Campaign Funding Limits

Posted Aug. 30, 2009, at 6:32 p.m.

Free speech and a century-old ban on corporate financing of political campaigns are expected to collide next month at the Supreme Court. The court scheduled this rare “special argument” session to consider overturning two rulings that limited corporate spending in campaigns.

The first ruling is the 1990 decision that, the Los Angeles Times reports, “upheld a state law barring corporations from using their ‘immense aggregations of wealth’ to buy ads to oppose or endorse a candidate.” The second ruling came in 2003 when the court upheld the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law (in a 5-4 vote) that banned “corporate or union-funded broadcast ads that target a candidate in the month before an election,” according to the LA Times.

The court may overturn the ban on corporate campaign donations leaning on the conservative view that spending money is a form of free speech expression. At the heart of that question is an assumption made by the court in 1886, in the Santa Clara v. Southern Pacific Railroad case, in which justices asserted that corporations had the same rights as individuals.

If the current court strips the constitutional basis for limiting corporate campaign donations, Congress must respond by sharpening election law so voters have timely access to donor data. That is, if the Acme Widget Corp. gives $50,000 to the Donald Duck for his Congress campaign, voters should know about it before they go to the polls.

The integrity of the electoral process is essential to good government. But arguments on both sides of the campaign finance question are strong. If corporate giants are able to spend millions to get their candidates elected, clearly the individual will be disproportionately represented in the decisions of government. But as the law now stands, wealthy individuals are able to spend a lot of money to influence elections. The LA Times cites financier George Soros, who has supported the progressive MoveOn.org group, and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, said to be worth $20 billion, which would help launch him as a credible presidential candidate should he decide to run.

The court’s deliberations came from an appeal of a lower court ruling that concluded the documentary “Hillary: The Movie,” was “electioneering communications.” The film was made by those opposed to Mrs. Clinton’s candidacy for president in 2008. The film was never broadcast on TV because Mrs. Clinton did not win the nomination.

Rather than rule on the appeal, the Supreme Court in June decided to instead hear the “special argument” on overturning court precedents that limited corporate campaign spending. The group that financed the Clinton film, Citizens United, will make its case, as will White House’s Solicitor General Elena Kagan on behalf of the Federal Elections Commission. An advocate for the McCain-Feingold law will also speak.

The current ban came after trust-busting reformer Theodore Roosevelt urged Congress to block corporate campaign donations after revelations that his 1904 campaign received secret contributions from New York insurance companies. Whether TR succeeded or failed is at the heart of the court’s dilemma.

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