By Susan Crabtree - 01/28/10 04:50 PM EST
The Supreme Court’s decision on campaign spending is its most partisan since Bush v. Gore, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said Thursday.
Leahy took a broadside to the decision in a floor speech, criticizing it for overturning nearly a century of restrictions on corporate and union independent expenditures in elections.
“The Citizens United decision turns the idea of government of, by and for the people on its head, and creates new rights for Wall Street at the expense of Main Street,” Leahy said.
“This decision is broader and more damaging in that they have now decided to intervene in all elections,” Leahy said.
Leahy’s speech came the morning after President Barack Obama harshly criticized the ruling in his State of the Union address. Leahy thanked Obama for speaking out against the high court’s 5-4 decision.
Obama’s criticism led to one of the more noteworthy moments of the night, when Justice Samuel Alito was seen mouthing the words “not true” as Obama said the decision would open the floodgates for campaign spending by corporations.
After the speech, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), a former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Obama was out of line to rebuke the Supreme Court while six of its members sat nearby.
“Taking on the Supreme Court like he did, I thought it was kind of rude,” Hatch told the Salt Lake Tribune. “It's one thing to say that he differed with the court but another thing to demagogue the issue while the court is sitting there out of respect for his position.”
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) brushed aside Leahy’s criticism in his own floor speech. He said recent campaign finance restrictions, including the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, “ran afoul with the Constitution,” and the Supreme Court was simply righting that wrong.
The case before the court involved a corporate-funded film critical of then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), who was running for the Democratic presidential nomination. The film’s sponsors wanted to distribute and show the film in theaters during the primary contest, but the Federal Election Commission ruled that it could not be shown because of its corporate sponsorship.
During oral arguments, Sessions said, U.S. Solicitor General Elena Kagan was asked whether a book criticizing a candidate could be banned because it was published with corporate money.
“The answer was yes,” Sessions said. “And the court said, wait a minute, this is a serious thing.”
In his address, Obama said the decision would allow even foreign corporations to “spend without limit” in U.S. elections.
“Well, I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities,” Obama said. “They should be decided by the American people, and that’s why I’m urging Democrats and Republicans to pass a bill that helps right this wrong.”
Advocates of fewer restrictions on campaign finance law contend that the decision simply affirms the right of advocacy groups, businesses and unions to exercise their free speech rights and does not change existing law barring political contributions by foreign nationals.
“The president’s swipe at the Supreme Court was a breach of decorum, and represents the worst of Washington politics — scapegoating ‘special interest’ bogeymen for all that ails Washington in an attempt to silence the diverse range of speakers in our democracy,” Bradley Smith, a former GOP-appointed FEC commissioner and chairman of the Center for Competitive Politics, said in a statement.
Several lawmakers on Capitol Hill have pledged to step in to pass laws aimed at countering the power of unions and corporations to become involved in the country’s campaigns. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who chairs the Senate Rules Committee, has announced hearings on legislation to blunt the decision’s impact.
Democrats on Capitol Hill are promoting a bill providing public financing for congressional and presidential candidates. In the House, the bill has 130 sponsors, and supporters say momentum is building for the idea in the wake of the high court’s decision.
Rep. Michael Capuano (D-Mass.), a longtime advocate for greater restrictions on campaign spending, has introduced a bill that would require shareholder approval of political spending.
“Shareholders and the public have a right to know exactly how corporations are spending their funds to influence elections and causes, and should have to indicate express approval of their money being spent on politics,” said Lisa Gilbert, a spokeswoman for U.S. PIRG.