Reporting from Washington — Corporations will gain even more influence over American politics and government this year, President Obama said Saturday, unless Congress acts quickly to stop campaign spending by big government contractors and to force corporate donors to reveal who they are in broadcast campaign ads.
"The American people have a right to know when some group like "Citizens for a Better Future' is actually funded by ‘Corporations for Weaker Oversight'," Obama said during his weekly radio address.
He said a new wave of corporate spending could not only change the public face of election campaigns, but also how business is done within the halls of Congress.
"In the starkest terms, members will know — when pressured by lobbyists — that if they dare to oppose that lobbyist's client, they could face an onslaught of negative advertisements in the run-up to the next election," he said. "At a time when the American people are being overpowered in Washington by these forces, this will be a new and even more powerful weapon that the special interests will wield."
Obama is responding to the Supreme Court ruling in January which said corporations had a free-speech right to spend unlimited sums on elections. At the same time, the court agreed the government could require disclosures of this spending.
Last week, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) introduced bills to require same-day disclosures of the major donors to campaign ads. In some instances, the top corporate official who approved spending the company's money on a campaign ad would have to appear in the ad.
Separate provisions of the bill would forbid campaign spending by contractors who receive more than $50,000 in taxpayer funds and corporations that are controlled by foreign nationals, including domestic subsidiaries of foreign firms.
While a few Republicans joined Schumer and Van Hollen in sponsoring the bill, top Senate Republicans said they would seek to block it. In the past, however, Republicans said they favored disclosure, but not limits on campaign spending.
Experts in election law say stronger disclosure rules could help voters judge the message they are hearing. "An ad from a coal company posing as an environmental group urging a vote for a West Virginia senator might carry a different sway from a bona fide environmental group running a similar ad," said Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, a lawyer for the Brennan Center for Justice in New York. "One seems like propaganda, the other like an honest endorsement."