A sampling of business and political leaders said yesterday that Wednesday's Supreme Court decision authorizing greater corporate participation in some political campaigns will probably have little impact on elections around the nation this year.
Businessmen said that confusion about the scope of the court's ruling and companies' traditional caution about involvement in partisan politics would limit the decision's immediate effect.
Officials at the Republican and Democratic National committees agreed that the decision's impact would be minimal, at least this year. If the case were to promote greater corporate political activity, though, the Republicans said it would aid the Democratic and the Democrats said it would help the Republicans.
The high court, in a 5-to-4 decision, voided a Massachusetts statute that prohibited the use of corporate funds to fluence the vote in referendum elections. The majority said that political advertisement were protected by the First Amendment even if they were funded from a corporate treasury.
A dissenting opinion in the case suggested that the ruling might open the gates to broad corporate involvement in political contests, but initial reaction from businessmen indicated this would not happen, at least for the present.
"I doubt that this will get us involved to any great extent," said Frank Faraone, of the Washington office of General Motors, the nation's largest industrial concern.
"If you're talking about taking an ad saying 'GM supports this tax plan or that candidate,' no I don't expect we'll do that," Faraone said.
A spokesman for Boston-based Gillette Co., One of the successful plaintiffs in the case decided Wednesday, said "there is no concerted move" toward widespread corporate involvement in partisan elections.
"If you are asking whether there is now going to be a massive unleashing of funds," said Gillette's David A. Fausch, "that's just not the case in any way, shape or form."
Executives at several other corporations echoed that view.
But the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has long encouraged its members to take a more active role in government and politics, said the decision would lead to more involvement.
"There's been a lot of reluctance to becoming active politically because of state laws that restrict it," said the chamber's Fred Radewagon. "This decision clears up some of the gray area in the law and that should aid our efforts to encourage this."
Still, there was considerable confusion about which corporate political activities will be legal following Wednesday's decision.
The decision makes it clear that firms cannot be stopped from using their funds to influence referendum votes. But the court specifically ducked a decision on the validity of existing laws - a federal statute and more than two dozen state laws - that prohibit corporate spending on behalf of political candidates.
A dissenting opinion in the case suggested that the decision would necessarily invalidate those prohibitions. Some political professionals agreed yesterday, saying that eventually a corporation's political reights would be held to be equal to those of an individual
That interpretation of the ruling would raise questions about the new lobbying bill that passed the House this week. One section of the measure would impose greater disclosure requirements on corporate lobbies than on lobby groups funded by individuals.