Editorial: Court Fix

Campaign Finance Ruling Cries Out for Swift Response: More Disclosure

Posted April 27, 2010 at 6:27pm

We agree with President Barack Obama, dissenting Justice John Paul Stevens and other critics of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in the Citizens United case, which will open the way to an avalanche of special interest spending on elections.

Still, it’s the law of the land. Now, we hope — but, frankly, doubt — that Congress will swiftly pass legislation to open corporate, union and other interest group spending to maximum disclosure.

In its 5-4 decision, rendered in January, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority struck down a century of fitful legislative activity designed to limit corporate influence on politics and more than a half-century of similar action directed at labor unions.

We agree with critics who contend it was an outrageous exercise in activism for the court to declare it a violation of free speech rights for Congress to curtail special interest electioneering.

The First Amendment is a hallowed part of the Constitution, but it guarantees free speech to citizens — people — not legal constructs like companies and unions. Congress legitimately provides for individuals in such groups to set up political action committees to affect elections.

The decision did leave in place bans on donation of corporate and union funds directly to candidates and political committees, but it opened the way for unlimited independent expenditures.

This week, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) and Senate Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) are scheduled to introduce legislation that would require CEOs, union presidents and heads of other organizations to appear in and “approve” the ads they pay for and for the top five contributors to an organizational ad to be identified.

Campaign-related activity would also have to be disclosed to the Federal Election Commission, corporate shareholders and members of unions and other organizations sponsoring ads. (Separate legislation will give stockholders the opportunity to approve or disapprove corporate expenditures.)

The legislation would also prohibit foreign entities and government contractors from influencing federal elections. Candidates opposed in special interest ads could buy ads at the lowest rate in their market, and loopholes would be tightened to bar coordination between independent advertisers and campaigns.

We aren’t prepared to endorse this specific bill without seeing it and hearing debate, but we support its general direction.

Unfortunately, despite massive public opposition to the court’s decision, prospects for passage of corrective legislation are not bright. Only one Republican, Rep. Mike Castle (Del.), is co-sponsoring it, and there’s every likelihood of a GOP filibuster.

In the past, Republicans opposing campaign spending limits on free speech grounds always have touted full disclosure as the essence of reform. Now’s the time to show whether they meant it.

We doubt they will do so, however. The result is that corporations, trade associations, euphemistically named shadow coalitions, special interest nonprofits and unions will spend tens of millions of dollars to sway the 2010 election — in some races, perhaps, crowding out the voices of the candidates themselves.

If it’s bad enough in 2010, perhaps a correction will come in time for 2012.