Democrats Plan Counterattack To Corporate Spending

The Supreme Court ruled last month that corporations and unions can spend all they want to campaign for or against candidates. It's a huge change in the ground rules of American politics, and Democrats in Congress are convinced most of that corporate money would be spent to push them out of office.

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Another big issue for members of Congress: this year's campaign spending. The Supreme Court ruled last month, that corporations and unions can spend all they want to campaign for or against candidates. It's a huge change in the ground rules of American politics, and Democrats believe most of that corporate money will be used against them. NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY: It's perfectly obvious where congressional Democrats would like to take this. At the Senate Rules Committee yesterday, the first witness was Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin. He and Republican Senator John McCain co-sponsored the McCain-Feingold law, a big part of which was just tossed out by the Supreme Court. The court's decision is called Citizens United.

Senator RUSS FEINGOLD (Democrat, Wisconsin): This terrible decision deserves as robust a response as possible. Nothing less than the future of our democracy is at stake, and I do thank you, Mr. Chairman.

Senator CHARLES SCHUMER (Democrat, New York): Thank you for being here, and we will follow your orders.

OVERBY: That was Charles Schumer of New York. He chairs the Rules Committee. And he, along with Maryland congressman Chris Van Hollen, is supposed to come up with the Democrats' legislation to reign in those newly liberated corporate dollars. It won't be easy. The five justices on the majority opinion in Citizens United said corporations have a First Amendment right to political speech. But Democrats do see some openings. One would be full disclosure of corporate political spending, something the Supreme Court seemed to embrace in the decision. Fred Wertheimer, of Democracy 21, endorsed the idea.

Mr. FRED WERTHEIMER (Democracy 21): Trace the money and have it all out on the table. I mean, the court was as clear as could be here.

OVERBY: Another idea: Require disclaimers on corporate- and union-financed advertising, so a corporate CEO or a union president would have to appear in ads - just like a candidate for office. Two law professors had further suggestions.

Professor HEATHER GERKEN (Yale Law School): The problem here is not American democracy but shareholder democracy.

OVERBY: Heather Gerken, of Yale Law School, said that after Citizens United, shareholders should have legal power over a company's political spending.

Prof. GERKEN: Citizens United vindicated the right of corporations to speak, and shareholders are the corporation.

OVERBY: And even more provocative: the idea that Congress still has the power to prohibit some corporate political spending. Edward Foley, of Moritz Law School at Ohio State University, said the Supreme Court could accept a ban that's narrowly targeted say, a ban that applies to corporations with close ties to government. Foley mentioned big banks, for starters, ones that are involved in the Federal Reserve system or that took federal bailout funds.

Professor EDWARD FOLEY (Ohio State University): Besides the banking industry, other examples may include public utilities, defense contractors, or corporations deemed too big to fail, like General Motors - whatever line of industry they maybe in.

OVERBY: Only one Republican senator attended the hearing, Robert Bennett of Utah. Still the witness list wasn't completely stacked against Citizens United. Stephen Hoersting, of the Center for Competitive Politics, said Congress should accept the ruling as part of a trend to undo restrictions on campaign money. He said disclosure isn't all that helpful to voters, but they know how to sort out the political messages.

Mr. STEPHEN HOERSTING (Center for Competitive Politics): Sovereign citizens have the ability to determine is this valid and am I for it, or is this invalid and am I against it? And that is the bedrock principle - reall, of our system, and I think that's where we are.

Sen. SCHUMER: You know, in all due respect, I think you're living in a different world than we all live in.

OVERBY: Not that Senator Schumer was ready to say exactly how Democrats want to fix that Citizens United world. Two more committees hold hearings today with more witnesses. But Democratic leaders want to move quickly. They think fighting the big dollars of corporate America could be a winning issue and help them get re-elected.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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