WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court's ruling Thursday lifting longtime limits on corporate and union campaign spending could ratchet up special-interest pressure on lawmakers dramatically and change the way campaigns are conducted.
The 5-4 decision means that corporations and unions are now freer to run attack ads — or, for that matter, ads touting their positions — and to praise or criticize specific candidates, right up until Election Day.
The ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission doesn't affect direct corporate or union contributions to candidates; those will still be banned. Nor does it cover spending from any of the thousands of political action committees run by special interests.
The ruling does free corporations and unions to spend from their own treasuries on independent ads and other advocacy efforts, however. The court struck down part of a 2002 campaign finance law that banned direct corporate spending on "electioneering communications" within 60 days of general elections and 30 days of primaries.
These are ads that, explicitly or implicitly, urge support or opposition for candidates.
The ruling will mean "there's going to be a lot more advertisers out there, and it's going to be harder for candidates to define themselves and define their opponents," said Tim Kay, the director of political strategy for cable advertising firm National Cable Communications.
The decision also reversed a 1990 Supreme Court ruling that had upheld a broader ban on corporate campaign spending.
The sweeping new ruling reignited a debate over how and whether government should limit campaign money that's been raging for decades.
"With its ruling today, the Supreme Court has given a green light to a new stampede of special interest money in our politics. It is a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans," President Barack Obama said.
Most Republicans and conservatives were pleased, since they're more likely to get corporate cash.
"This is an encouraging step, and it is my hope that political parties will one day soon be able to speak as freely as other citizen organizations are now permitted," said National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn, R-Texas.
Conservatives saw the ruling as a victory for free speech, and a boost to political challengers.
"Politicians hate criticism, and so they sought to heavily regulate — if not ban — the most effective political speech against them," said Chip Mellor, the president and general counsel of the Institute for Justice, a libertarian group.
Strict curbs on campaign contributions were enacted after the Watergate campaign-finance scandals of the early 1970s. The gusher of campaign cash has continued unabated, however, as people find innovative ways to evade the limits, and experts were concerned Thursday that that will accelerate now.
"The American people will pay dearly for this decision when, more than ever, their voices are drowned out by corporate spending in our federal elections," warned Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., a Senate leader on campaign finance.
Those seeking curbs on campaign spending have two concerns about Thursday's ruling: its effect on campaigns, and the effect on lawmakers once they get elected.
"You're going to see more spending, perhaps seeping into the down-ballot elections. This will allow people to get a little more creative with targeted ads," said Kenneth Gross, a political law expert.
That means more ads and more confusion for voters, Kay said. "There's going to be a lot of clutter in the marketplace," he said.
There's also concern that lawmakers won't forget — or be allowed to forget — who helped them win.
"We have to call big donors across the country and ask them to send money. Why would they give us money unless they're sure I'll be a reliable Democrat?" asked Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Ky.
Though it's nearly impossible to prove that money buys votes in Congress, liberal groups cite the explosion of money from health care interests over the past year as Congress has struggled to craft health legislation as evidence of how money corrupts the public interest.
So far during the 2010 election cycle, finance, insurance and real estate interests — all facing major changes from Democratic-authored legislation — have given $85 million to candidates, far more than any other sector, with 58 percent going to Democrats.
In the 2008 cycle, those interests contributed $476 million — 51 percent to Democrats, 49 percent to Republicans — well above the $260 million they gave in 2006.
"So somebody's fighting the drug industry and they decide to make an example of this candidate. They put $50 million of ads against this person. He loses. How many others are going to go oppose the drug industry?" asked Senate Rules Committee Chairman Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.
Republicans argue that such big money benefits Democrats at least as much as Republicans, and that Democrats long have prospered from the large sums that unions pour into campaigns.
"There is this morality play that they wrote decades ago that I have to say most reporters and the media adopt, which is there's this evil corporate money out there. Look at the facts. Who spends the money? It's the unions, the far left. The money's on their side, not our side," said Cleta Mitchell, a Washington lawyer who specializes in campaign finance law.
The Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington research group that tracks money in politics, has found that thus far in the 2010 election cycle, business political action committees have given a total of $115.9 million, 57 percent of it to Democrats. Labor PACs have given $23.9 million, 93 percent to Democrats.
Lawmakers on Thursday quickly announced efforts to impose new limits on campaign donations, though that's not directly responsive to the court's ruling.
"If we've been hearing one thing from voters, it's that they want change, "said Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, a former national president of Common Cause, a liberal lobby.
She and other members of the House of Representatives from both parties said they'd push a plan for voluntary public campaign financing that's now in place in several states.
The measure, which also has Senate support, would allow candidates who raised enough money with $5 to $100 contributions within their states to qualify for federal aid.
While that wouldn't bar the corporate or union ads permitted under the new ruling, supporters think it would put public pressure on candidates to run without the help of business and union interests.
"And," Pingree said, "you won't have to sit in a little white room raising money all the time."
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