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High court's campaign contributions ruling could affect Missouri's U.S. Senate race

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 21, 2010 - The U.S. Supreme Court's decision allowing corporations to pay for political advertising isn't likely to have much impact on Missouri's state and local contests, which already are governed by state statutes that put no restrictions on corporate or labor spending.

But all sides say the ruling could have a significant impact on Missouri's congressional contests, which have been governed by federal restrictions on campaign actions by corporations or unions.

Bob Soutier, president of the Greater St. Louis Labor Council, said he laments the court's decision -- even if it does loosen the restrictions on labor along with corporations.

"We could never keep up with corporate spending on issues or candidates,'' Soutier said, adding that he thought a disparity already existed, even before the ruling.

"It unlevels the playing field tremendously," Soutier said. "It just doesn't seem fair to me at all."

Under the rules recently in force, business, labor and special-interest groups have had to form political action committees to make campaign donations. Business and labor, in particular, also faced restrictions on the use of their own income for campaign contests. For that reason, labor had to segregate its allocations for campaigns, and union members could refuse to pay that amount.

For Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo, the Supreme Court decision has little to do with involving people in the democratic process. "The way to clean up campaigns and politics is to get millions of people giving small amounts as opposed to a few giving big checks with commas in them. This decision is a victory for those with the big checkbooks, not average people," she said.

The elimination of most federal curbs could mean lots more independent ads by business, labor or other groups on behalf of a particular candidate. Such additional spending could have a particular impact in Missouri's marquee race this year: the contest for the U.S. Senate.

Secretary of State Robin Carnahan is the only announced Democratic candidate, and U.S. Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Springfield, is the best-known Republican. Already, labor groups generally have aligned themselves with Carnahan, while many corporate groups favor Blunt.

Carnahan said in a statement:

"The last thing we need in politics is more money and more attacks from corporate special interests and this ruling will allow that. I'm frankly disgusted that, at a time when more and more working families just want their voices heard, the Supreme Court in Washington basically just put them on mute and gave big corporations and power brokers a megaphone.

"Washington corporate special interests and lobbyists will get to continue to game the system, buy off members of both parties and amass more power at the expense of everyone else and that's just plain wrong."

Through a spokeswoman, Blunt said:

"Congressman Blunt is pleased the Supreme Court recognizes that the first amendment and freedom of speech cannot be legislated away, even when disguised as campaign finance reform."

The Missouri Republican Party also thought the court's decision was fair. State party executive director Lloyd Smith said in a statement:

"The Supreme Court has reaffirmed the principle that the right to free and unlimited political speech is a fundamental aspect of the First Amendment. Once again, the court has recognized that everyone has the right to express their opinions --- either individually or collectively -- and that this basic right does not have an expiration date.

"Democrats decried this affirmation of the freedom of speech as 'un-American,' and Robin Carnahan issued one of the most hypocritical statements of all," added Smith. "Despite the fact that Washington special interests like the League of Conservation Voters have already spent more than $750,000 on her behalf, Carnahan has the nerve to complain about 'special interests' attempting to 'game the system.' It's time for Robin Carnahan to take a long, hard look at her own record -- because right now, she is the worst offender."

The Missouri Democratic Party issued a statement criticizing the decision.

"The recent Supreme Court ruling takes us in the wrong direction," says Missouri Democratic Party Spokesman Ryan Hobart. "Our political process doesn't need more money from corporate special interests pouring into campaigns. This ruling would allow corporate America to drown out the voices of Missourians who can't afford to give millions of dollars in donations. Missourians already think the system is titled against them. Washington insiders like Congressman Roy Blunt, who receives millions of dollars from oil companies, banks, insurance companies and other corporate special interests, might be celebrating, but the people of Missouri are not.

"While the ruling unfortunately allows for more corrupting money to flow into federal elections," Hobart continues, "it should not be used to argue against the reinstatement of contribution limits at the state level. The ruling does not affect the ability of states to implement contribution limits, which three-quarters of Missouri voters mandated in 1994."

Dave Robertson, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said, "The convention wisdom is that this will help corporations a lot because they generally have more money than unions."

But Robertson also observed that the court's action could cause problems for candidates because a corporation or union could flood the airwaves with ads right before the election.

"It can drown out the message that the candidate wants to communicate," Robertson said.

Ken Warren, a political science professor who teaches a course in campaign finance at Saint Louis University, called the court's ruling "a shocker" that overturned rules that had been in force for more than a century.

"Symbolically it's a terrible decision," he said. "It's a huge win for corporations and the Republican Party. To me, it's a step backward. It does suggest that American elections can be open to blatant influence from big corporate coffers. It allows corporations to use their profits to fund politicians who will then make it more easier for corporations. In that sense, it is sending the wrong message to the average voter."

But given how corporations have been using political action committees and other methods to influence political campaigns, Warren said he wasn't sure what the practical effect of the decision will be.

"It's more symbolic than real," Warren said, "because corporations have always set aside an enormous amount of money for political PACs, and political PACs have been able to spend unlimited money on political ads. I think the difference is that corporations do not have to go through any political PACs, and they will be able to spend directly.

"There has never been a campaign finance law that has been written that doesn't have a loophole. As far as hard money or soft money, there always seems to be a loophole that can be found, and any effort to tighten them up has failed. The point is, if candidates want to have money spent on them, they can get money spent on them, unlimited money. The resources are available.

"Corporations are willing to give. They would give one way or another in the past. So I would think it might not make that much actual difference. Labor will spend on Democrats, and corporations will spend on Republicans.

Trey Davis, vice president of government affairs for the Missouri Chamber of Commerce, called the ruling favorable and said it will give companies the opportunity to become more directly involved in politics if they want to. But, he added, such participation is not a sure thing.

“These times are tough,” he said, “and any kind of expenditure is going to be really scrutinized by any size corporation. To make the assumption that the floodgates are going to automatically open is not right.”

Davis did say that businesses will be excited about the chance to help create a climate that will help them prosper.

“What is positive for them is the opportunity to be more directly engaged in the process and hopefully support a more business-friendly environment," he said.

"The last thing any corporation wants is to have policies in place that make it more difficult to put people to work and put a good product forward. Corporations want to be involved in whatever process is there. They want to take advantage of a very transparent, fair and ethical process.” 

Individual companies that have made political donations were not eager to comment on the ruling. Todd Blecher, a spokesman in Chicago for Boeing -- which gave more than $27,000 to Missouri candidates in both parties according to the most recent reporting period - said:

"We are studying the court's opinion to determine its implications for Boeing's policies and practices."

A spokeswoman for Enterprise Rent-a-Car said it has made political contributions through political action committees and its policy will not change.

A call to Anheuser-Busch for comment was not returned.