On one point, they were unanimous. The five panelists speaking at the National Press Club on Wednesday agreed that the U.S. Supreme Court's recent decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission is unlikely to drastically change the campaign finance landscape in the 2010 election.
On the ruling's long-term implications, their opinions diverged.
James Portnoy, chief counsel for corporate and government affairs with Kraft Foods, said corporations are generally encouraged not to engage in election politics because of the potential to alienate sections of their customer base. He does not expect this to change, even with corporations’ new ability to spend unlimited funds on their own political advertising during campaigns.
The ruling addresses only independent expenditures and has no impact on the limits for how much corporations can donate to political candidates.
“Every time one of these issues comes up, everyone talks like the sky is falling,” Portnoy said.
Monica Youn, a counsel with the Brennan Center for Justice, said the justices ruled on their gut instincts and didn’t appropriately consider studies showing how states become more corrupt with fewer campaign finance restrictions. She said that, though the corrupting effects won’t be immediate, she expects corporations to heavily target individual candidates in future elections.
“The Supreme Court put aside balancing and went to the extreme end of the spectrum....The idea that corporations can’t make their own view known is quite surprising,” Youn said.
Jan Baran, a former general counsel to the Republican National Committee and a partner at Wiley Rein, countered that there is no evidence that fewer campaign restrictions breed corruption, noting that 26 states have no limits on any form of corporate contributions.
Laurence E. Gold, associate general counsel with the AFL-CIO, said the ruling erased a wall between electoral and issue speech that had never really existed. With the ruling, he said unions – as well as nonprofits and smaller corporations – would be able to compete in future elections like never before.
Joseph Sandler, a former general counsel to the Democratic National Committee and a member at Sandler, Reiff & Young, said the ruling will encourage the trend of political parties being marginalized in elections as more voices enter the political fray, citing the ever-growing number of political action committees. However, he added that it is hard to predict the ruling’s implications with any certainty.
“It is not quite the wild wild West that you would expect when you first look at the decision,” Sandler said.