. It also strikes down part of the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance law that banned unions and corporations from paying for political ads in the waning days of campaigns.

Even before the court's decision, national political campaigns had been growing increasingly expensive. Watchdog groups worry that by removing limits on expenditures by corporations that are not coordinated with candidates' campaigns, the court will boost the role of special interests in politics.

"As long as they do it independently, they can spend whatever they want," notes NPR's Nina Totenberg. "It will undoubtedly help Republican candidates since corporations have generally supported Republican candidates more."

Some important limits do remain intact: Corporations still cannot give money directly to federal candidates or national party committees. That ban dates to 1907. The justices also upheld some other restrictions, including disclosure requirements for nonprofit groups that advocate for political candidates.

Persily says the ruling is just the latest in a series of decisions by a conservative court that has already whittled away at campaign finance laws.

"On its own, it will not be responsible to opening the floodgates to corporate money ... because the floodgates were pretty wide open to begin with," Persily says.

In terms of the 2010 midyear elections, Persily predicts there will be some advertisements run by corporations and unions that wouldn't have been run otherwise; however, the previous standard was fairly permissive.

NPR's Peter Overby says that while the impact on national elections may not be fully clear yet, the decision is likely to be felt in judicial elections at the state level.

"There's a national trend of increasing spending in judicial elections, and the players who have the biggest stake in these elections are lawyers, unions and corporations," Overby says. "The corporations and unions have been trying to find ways to get in, and this decision seems to erase the restrictions that were there."

The Supreme Court decision on corporate spending in political campaigns overturns a 20-year-old rule

The Supreme Court decision on corporate spending in political campaigns overturns a 20-year-old ruling. Michael McCloskey hide caption

itoggle caption Michael McCloskey

President Obama swiftly blasted the court's decision, calling on Congress to devise a "forceful response" as quickly as possible.

"The Supreme Court has given a green light to a new stampede of special interest money in our politics," Obama said in a statement. "It is a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans."

On Capitol Hill, reaction was deeply divided between supporters of the campaign finance rules that were rejected and those who defended the court's ruling.

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 wakeup call to every citizen that they cannot allow the big corporations to call the shots on these elections," he said.

House Republican Leader John Boehner of Ohio called the decision "a big win for the First Amendment" as long as donors disclose every dollar they spend on campaigns.

"Let the American people decide how much money is enough," he said.

Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin said lawmakers must now focus on creating a system where campaigns can be financed fairly. "It is the only way [we] can ensure that our candidates and elected officials focus on addressing the nation's problems and not on the limited interests of the wealthy and powerful few," he said.

One potential vehicle for Democrats to try to limit the impact of the ruling is through a bill Durbin is co-sponsoring called the Fair Elections Now Act. It aims to allow candidates to choose to run for congressional office without relying on large contributions, big money bundlers, or donations from lobbyists.

But with Thursday's decision, the Supreme Court came down with a sweeping free-speech justification that could restrict Congress's flexibility to re-establish new regulations.

"We find no basis for the proposition that, in the context of political speech, the government may impose restrictions on certain disfavored speakers," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority. "The court has recognized that First Amendment protection extends to corporations."

In a powerfully worded, lengthy dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens lamented the decision and called the majority "profoundly misguided." He said, "The court's ruling threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions around the nation." Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor joined Stevens' dissent, parts of which he read aloud in the courtroom.

The original case before the court seemed an improbable vehicle for such a dramatic re-examination of campaign funding regulations.

Brought by Citizens United, a nonprofit group, against the Federal Election Commission, the case presented a seemingly straightforward question: Do campaign finance restrictions on corporate spending apply to Citizen United's plan to run advertisements for an anti-Hillary Clinton documentary at the peak of her 2008 presidential run?

But the high court ended up in a much broader examination of constitutional issues that questioned the entire system that has been built up over decades to regulate the role of corporate money in politics.

Ever since justices first heard arguments on the Citizens United case last March, they have gone to unusual lengths before rendering a decision.

The court scheduled a rare re-argument in September — a month before the fall term officially began. And justices ordered lawyers from both sides to expand their scope to address not just the corporate electioneering issue at play in Citizens United but the constitutionality of all limits to corporate political speech.

Thursday's decision was even issued on a day the court does not normally deal with such issues.

At the center of the court's inquiry is the McCain-Feingold Act, which prohibited "electioneering communications" paid for by corporations or unions from being broadcast or transmitted 30 days before a presidential primary and 60 days before the general election. Opponents of the law say it allows the Federal Election Commission to in effect restrict free speech.

But the court also reached even further back to re-examine a 1990 precedent that upheld restrictions on corporate spending to support or oppose political candidates.

Citizens United, which filed the suit in 2008, is a nonprofit group that advocates for conservative ideals and candidates.

Citizens United wanted to air a 90-minute documentary chronicling Clinton's more than 30 years in public life from a conservative perspective through news clips, interviews with acquaintances and other material. Citizens United spokesman Will Holley said the film was sold online and through retailers for $19.95 and was in limited distribution at select movie theaters during 2008.

But questions arose when Citizens United sought to advertise Hillary The Movie on television in January 2008 — the same month as major Democratic primaries — without running any disclaimers or disclosures of donors.

The FEC barred the ads from running without the disclaimers. Citizens United claimed that the advertisements were commercial speech more akin to a documentary, rather than opposition to candidate Clinton.

NPR's Andrea Seabrook and Liz Halloran contributed to this report

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