Congress v. Citizens United

Our view: Plan for correcting high court ruling is a start, but more action is needed

February 15, 2010

The Supreme Court's ruling last month in the Citizens United case has only reinforced the public's growing distrust of the federal government. The point was reinforced last week with the release of a nonpartisan poll that showed voters oppose the court's ruling by a 2-1 margin.

That should come as no surprise. Americans favor free speech but are rightly skeptical of treating corporations like people -- as the conservative majority in the 5-4 Citizens United ruling insists the Constitution requires. Nor do ordinary people believe money (or more specifically, the spending of immense sums by large, multinational corporations to elect favored candidates) is the same thing as free speech.

Overcoming this setback to fair federal elections will not be easy, but last week Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland and Sen. Charles Schumer of New York offered a "framework" for legislation to mitigate some of its worst potential effects. While details of the proposal aren't yet developed, the approach appears to be right on track: Ban expenditures where possible, toughen reporting requirements, and disclose, disclose, disclose.

Most important are the bans -- on election spending by foreign companies, federal contractors and recipients of federal bailout money. All appear narrow enough to pass legal muster, although some details, such as determining which corporations are owned by foreigners, may not be easily resolved. The proposed disclosure requirements -- to shareholders, the Securities and Exchange Commission and Federal Elections Commission -- are also vital. If companies are going to spend huge sums electing candidates, at least the public should know what's happening.

Unfortunately, what the framework lacks (aside from much sign of Republican support) is a proposal for public financing of congressional elections or even a measure to revive and augment the existing, antiquated presidential campaign financing system. If Congress wants to lessen the impact of private wealth on the political process, it ought to offer an alternative to the status quo that leaves candidates scrambling for donations.

Could it be because Democrats don't want to be seen spending millions of taxpayer dollars on political campaigns, or just a reflection of the Senate's long-standing hostility toward public financing? The sum required to offer a legitimate public campaign finance alternative would be paltry compared to the savings from the diminished clout of special interests -- something voters are quite capable of understanding if given the chance.

Still, there are many elements in the framework that could be supported by a bipartisan majority in both chambers and implemented as soon as possible. While campaign finance debates tend to be dominated by the self-interests of elected officials, this is one instance where their interests align: They should all fear irate voters who regard unlimited corporate political spending as the latest sign of how out of touch Washington has become.

That voters are angry this year is clear enough. Congressional Republicans should take no comfort in this, as recent polls show the outrage extends to them, too. The public rightly expects some corrective action on campaign finance law from its elected leaders and isn't in the frame of mind to accept partisan gridlock as an excuse for failure.

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