The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, February 05, 2010

Supreme Court opens door for flood of campaign finance cash

By The Building Tradesman

WASHINGTON (PAI) – By a 5-4 margin, an ideologically split U.S. Supreme Court on Jan. 21 threw out many restrictions on financing political campaigns – including limits on corporate and union spending, and bans on spending for ads within 60 days of an election.   Its ruling opened the way for a flood of corporate campaign cash.

The justices left in place a 100-plus-year-old ban on direct corporate giving to candidates, but threw out almost all other campaign finance laws.  As a result, analysts expect huge amounts of corporate cash into elections, funneled through the Chamber of Commerce, trade associations and phony front groups.  Unions can’t match that.

The ruling, based on First Amendment free speech grounds, was blasted by labor’s allies in the progressive movement as well as by Democratic President Barack Obama.  The labor movement opposed the 60-day campaign ad spending ban in a legal brief it filed last year with the High Court.

“The government cannot suppress political speech based on the speaker’s corporate identity,” said Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, writing for the court’s 5-man majority, all named by Republican presidents.  Kennedy called the law’s ‘censorship” of speech “vast in its reach.” Justice John Paul Stevens, leading the dissent, said the “ruling threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions around the nation.”

The justices not only tossed the ban on unions and corporations paying for “issue ads” within 60 days of an election, they also killed a 63-year-old ban on corporations from using their own money – as opposed to money raised separately by their campaign finance committees, or PACs – to produce and run their own campaign ads for or against candidates by name.  One of the few restrictions the justices left intact was a 100-year-old ban on direct corporate donations to candidates.

Last year, then-AFL-CIO General Counsel Jon Hiatt, acting on behalf of the federation, filed a friend-of-the-court brief challenging campaign finance law curbs on when union PACs could spend their money on issue ads – putting labor in line with the recent Supreme Court decision, sort of.

AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka said after this ruling, that corporate speech, controlled by company officers, should be viewed differently from speech by unions, which he said are democratically controlled by their members.

“The Supreme Court,” he said, “further tilted the playing field in favor of business corporations in public elections.  By allowing unlimited corporate treasury expenditures that explicitly support or oppose particular candidates, the court increased the already excessive influence corporations exert in our electoral system,” he declared.

Trumka added: “We believe the court wrongly treated corporate expenditures the same as union expenditures….”

President Obama, whose campaign set an all-time fundraising record last year, was upset.  Obama’s campaign did not take PAC money, relying on large bundlers and small contributions through the Internet.  Union PACs spent millions on pro-Obama ads.

“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,” Obama said.

“This gives the special interests and their lobbyists even more power in Washington – while undermining the influence of average Americans who make small contributions to support their preferred candidates.  That’s why I am instructing my administration to get to work immediately with Congress” on “a forceful response to this decision,” the president concluded.