Supreme Court's campaign finance ruling: just the facts
Questions and answers about the Supreme Court's ruling on campaign finance and how it will change America's elections.
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That's why campaign advocates of finance reform view the decision as akin to being pushed off a cliff. The decision marks the end of what had been a spirited debate over how to achieve the highest promise of American democracy.Skip to next paragraph
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Instead of a tightly regulated level playing field, the conservative wing of the Supreme Court has pointed America toward a messy "marketplace of ideas." In Justice Anthony Kennedy's view, if corporate speech presents a threat of undue influence in American politics, the proper response in the spirit of the First Amendment is to meet it with even more speech.
Won't corporations control everything?
The Supreme Court did not jettison all campaign finance restrictions. Corporations and unions are still prohibited from making direct contributions to federal candidates. Such contributions must be made either by individuals or through regulated political action committees.
In addition, although corporations may now spend money to make a political point during election season, the high court has strongly endorsed – by an 8-to-1 vote – disclaimer and disclosure requirements within the federal campaign finance law.
That means that when corporations place a political ad on television or radio within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of a general election, it must include the disclaimer: "______ is responsible for the content of this advertising."
This disclaimer requirement may deter many corporations from engaging in the kind of vicious political attack ads that some analysts suggest will now become commonplace.
But it may not deter those corporations organized to push an ideological agenda. In that case, such disclaimers will help ordinary voters assess the value of a particular message.
The high court also upheld a more sweeping disclosure requirement. Any corporation spending more than $10,000 a year on electioneering efforts must publicly disclose the names of individual contributors.
The disclaimer and disclosure laws were designed by Congress to help voters, the media, and others hold corporations – and their contributors – responsible for the content of their speech.
How will the ruling affect campaigns?
Corporations and unions will be able to spend directly, whenever they want, on advertising for and against presidential and congressional candidates. Laws governing corporate involvement in state campaigns will also presumably be struck down or repealed in the 24 states that have such laws. (Twenty-six states currently do not regulate corporate spending in their elections.)
Some analysts predict that, starting with this fall's campaigns, millions more corporate dollars will flood the media, benefiting Republicans more than Democrats. The money is likely to be funneled through trade associations and nonprofit groups, rather than deployed directly by the corporations, which will want to avoid closely associating their brands with a partisan position.
Opponents of the decision argue that, aside from the new influx of corporate money into campaigns, lobbyists will now be able to hold the threat of corporate-funded attack advertising over an elected official's head.