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Congress pushes back against Supreme Court ruling on corporate spending

Legislators are proposing a bill to reinstate some limits on election contributions in advance of this year's congressional primaries and general elections.

February 11, 2010|By James Oliphant
  • Sen. Charles Schumer and Rep. Chris Van Hollen announce the proposed legislation, which would seek to prevent foreign-owned corporations and government contractors from spending money on U.S. elections, among other things.
Sen. Charles Schumer and Rep. Chris Van Hollen announce the proposed legislation,… (Manuel Balce Ceneta / Associated…)

Reporting from Washington — Democrats on Capitol Hill unveiled a legislative counterattack Thursday against a sweeping Supreme Court ruling that they say will lead to uncontrolled spending by corporations seeking to influence elections.

The legislators hope to swiftly pass the proposed bill, which is aimed largely at making life more uncomfortable for corporations that wish to take advantage of the high court's decision, in advance of this year's congressional primaries and general election.

The package is in direct response to the high court's ruling last month in Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Commission, which struck down federal limits on corporate spending in elections as a violation of freedom of speech.

As a result of the decision, businesses are free to spend without constraint in support of a specific candidate, although they are still limited in what they can directly donate to a candidate's campaign.

Reform advocates fear that the ruling will allow corporations to dominate the campaign landscape by purchasing an abundance of advertising time on radio and television. Democrats, in particular, worry that high levels of corporate spending will benefit Republican candidates.

"It's one of the most wrongheaded decisions in court history," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.).

But many conservatives and some liberals cheered the ruling, calling it a victory for freedom of speech. And several Republicans in Congress praised it, suggesting that passing a bill could be tough. Moreover, some campaign-reform advocates complained Thursday that the measures don't go far enough to stem a prospective tide of corporate dollars.

The legislation would seek to prevent foreign-owned corporations and government contractors from spending money on U.S. elections. Schumer cited the governments of Venezuela, which owns the oil company Citgo, and China, which owns part of several large corporations, as examples.

The bill would also increase disclosure requirements for domestic corporations. It would force chief executives to appear on camera at the end of corporate-sponsored ads, saying, in essence, that they "approved this message."

That requirement would exist even if the company donated money to a separate corporation used for political advocacy.

"Corporations shouldn't be able to hide behind sham entities in order to disguise their participation in these activities," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), the bill's sponsor in the House.

Ads prepared by advocacy groups and trade associations would be required to list the identities of their largest donors. The measure would also require increased reporting to the Federal Election Commission so that a money trail from a corporation to a shell group or trade association could be tracked.

Schumer could face an uphill battle in the Senate, which has been gridlocked by partisan squabbles. Eight years ago, when Congress passed the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act -- parts of which were struck down by the high court last month -- it did so with 10 GOP votes.

Some of those lawmakers, including Sens. John McCain of Arizona, who was a cosponsor of the bill; Thad Cochran of Mississippi; and Olympia J. Snowe of Maine, remain in the Senate. But it is uncertain whether the level of support seen in 2002 still exists.

Schumer said Democrats would attempt to obtain some GOP cosponsors in the coming weeks, and he conceded that the package doesn't go as far as some reform advocates would like.

Richard L. Hasen, an election-law expert at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, said that given the sweeping nature of the court's ruling, there is little Congress can do other than beefing up disclosure requirements without running afoul of the same constitutional problems that doomed the earlier limits on corporate spending.

If Congress does pass a bill, a court challenge appears almost certain. Schumer said he was confident that restrictions would stay in place for the 2010 elections while courts examined the law's constitutionality.

joliphant@latimes.com

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