Supreme Court ruling on political ads is wrong

Common Cause Public Campaign President Nick Nyhard, right, accompanied by Common Cause President Bob Edgar, left, and Campaign Legal Center Executive Director Gerald Hebert, center, during a news conference after the Supreme Court campaign finance ruling. (AP Photo / Lauren Victoria Burke)


Congress must immediately blunt the impact of the Supreme Court’s disastrous decision allowing unlimited corporate spending on elections.
A 5-4 majority of the court ruled that the Constitution’s guarantee of free speech means corporations can spend whatever they want to support or defeat an individual candidate. The ruling overturns a century of limitations against firms using profits to directly affect political campaigns.
If you thought lobbyists and corporate fat cats already dominated politics, just wait. The decision assures that powerful special interests, such as the insurance industry and drug manufacturers, will enjoy a playing field tilted heavily in their favor in Washington. The losers will be average citizens and consumers whose donations can’t compete with the Chamber of Commerce’s war chest.
Although the court did not address explicitly spending by labor unions, the decision almost certainly will allow labor to spend freely as well. There’s already too much money in campaigns. The answer is not a new arms race.
The ruling’s impact will affect state and local elections, too. One of the few restrictions on campaign spending in Pennsylvania was a prohibition against spending on behalf of candidates by corporations and unions. That’s now open to a legal challenge.
It apparently won’t affect Philadelphia’s campaign-finance law, which permits corporations and unions to donate up to $10,600 per year to candidates through political-action committees.
The court reversed its own rulings of 1990 and 2003, which upheld campaign-finance restrictions. Not only did Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., Justice Samuel Alito, et al., overturn recent precedent, they overreached to broaden the impact of this case far beyond its original question.
So much for judicial restraint by the court’s conservatives. It’s a glaring case of judicial activism.
The majority’s twisted reasoning is that corporations are entitled to the same free-speech rights as people. The court overlooked the fact that corporations and unions had not been banned from participating in elections previously. They were allowed to spend on elections through political action committees, which raise money from employees and dues-paying members.
The only bright spot was the requirement for corporations to disclose their contributions. Without it, audiences wouldn’t know who was paying for the new flood of negative ads you’ll be seeing.
Rep. Bob Brady (D., Pa.) and other lawmakers with jurisdiction on the matter pledge to do what they can soon to mitigate this awful ruling. They could require stronger rules against campaigns coordinating with outside groups, or require publicly traded firms to get approval from shareholders before spending on elections.
Congress also needs to fix the public-financing system for presidential elections, a cure that was needed even before the new ruling. The harm from this court decision can’t be overstated.