Unions outspending corporations on campaign ads despite court ruling

By T.W. Farnam
Wednesday, July 7, 2010; A04

Labor unions have dominated spending on independent campaign ads so far this election season, despite a recent Supreme Court decision that freed spending by corporations, a Washington Post analysis shows.

The findings are an indication that corporate money is not flooding into campaigns as many predicted would happen after the landmark decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.

So far this year, $24.7 million in independent spending has been reported to the Federal Election Commission, campaign filings show. Unions have spent $9.7 million (or 39 percent of the total), compared with $6.4 million (26 percent) spent by individuals and $3.4 million spent by corporations.

Not all spending on political ads is included in the totals. Issue ads, which mention candidates and their positions but offer no candidate endorsement, do not have to be reported to the government unless they run directly before an election.

In January, the Supreme Court struck down laws and previous cases that prohibited corporations from paying for hard-hitting campaign ads. But some argue that corporations are still likely to begin spending heavily on campaigns.

"We would be very pleasantly surprised if there's not a gusher of special interest money," Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said in an interview. "Very few people play in the primaries -- most of this money is almost always spent in the general election."

Van Hollen is pushing a bill the House recently passed that would require funding sources for advertising to be disclosed. The measure faces uncertain prospects in the Senate.

Several large corporate-backed groups have yet to fully open their war chests for campaign ads. The conservative group American Crossroads raised $8.5 million in June, said its president, Steven Law.

"Donors who are from the center-right side of the spectrum are going to close the gap this year," he said. "There's both an opportunity in this election cycle to achieve real progress and a large sense of concern in the direction of Washington."

The group's funding has come from an even split of individuals and corporations, he said.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nation's largest business group, has recently increased its political advertising budget this year, according to one published report. Chamber President Thomas J. Donohue said during a recent speech that the group had upped its political budget from $50 million to $75 million, according to a person at the event who spoke with the Center for Public Integrity. A Chamber spokesman would neither confirm nor deny the report.

Groups active in the campaigns are taking different approaches to how they will report spending. A new liberal group called Commonsense Ten recently requested a legal clarification from the Federal Election Commission on the appropriate way to accept corporate money, saying that it will reveal its donors.

"Believing that 'sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants,' Commonsense Ten plans instead to engage in fully disclosed activity as a federally registered political committee," the group wrote.

The anti-tax group Club for Growth requested a similar clarification and said it intends to disclose all donors.

Law said his group recently established a nonprofit corporation, which means it can accept money from donors without being required to disclose their names. "There are some donors who care about that," he said. Such a nonprofit corporation faces certain restrictions on election spending under the U.S. tax code, however.

The Service Employees International Union has disclosed spending $4.6 million on independent ads this year, more than any other group. Americans for Job Security, which is incorporated as a business association, has disclosed the second-highest amount, $1.5 million. The Chamber of Commerce ranked third in spending, with $1.4 million in ads.

Several of the top groups were union-backed operations with names such as Working America, Arkansans for Change and Patriot Majority. The House disclosure bill would require those groups to list in advertisements the names of unions backing them.

Independent groups spent $8.1 million on the Democratic Senate primary in Arkansas, far more than any other race. Sen. Blanche Lincoln defeated union-backed Lt. Gov. Bill Halter in a June 8 runoff election in that state.

Brett Kappel, an election lawyer with Arent Fox who represents corporations and trade associations, said that his clients have been solicited by groups hoping to run election ads and that many corporations will take the court ruling as an invitation to participate in electioneering.

"There's nothing corporations like better than clear legal rules," he said, but added: "My impression is they're going to wait and see how this cycle goes before they go into making independent expenditures of their own."

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