A key Senate committee took its first close look on Tuesday at a possible legislative response to a recent US Supreme Court decision that opens the way for unrestricted independent corporate advertising during elections.
The Senate Committee on Rules and Administration is considering several proposals, including a call by some lawmakers to write an explicit restriction into the First Amendment limiting corporate political speech.
“I think we need a constitutional amendment to make clear that corporations do not have the same free speech rights as individuals,” Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts told the panel.
He said the time for comprehensive campaign-finance reforms had arrived. “The government should stop tinkering around the edges of a system that is broken beyond repair,” Senator Kerry said.
Debate over corporate campaigning
The comments come amid a continuing national debate over the Supreme Court’s Jan. 21 decision that corporations have a constitutional right to spend their money on broadcast advertisements to make a political point during election season.
President Obama raised the issue during his State of the Union address last week, accusing the majority justices of reversing “a century of law to open the floodgates for special interests – including foreign corporations – to spend without limit in our elections.”
Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito reacted to statement, shaking his head.
The president’s characterization of the ruling was inaccurate. It did not reverse “a century of law” and does not allow foreign corporations to spend unlimited amounts in US elections.
Foreign influence in elections?
It does, however, erode a century-long aspiration to limit the influence of corporations in American politics. And it could open the way for foreign influence in elections (which is still illegal) through broadcast ads placed by US-based subsidiaries of foreign corporations.
In general, Democrats have attacked the high court ruling and Republicans have praised it. Sen. Bob Bennett (R) of Utah said the Supreme Court decision simply allows other corporations to do what US media corporations like CBS, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Fox News, and CNN have always been allowed to do.
“They all have the right to say ‘vote for or against this candidate,’ and they do it every election,” he said. “They all have that right under the Constitution.”
With an intensifying debate, it remains unclear how Congress will respond. In addition to Tuesday’s hearing, the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution is set to hold a similar hearing Wednesday morning.
Measures under consideration include beefing up public disclosure and disclaimer requirements. Under one proposal, a corporate CEO would be required to appear at the end of every ad and announce personal responsibility for the content of the advertisement.
Another proposal requires full disclosure of all contributors to political messages produced and broadcast by corporations or entities fronting for corporations. Some lawmakers want to give corporate shareholders a say in how corporate money is used in politics.
Government contractors and quasi-public companies would be restricted from placing political ads, under one plan.
In addition, lawmakers are studying whether to ban political advertisements by any corporate subsidiary that is partly foreign-owned. One key question is how much foreign ownership would trigger a ban – five percent, 20 percent, 50 percent?
‘Enormous transfer of power’
Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, warned the Senate panel that the high court decision would facilitate “an enormous transfer of power in our country from citizens to corporations.”
He said corporations with deep pockets would be free to run multimillion dollar campaigns to elect or defeat federal candidates depending on how the candidate voted, or might vote, on issues of concern to that corporation. Mr. Wertheimer urged Congress to “move swiftly to mitigate the damage done to the system” before the 2010 elections.
Steve Hoersting of the Center for Competitive Politics defended the high court decision. He told lawmakers the appropriate free speech antidote to corporate involvement in politics is more speech by citizens and others with contrary views.
“At the end of the day all this speech is taken into account by the voters,” he said.
Committee Chair Charles Schumer (D) of New York rejected the suggestions that voters alone could police the system. “I know how the world works here and you are living in an idyllic world, I guess,” he said.
Corporate pressure on elected officials
Dick Durbin (D) of Illinois said elected officials will be under substantial pressure not to alienate powerful corporate interests during key votes. “The corporation you say ‘no’ to is a corporation that can now spend a million dollars to beat you,” he said.
Senator Bennett, the ranking Republican at the hearing, held his ground. He told the panel of experts that he understood the real-world challenge of wealthy special interest groups arriving from out-of-state promising a political opponent “the works – television, radio, billboards, mailings.”
“I understand when people come from out of state to distort your record,” Bennett said. “But I don’t think there is anything we can do under the Constitution to prevent it.”
“I don’t really like it,” he added, “but it is their constitutional right.”