New 'Citizens United' legislation would enhance powers of parties

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New legislation to address a U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowing unlimited campaign advertising by corporations and labor unions includes an unexpected carrot to attract support from Republicans. A provision in the bill would change the law to allow political parties to spend unlimited amounts of their own funds in support of their party’s candidates and to coordinate that effort with the candidate, as long as the candidate does not “direct or control” the spending.

The bill responding to the court’s controversial Citizens United ruling was unveiled at separate news conferences today by Democratic Sens. Chuck Schumer, Evan Bayh, Russ Feingold, and Ron Wyden, and a bipartisan House quartet of Democrats Chris Van Hollen and Robert Brady, and Republicans Michael Castle and Walter Jones, Jr.

As expected, it would also require disclosure of the sources of funds behind independent groups’ political advertisements, mandate that chief executives appear onscreen in corporate-purchased ads, and ban any election activity by foreign-owned corporations.

The Center for Public Integrity first reported on Jan. 22 that the high court’s ruling could open the door for companies owned by foreign governments to spend unlimited sums to influence U.S. elections through their domestic subsidiaries. President Barack Obama railed against that possibility in his State of the Union speech. At the legislation’s unveiling by House legislators today, Rep. Jones held a sign bearing a picture of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and a CITGO logo, citing the same example that the Center noted three months ago.

The unexpected provision in the bill throwing open the door for political parties’ unlimited spending on ads for their candidates appears to be designed to woo Republican support. Campaign finance reform advocate Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21 told the Center many Republicans have long proposed doing away with the existing party spending limitations.

Jeff Patch, communications director of the Center for Competitive Politics — a group that opposes restrictions to limit campaign contributions — told the Center that while his group is strongly against the overall bill, it agrees with the concept of the provision that would untie the hands of parties.

“We wouldn’t want to make things better for the parties and worse for independent groups at the same time,” Patch said, noting that independent groups are already more susceptible to unfair investigations by election regulators. But, he acknowledged its allure to incumbents concerned about re-election, adding, “Because most members of Congress have the immediate concern of how this impacts them and their party, rather than the system in general, this may disproportionately appeal to them.”

In the House, Republicans Castle and Jones have already signed on as co-sponsors of the Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light On Spending in Elections (DISCLOSE) Act.

But in the Senate, no Republicans have yet to back the bill. And with 60 votes needed to guarantee Senate passage — and just 59 members of the Democratic caucus — the political parties’ spending provision could prove key to the bill’s prospects.