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Context of 'February 11, 2010: Congressional Democrats Introduce Legislation Limiting Effects of ‘Citizens United’'

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In his weekly radio and Internet address, President Obama denounces the recent Citizens United Supreme Court ruling that lets corporations and labor unions spend unlimited amounts on political campaign activities (see January 21, 2010). “This ruling strikes at our democracy itself,” he says. “I can’t think of anything more devastating to the public interest. The last thing we need to do is hand more influence to the lobbyists in Washington, or more power to the special interests to tip the outcome of elections.… This ruling opens the floodgates for an unlimited amount of special interest money into our democracy. It gives the special interest lobbyists new leverage to spend millions on advertising to persuade elected officials to vote their way—or to punish those who don’t.… The last thing we need to do is hand more influence to the lobbyists in Washington or more power to the special interests to tip the outcome of elections.” The decision, Obama says, will make it harder to enact financial reform, close tax loopholes, promote energy independence, and protect patients from health insurance abuses. “We don’t need to give any more voice to the powerful interests that already drown out the voices of everyday Americans,” Obama says. “And we don’t intend to.” He says he is asking Congress to work with the White House to “fight for the American people” and develop a “forceful bipartisan response” to the decision. “It will be a priority for us until we repair the damage that has been done.” Norm Eisen, Obama’s special counsel for ethics and government reform, has already met with Democratic Congressional leaders Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Representative Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) to begin talks on how Congress might respond. [New York Times, 1/24/2010; Associated Press, 1/25/2010]

Entity Tags: Charles Schumer, Barack Obama, Norm Eisen, US Supreme Court, Chris Van Hollen

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Representative Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) are introducing legislation that would undo the recent Citizens United Supreme Court decision that allows corporations and labor unions to spend unlimited amounts on political advertising (see January 21, 2010). The proposed legislation is a “patchwork,” in the New York Times’s phrasing, “of spending restrictions and disclosure requirements—many based in current laws. The measure would greatly expand the scope of an existing ban on political commercials paid for by foreign corporations, ban political commercials paid for by government contractors or recipients of bailout money, and force corporations and unions to make public details of what they spend directly or through advocacy groups.” Schumer and Van Hollen say they want the legislation enacted in time for it to constrain spending in the November 2010 midterm elections. “Otherwise the court will have predetermined the winner of the midterm elections,” Schumer says. “It won’t be the Republicans or the Democrats. It will be corporate America.” At least one Republican senator would have to vote to allow the bill to come up for a vote, and as of yet, it is unclear than any Republican senator will do so. Schumer and Van Hollen say they crafted the legislation to remain in line with Citizens United, providing firmer constitutional ground for the spending restrictions and disclosure requirements in the bills. The Times explains, “The Court has frowned on speech restrictions aimed at specific speakers and leaned toward disclosure as a constitutionally permissible response to fears of corruption or undo influence.” The proposed legislation would not ban corporate or labor union spending outright, but would ban spending by any domestic domestic corporation with at least 20 percent foreign ownership, any corporation whose board included a majority of foreigners, or any corporation where executive control belonged to a foreign company or government. The disclosure requirements are broader—if a corporation paid for a political ad, the legislation would require that corporation’s CEO to appear at the end of the ad to take responsibility for the message. For advocacy group ads, the biggest donor would be required to appear, and the five biggest corporate contributors would be named in the ad. The legislation would also force corporations and interest groups to set up political spending accounts and file reports of their activities. [New York Times, 2/11/2010] A Times editorial appearing six days after the initial press reports lauds the legislation as “a sensible” if “partial” response to the Citizens United decision. The Times will state: “The Schumer-Van Hollen bill is expected to be introduced later this month. Congressional leaders should put it on a fast track so it can be in place in time for this year’s midterm elections. It could help keep special interest money in check until the real solution comes: a Supreme Court ruling reversing the deeply antidemocratic Citizens United decision.” [New York Times, 2/17/2010]

Entity Tags: Charles Schumer, US Supreme Court, Chris Van Hollen, New York Times

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Chris Van Hollen, in an undated appearance on Fox News.Chris Van Hollen, in an undated appearance on Fox News. [Source: Associated Press / Politico]Representative Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and other prominent Democrats file a lawsuit against the Federal Election Commission (FEC) asking that entity to force the disclosure of political campaign donor information. In 2007, after a Supreme Court ruling (see June 25, 2007), the FEC drastically rewrote its disclosure requirements, creating what Van Hollen calls a “major loophole” that many 501(c)4 entities funded by corporate or labor union donations are using to operate “under a veil of anonymity.” Van Hollen and his colleagues say they want to force wealthy corporations and individuals to disclose who they are and how much they donate to political organizations. Currently, the Citizens United decision (see January 21, 2010) allows such donors to remain anonymous, and the organizations that receive their donations to conceal the amounts they are receiving. Van Hollen cites the 2002 Bipartisan Candidate Reform Act (BCRA—see March 27, 2002) as applying in this instance. In the brief he submits for the lawsuit, Van Hollen writes: “The US Chamber of Commerce, a Section 501(c) corporation, spent $32.9 million in electioneering communications in the 2010 Congressional elections, and disclosed none of its contributors; American Action Network (AAN—see Mid-October 2010), a Section 501(c) corporation, spent $20.4 million in electioneering communications in the 2010 Congressional elections, and disclosed none of its contributors; Americans for Job Security, a Section 501(c) corporation, spent $4.6 million in electioneering communication in the 2010 Congressional elections, and disclosed none of its contributors.” The lawsuit comes almost simultaneously with news that the White House is considering issuing an executive order that would require federal contractors to reveal their donations (see April 20, 2011). Democrats admit that even as they push the lawsuit forward, and President Obama publicly criticizes the practice of secret donations, they, too, are raising undisclosed donations for the various 2012 campaigns. Experts note that in most cases, Democrats’ efforts to raise undisclosed donations are far smaller than efforts by Republicans, and the amounts they are receiving are, so far, much smaller. Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21, who is leading Van Hollen’s legal team, acknowledges that the lawsuit will not alter campaign finance policy before the 2012 elections, though he says it is possible that the lawsuit could receive a favorable decision and force disclosure while appeals are pending.
Similarities to DISCLOSE Act - Both the lawsuit and the executive order are similar to sections of the DISCLOSE Act, a legislative package drafted by Van Hollen and other Congressional Democrats that was blocked by Senate Republicans from coming to a vote (see July 26-27, 2010). USCOC spokesperson Blair Latoff says the lawsuit and the order comprise a “desperate attempt by the White House and House Democrats to resurrect the corpse of the DISCLOSE Act.” (Law professor Steven D. Schwinn will refute Latoff’s accusation, writing that Van Hollen’s lawsuit in no way seeks to force the DISCLOSE Act into law via the courts.) Like the failed legislation, the lawsuit and the proposed executive order would work to curtail the effects of the Supreme Court’s controversial Citizens United decision, which allows virtually unlimited and anonymous political spending by corporations and other entities. The lawsuit argues that the concealment of donor identities contradicts both the law and the Court’s ruling, citing the following language in the majority ruling: “With the advent of the Internet, prompt disclosure of expenditures can provide shareholders and citizens with the information needed to hold corporations and elected officials accountable.”
Seeks Change in FEC Regulations - The lawsuit specifically challenges an FEC regulation adopted in 2007 that contravened language in the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (see March 27, 2002) that required disclosure of donations of $1,000 or more if the donations were made for the purpose of furthering “electioneering communications.” Another petition filed by Van Hollen’s group asks the FEC to revise a regulation that “improperly allowed nonprofit groups to keep secret the donors” whose funds were being used to pay for so-called independent expenditures in federal elections. [van Hollen, 4/21/2011 pdf file; Los Angeles Times, 4/21/2011; New York Times, 4/21/2011; Steven D. Schwinn, 4/25/2011; Think Progress, 4/27/2011]
'Sign of Weakness' - Bradley A. Smith, a former FEC commissioner and the head of the Center for Competitive Politics, a conservative advocacy group, says of the lawsuit: “This is a sign of weakness by a group that’s afraid they’re going to lose, and lose big. Again and again, you see evidence that their real purpose is to try to shut down their political opposition.” Smith and other conservatives say Democrats want to “chill” free speech. [New York Times, 4/21/2011]
FEC Will Refuse to Consider Accompanying Petition - In December 2011, the FEC will refuse to consider an accompanying petition on a 3-3 vote. [Commission, 12/16/2011; Commission, 12/16/2011] The vote is along partisan lines, with the three Democrats on the commission voting to consider the petition and the three Republicans voting against. The law prohibits the FEC from having a majority of commissioners from either party. [Think Progress, 1/21/2012]
Judge Will Rule in Favor of Plaintiff - In March 2012, a district judge will rule in favor of Van Hollen in the lawsuit (see March 30, 2012).

Entity Tags: Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, Americans for Job Security, Barack Obama, American Action Network, Blair Latoff, Bradley A. (“Brad”) Smith, Steven D. Schwinn, US Chamber of Commerce, DISCLOSE Act of 2010, Chris Van Hollen, Fred Wertheimer, Federal Election Commission

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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