The Supreme Court is expected Thursday to decide on a Montana case that could undercut or reaffirm the court’s controversial 2010 campaign finance decision — and don’t think Senate Democrats aren’t paying attention.
Just four and a half months shy of national elections and against the backdrop of super PAC dominance, Democrats still see campaign finance as a winning issue, though admittedly not as important as jobs or the economy.
The Supreme Court is considering American Tradition Partnership Inc. v. Bullock, a case in which the Montana high court ruled that the national Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling did not require the state to loosen its own campaign finance restrictions. And while a stay has been issued on that decision, most observers believe the Supreme Court will uphold its position that banning corporate political expenditures is a violation of the First Amendment’s free speech guarantee.
Democrats still disagree with the philosophical underpinnings of the 2-year-old decision, and they’re not afraid to attempt legislative action — for the third time and likely again with little success — to show it.
“It’s sort of the last chance for the Supreme Court to clean up the mess that it’s made and correct the sort of flagrant factual errors that recent history has demonstrated,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), a lead sponsor of the DISCLOSE Act. “So if they don’t show an inclination to do that, it means it’s really all the more important that we redouble our efforts.”
The DISCLOSE Act would increase transparency in corporate donations to political action committees, allow shareholders to vote on whether a company should be spending money on politics and require CEOs to stand by ads if they are primary sponsors of the PACs running them. Of course, in the current super PAC atmosphere, a handful of wealthy individuals, not corporations, have been behind some of the better-known PAC campaigns.
“A simple disclosure bill is probably the easiest way to go forward, eliminate the complicated, keep it simple,” Whitehouse added when asked whether there is still a legitimate legislative path for a campaign finance reform bill. “It’s an issue where our Republican colleagues have said over and over and over again that they’re for it.”
Whitehouse said he has been in conversations with Democratic leaders about ensuring that the DISCLOSE Act gets put on the legislative docket before the elections. And he has an ally in the Senate Democrats’ messaging chief, Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.), who is an original co-sponsor.
On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he again would bring up the bill to address the Citizens United decision.
“We’re going to move on the DISCLOSE Act anyway,” the Nevada Democrat said when asked whether the Supreme Court’s actions in the Montana case would affect the Senate strategy on the issue.
Privately, leadership aides have suggested the actual chances of the Senate taking up the bill aren’t clear. The Senate still has a lot of work left to do, from appropriations bills to cybersecurity legislation and a slate of judges — all of which are a higher priority than the campaign finance measure.
The DISCLOSE Act has failed twice to garner a filibuster-proof 60 votes, once in July 2010 and again that September. The second time Senate Democrats brought the bill to the floor, sources indicated it was mostly because leaders had a few legislative days to burn, so they figured they could message the issue before moving on again.
It is very unlikely Democrats would be able to peel away enough Senate GOP votes to approve the bill, and even if they could, it is almost certain to hit a wall in the Republican-led House.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has been an outspoken opponent of reform. In a speech at the American Enterprise Institute last week, the Kentucky Republican railed on the twice-failed legislation.
“The attacks on speech are legion. Perhaps the most prominent is the so-called DISCLOSE Act,” he said. “Those pushing the DISCLOSE Act have a simple view: If the Supreme Court is no longer willing to limit the speech of those who oppose their agenda, they’ll find other ways to do it.”
The speech at the Republican-leaning think tank opened McConnell to attacks from Democrats in a small-scale version of a battle leaders could stage on the floor if Reid decides to restart the DISCLOSE debate on the floor with Schumer as the top messenger.
“Senator McConnell’s entire speech was an exercise in twisted logic and double-speak. He has gone from being the greatest champion of disclosure to being its foremost opponent,” Schumer said in a statement after the speech.
McConnell filed an amicus brief to the pending Montana case stating that the state Supreme Court’s decision should be “summarily reversed.”
Vice President Joe Biden waits to conduct a mock swearing-in ceremony with Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, in the Capitol's Old Senate Chamber, December 2, 2014. Schatz was sworn in to serve the remainder of his term since he was appointed to the seat after Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, passed away.