Mouth Where Money Is

Posted Aug. 04, 2010, at 5:27 p.m.

The effects of the Supreme Court’s ruling earlier this year in Citizens United v. FEC have yet to be felt. Most likely, we will see the results in the fall elections. The court decided in that landmark case that corporations have the same rights as individuals to purchase Internet, TV, radio and print advertisements supporting or opposing a candidate for elected office. Furthermore, the court ruled that those corporations can spend as much as they like on such advertisements.

It doesn’t take much imagination to predict how much sway private business will have over elected officials as a result of this ruling. If a car manufacturer doesn’t like a candidate’s commitment to increasing the average miles-per-gallon for vehicles, the company can saturate the media market with advertisements against that candidate. Or worse, it can threaten to do so, and push the candidate to moderate or abandon his or her views. And the car manufacturer may hide behind a separate entity called “Americans for a Prosperous Detroit.”

In short, the decision gave corporations unprecedented power over the outcome of elections.

In response, several laws were proposed to ameliorate those consequences. One which emerged from the House and Senate was the DISCLOSE Act. The law was shot down late last month, with all 41 Senate Republicans voting against it.

In urging passage, President Barack Obama described the DISCLOSE Act by saying it would “simply require corporate political advertisers to reveal who’s funding their activities. So when special interests take to the airwaves, whoever is running and funding the ad would have to appear in the advertisement and claim responsibility for it — like a company’s CEO or the organization’s biggest contributor. And foreign-controlled corporations and entities would be restricted from spending money to influence American elections — just as they were in the past.”

The arguments against it are that it would limit free speech. Though Sen. Olympia Snowe voted against DISCLOSE, she reaffirmed her commitment to campaign finance reform but objected to this bill’s exemption for unions. Sen. Susan Collins expressed her disappointment in the high court’s ruling, and also affirmed her support for disclosure. “Americans have the right to know who is contributing to political campaigns,” she said. But she, too, objected to it treating unions and corporations differently.

That was reason to fix the bill, rather than simply rejecting it.

DISCLOSE may not have been perfect, and the union exemption clearly would favor Democrats. But with a fix for Citizens United v. FEC not likely to be adopted before November, the voice of the American voter will be competing with the louder voice of corporate advertising.

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