Money already influences almost every decision made in Washington. But advocates of campaign finance reform on Thursday painted an even grimmer picture of how business will get done on Capitol Hill after a stunning Supreme Court ruling that will allow corporations and labour unions to spend an unlimited amount on political campaigns.
They fear lobbyists for economic interests will have the power explicitly to threaten members of Congress if lawmakers do not vote in support of their interests.
Before the Supreme Court ruling, a company could dip into its political action committee fund – a regulated pool raised from individual employee contributions – and donate $5,000 to a lawmaker’s opponent. “Now they can run $5m or $50m in television advertising attacking the member in that member’s district,” says Trevor Potter, former general counsel to Republican senator John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign.
“A corporation doesn’t even have to spend the money. Maybe you just have to do it once or twice to set an example. After that, you run the risk that legislators will be kowtowed by that kind of spending.”
Mr Potter said the US was on the verge of a returning to the situation that existed before 1907, when campaign finance reform was first passed. Then, members were not referred to as “the member for Nevada”. “You were the member for Standard Oil.”
Mary G. Wilson, national president of the League of Women Voters, said Thursday’s verdict was “constitutionally irresponsible and will surely bring about an anti-democratic revolution in how we finance elections in this country”.
Proponents of changing the rules had long argued that it was a matter of freedom of speech. The decision, they said, restored free-speech rights to groups whose ability to “express themselves” in elections had been restricted.
”By previously denying this right, the government was picking winners and losers,” said Mitch McConnell, Republican senator from Kentucky. “Our democracy depends upon free speech, not just for some but for all.”
Conventional wisdom in Washington is that Republicans, who are more closely aligned with corporations and the trade associations they fund, will benefit from the ruling, especially because Republicans are now energised after their victory in the Massachusetts Senate race this week.
In fact, legal experts at the Brennan Center for Justice, at NYU School of Law, said the impact of the ruling would be more significant than the loss of the Democrats 60th vote in the Senate.
“It represents the most aggressive intervention into politics by the Court since Bush v Gore,” claimed Michael Waldman, executive director.
But the verdict raises big questions for corporate chief executives and board members who now have blank cheques in hand: how far to wade into the murky waters of political campaigns?
“Do I want to play in this and how do I convince my board? Those are going to be important questions. Plus, how do you avoid shareholder blowback?” asked Mr Potter.
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