WASHINGTON — The White House and Democratic lawmakers are moving swiftly to devise new restraints on corporate political spending to try to blunt the impact of a Supreme Court ruling that President Barack Obama calls "devastating."
Obama on Jan. 23 criticized the Supreme Court for allowing more corporate influence over elections, intensifying his criticism of a ruling that has suddenly reshaped campaign rules in the midst of a midterm election year.
The Court's 5-4 decision in Citizens United v. FEC on Jan. 21 allows companies and unions to spend freely on ads that promote or target particular candidates by name, and lifts the barring of union- and corporate-paid issue ads in the closing days of campaigns.
"We don't need to give any more voice to the powerful interests that already drown out the voices of everyday Americans," Obama said, devoting his weekly Saturday radio and Internet address to the topic. "And we don't intend to."
The White House is working chiefly with Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen and Sen. Chuck Schumer on a bill pushing back on the Court decision. The goal is to put forward legislation within two weeks, Van Hollen said Jan. 23, but the choices are limited by the nature of the Court's First Amendment ruling.
Among the options under consideration are requiring the approval of a majority of shareholders before a corporation can run a political ad; requiring the chief executive of the company to appear at the end of the ad so the public knows who is behind it; limiting the ad-spending of corporations that have received federal bailout money or that get federal contracts; and trimming the privileges that come with legal corporate status if companies pump money into political campaigns.
"There are some gray areas here, and so we're exploring our options," Van Hollen told The Associated Press. "Obviously this requires more legal analysis, and we're looking at that."
Any proposals would also have to win the approval of both chambers of Congress. Obama has promised a bill that will be both bipartisan and forceful. He is also expected to address campaign finance in his State of the Union address on Jan. 27.
The Court's decision wrestled with the matter of campaign spending as free speech. The majority opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy made a vigorous argument for the right of the public to be exposed to a multitude of ideas and against the ability of government to limit political speech.
Yet the president is among those who see it as blowing open the doors to big-business influence over democracy. He predicted that anyone who runs for election and tries to take on powerful special interests will now be more likely to be "under assault come election time."
Obama also said the decision would make it harder to enact financial, tax, health-care and energy changes. Said Van Hollen: "At a time when Americans are more worried than ever that special interests are running the show, this will further undermine their confidence in our democracy."
Meanwhile, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., co-author of a landmark campaign-finance law, says the movement he led to reform how political campaigns are financed is dead.
McCain says the Supreme Court has spoken on the constitutionality of political contributions by corporations. The Arizona Republican had sought to regulate them with the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, which he wrote with Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold.
Speaking yesterday on CBS News' "Face the Nation" show, McCain said not much could be done about campaign financing now. Still, he predicted a backlash over time from voters once they see the amount of money that corporations and unions pour into political campaigns.