Congress must act to curb effects of campaign finance ruling

Posted March 24, 2010, at 5:38 p.m.

Ideas, not money, should decide elections. In January, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Citizens United v. FEC that corporations have the same political speech rights as citizens. It upends basic campaign finance law that has been in place for a century. It allows corporations to make unlimited independent expenditures in elections.

As President Barack Obama noted in his State of the Union address, the decision threatens to “open the floodgates for special interests — including foreign companies — to spend without limit in our elections.” According to a recent ABC News-Washington Post poll, 80 percent of Americans oppose this ruling.

Justice John Paul Stevens had it right when he said, in his dissent: “The court’s ruling threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions across the nation. The path it has taken to reach its outcome will, I fear, do damage to this institution.”

In creating a new constitutional right for corporations to spend unlimited amounts of their shareholders’ money to determine the outcome in candidate elections, the court has unleashed into our elections tremendous sums of money from for-profit corporations that cannot possibly be matched in quantity by contributions from ordinary citizens.

The only possible outcome of this is that big money and special interests will have an even tighter grip on our democracy.

Congress and the president enacted campaign finance laws over a series of decades for a reason — to protect our democracy from the perverse influence of big money in our elections. In making this decision, the court has ignored the best interests of the American public and our representative form of government.

This changes the foundation on which decades of congressional work on campaign finance were built. But this is the decision of the court. So, now what can be done?

Such a fundamental change requires a strong response from our other two branches of government, Congress and the executive. Congress must respond now, reasserting its own authority and responsibility to uphold the Constitution.

Another election season is quickly approaching. Steps need to be taken now to govern the conduct of the 2010 elections. Waiting until after the 2010 elections is simply not a viable option.

In light of the court’s decision, the League of Women Voters of Maine urges Congress to pass strict disclosure measures. After the Citizens United decision, it is possible for corporations to secretly provide funds that another corporation uses to intervene in an election through independent expenditures. This kind of anonymous intervention in federal elections is not acceptable.

Passing enhanced disclosure requirements is the most basic step toward protecting the role of the voter. We need strong disclosure requirements for both those who receive election funds and those who provide such funds. In its decision, the court pointed in the direction of enhanced disclosure and disclaimer requirements “so that the people will be able to evaluate the arguments to which they are being subjected.”

After providing enhanced disclosure, the next most important step for Congress is to do no further harm. A decision as far-reaching as Citizens United will provoke proposals that could make our election system and government processes be perceived with more cynicism and doubt. These proposals could include steps such as raising contribution limits to candidates and PACs, or allowing corporations and unions to donate huge sums to political parties or even to candidates, which could increase corruption or the appearance of corruption and further distort our political processes.

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., have released a legislative framework providing for both heightened disclosure and more complete disclaimers, barring election spending by foreign corporations, barring election ads by government contractors, clarifying coordination rules and ensuring that candidates can afford to respond to heavy corporate or union spending. This is a responsible and balanced approach.

All of this can and should be done in time for the 2010 elections.

Fair and clean elections, determined by the votes of American citizens, should be at the center of our democracy. Congress must act quickly in addressing the court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC. The League of Women Voters of Maine calls on Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe to support the Schumer-Van Hollen framework.

Barbara McDade of Bangor is the president of the League of Women Voters of Maine.

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