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Supreme Court rejects limits on corporate spending on political campaigns

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The Supreme Court ruled that corporations may spend as freely as they like to support or oppose candidates for president and Congress, easing decades-old limits on business efforts to influence federal campaigns.

A lower court said the film ran afoul of a McCain-Feingold provision that forbids corporations, unions and special interest groups from using money from their general treasuries for "any broadcast, cable or satellite communications" that refer to a candidate for federal office during election season. The high court chose last year to broaden the scope of the case to include constitutional questions raised in a 1990 decision, which was overturned by Thursday's ruling.

Leading the court's dissenting liberal bloc, Justice John Paul Stevens called the decision "a radical change in the law" that ignores "the overwhelming majority of justices who have served on this court." Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer joined in Stevens's 90-page dissent.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who co-wrote the 2002 campaign reform law with Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), said he was "disappointed" by the decision. Feingold went further, calling it "a terrible mistake" and saying it ignored "important principles of judicial restraint and respect for precedent."

Increasing influence

Democrats and campaign-finance reform activists predicted the ruling would further increase the influence of groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is now free to spend an unlimited amount of money on ads explicitly attacking candidates. Even before Thursday's ruling, the Chamber had announced a "massive effort to support pro-business candidates" in the fall elections following a record year of lobbying against health-care reform, financial regulations and other Democratic proposals.

"With a stroke of the pen, five justices wiped out a century of American history devoted to preventing corporate corruption of our democracy," said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21.

Other campaign-finance experts were more cautious in their analysis, arguing that most corporations have little desire to get involved in the muck of individual elections and are happy to continue using lobbying and campaign contributions as their main tools of influence. But many experts agreed that those same corporations may now give more money to trade associations to fund campaign advertising.

Doug Pinkham, president of the Public Affairs Council, said the decision could lead to the creation of a new wave of single-issue political groups, including some formed by sitting lawmakers.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) and other Democrats vowed to push for new restrictions on corporate political spending, including limits for companies with government contracts; shareholder approval of expenditures; and a proposal to make chief executives appear in ads approving their content. Another group of lawmakers is also pushing legislation to match small donations with public financing.


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