Citizens United: The Democrats Strike Back

Sen. Chuck Schumer and Rep. Chris Van Hollen unveiled their campaign finance reform legislation Thursday, having spent a few weeks closely coordinating the language with White House ethics officials and their allies in the reform movement.

The legislation attempts to predict the influence of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision and create procedural impediments to, for example, prevent the influence of foreign entities in U.S. elections. More to the point of campaigns, it attempts to give candidates and parties a bit of an advantage over corporations and labor unions -- or at least put some more weight on their side of the balance.

A Republican campaign finance attorney confessed to me the other day that more than two dozen corporations had asked him about how they should proceed in the post-Citizens United environment -- but said that many are cautiously watching to see how the public responds to corporate involvement.

The reality, though, is that reformers can do little but try and deter -- and perhaps shame -- corporations. And any legislation they impose on corporations will also be imposed on labor unions, which, of course, are on their side -- for the most part.

Under the proposed law, corporations would not be able to spend money in U.S. elections if a majority of members of their board were foreign, if 20% of more of the company was foreign-owned, or if U.S. activities of the corporation fall under the direction of control of a foreign entity -- either a corporation, a person or a government. This is an easy pass.

This next reform would hit government contractors: they'd be barred from any sort of political expenditures because they do business directly with the government. Corporate beneficiaries of TARP money would not be able to use TARP money to spend in elections. A fact sheet provided by the Center for Competitive Freedom, which opposes reform, insists that government cannot condition the benefits it provides on giving up first amendment rights.

CEOs and labor union leaders would have to "stand by their ad" -- appearing on camera approving the message, just like candidates are required to do now. The legislation would also try to "prevent individuals and corporations from funneling money through shell groups" in order to influence legislation or candidates by forcing the largest source of revenue for the group to make the "stand by your ad" disclaimer; list the top five contributors to the organization at the end of the ad.

For us FEC nerds, the legislation requires corporations, unions and 527 groups to set up "political broadcast spending" accounts to take in and disburse political money used for TV or radio ads. Stringent disclose requirements are included here.

Corporations will fight this one: any expenditure they make on politics has to be disclosed on their website with a "clear link on their homepage" and disclosed quarterly to shareholders.

Also, lobbyists will now have to disclose any contribution in excess of $1,000 and the FEC will keep and report a running total of what they've spent

Finally, when a corporation decides to buy an ad to influence a rate in a particular market, the candidate or party then gets (a) reasonable access to airtime and (b) the lowest unit rate charged per ratings point by the broadcaster.

A spokesperson for Sen. John McCain, a long-time campaign finance reform crusader, said he has not had the chance to examine Schumer and Van Hollen's bill.

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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