Democrats Find Upside In Campaign Spending Upset

Charles Schumer (D-NY, left) and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) i

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY, left) and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) are expected to introduce legislation to limit corporate spending in elections. Lauren Victoria Burke/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Lauren Victoria Burke/AP
Charles Schumer (D-NY, left) and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD)

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY, left) and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) are expected to introduce legislation to limit corporate spending in elections.

Lauren Victoria Burke/AP

Democrats have repeatedly criticized a U.S. Supreme Court campaign finance decision that ended a long-standing ban on direct political spending by corporations and unions.

President Obama even took on the landmark ruling during his State of the Union address early this year — prompting praise and criticism.

But the court's January decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission has handed Democrats an issue they believe could resonate with restive voters going into the fall elections, when the party is bracing for potentially significant losses.

Next week, Democrats on Capitol Hill plan to introduce legislation in the House and Senate that would mitigate some effects of the right-leaning court's decision — from limiting foreign spending on U.S. campaigns to requiring corporate chieftains to appear on camera in advertisements that they've helped pay for.

'Citizens United' And Its Aftermath

In January, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that corporations and unions have a First Amendment right to spend money directly in candidate elections for the White House and Congress.

Previous precedent under the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, known as the McCain-Feingold Act, had barred corporations from using general treasury money to pay for political ads in the days leading up to an election.

President Obama called the high court's decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission a victory for "Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and other powerful interests."

But First Amendment advocates hailed the decision as a victory for free speech.

Critics said the court erred in extending to corporations — both profit and nonprofit — the same free speech rights available to individuals, and that the decision would lead to an infusion of special interest money into the nation's federal elections.

It remains unclear exactly how the ruling will play out in political campaigns; this fall's midterm elections are being viewed as a trial run. Campaign finance experts say they anticipate a proliferation of new nonparty interest groups funded by the newly allowed corporate money.

But writing in the National Journal, Eliza Newlin Carney says that the "biggest unanswered question" about the new ruling is how closely it allows corporations or unions to coordinate with candidates or other political players. It's an issue, she says, that has "long stymied Congress and the Federal Elections Commission."

Liz Halloran

So far, the bill has attracted just one Republican sponsor: Rep. Mike Castle, who is running for U.S. Senate in Delaware. On Friday, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce criticized the legislation as an attempt by Democrats to "hijack the political field" in advance of the fall elections.

"We will fight any and all attempts to muzzle and or demonize independent voices from the election discussion," said chamber head Thomas Donohue.

A Winning Election Issue?

Campaign finance isn't usually a winning election issue. And it may not prove to be one this year, when voters are angry and anxious about the lack of jobs, a continuing housing crisis and new health care legislation whose impact on their lives they are still trying to understand.

That said, recent polls have consistently shown big public opposition to the high court's decision, which determined that previous bans on corporate donations violated those corporations' free speech rights.

A Quinnipiac University national poll released this week found that 79 percent of those surveyed disapproved of the court's ruling. Results of a Washington Post/ABC News poll in February showed that 72 percent of those polled favored reinstating limits on corporate spending on elections.

"Voters may not care or understand much about the intricacies of campaign finance reform," says Iowa-based pollster J. Ann Selzer. "They do care, however, about whether their elected officials can be bought — or give that appearance."

Fighting For The Little Guy

The Democrats' bill, expected to be introduced by New York Sen. Charles Schumer and Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen, aims to limit corporate spending in U.S. elections. It would:

—prevent companies with foreign ownership of 20 percent or with a majority of foreign principals from spending money on U.S. elections

-prevent government contractors and beneficiaries of federal stimulus money from making political expenditures

-require corporate CEOs to appear on camera to announce they "approve this message" if their company has paid for the ad

-require top corporate donors of "shadow groups" created to funnel money to candidates to also appear in political ads they fund

-establish protocols for Federal Election Commission donor paper trails and require online disclosure of corporate donations within 24 hours

-ban coordination between corporations or unions and federal candidates within 90 days of a primary or general election

Darrell West of the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution said the proposed legislation — as well as the Democratic bill on financial regulation overhaul now being debated on Capitol Hill — provides the party with an opportunity to argue that it is "fighting for the little guy."

"It's hard to run on campaign finance," says West, Brookings' director of governance studies. "But it's easy to run on corporate accountability. And that's really what the legislation addresses."

West says he believes that the court's Citizens United decision opens up the possibility of "stealth advertising campaigns" by corporations that set up organizations to shield the identity of donors.

Tough Sell

At a time when Democrats have been casting about for winning issues going into the campaign, Citizens United may help. But don't count on its making a big difference, strategists warn.

"These bank shots are often hard to pull off," says Washington-based Democratic consultant Tom Ochs.

"Folks continue to be really angry at Wall Street, really angry at Washington, really angry at Congress and government institutions," he says.

"Are they angry about Supreme Court rulings? Yes — when you ask them about it," Ochs says.

Voters may certainly believe that money is corrosive and corrupting and that there should be less of it in the political system, he says.

But it's going to take a lot of work on the part of Democrats to convince voters in the fall that it's a make-up-your-mind issue that will mitigate — much less trump — concerns about unemployment, health care costs and partisanship.

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