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Thurber Says Supreme Court Decision Will Fundamentally Change Elections

By Mike Unger

Photo: James Thurber with (from left) Ellen Miller, Melanie Sloan, and Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women in Politics Institute.

James Thurber chaired a panel discussion Feb. 1 on the Supreme Court's ruling with, from left, Ellen Miller, Melanie Sloan, and Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women in Politics Institute. (Photo: Jeff Watts)

On Jan. 21, the Supreme Court shocked the political world when it ruled in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that barring corporations from making direct expenditures to support or oppose candidates in federal elections is unconstitutional.

American Today caught up with James Thurber, director of the American University’s Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies, to talk about the impact this decision will have on the political process.

Q – What was the most important part of the court’s ruling?

A - The court ruled that government may not ban political spending by corporations in candidate elections. They found that the government really has no business regulating political speech. It was dramatic, it wasn’t a surprise to some people that were following it, but it certainly has a major impact on campaigns.

Dissidents, including President Obama, argue that it will allow corporate money to flood the political marketplace, corrupt democracy, undermining the public good.

Q – Why is this ruling so important?

A – It’s important because it fundamentally influences the way campaigns will be run in the future when corporations and unions can have an unlimited amount of money in ads for or against a candidate right up to the day of the election. It changes precedent limiting that, and it allows for those who have resources to have more influence than those who do not have resources.”

Q – Do you think it will prove more beneficial to Republicans or Democrats?

A – I think it will help Republicans more than Democrats. There are fewer unions than corporations with lots of money. I think corporations can have a big influence on how people vote in Congress and state legislatures – no one’s talking about that.

By just going in and chatting with a member when a vote comes up knowing full well where the corporation stands and that they have lots of money to back that up. Take for example, Boeing and their influence on the Washington state legislature. It’s influential now, but in the future if they ran massive numbers of ads right up to the day of the election against somebody running at the state level because that person was against what the corporation wanted for health insurance or something, it would have a significant cooling effect on the individual.

You could not prove that they changed their vote by the threat, but there’s the potential of that happening.”

Q - Do you see this as a decision that will influence the midterm elections?

A – I think it already has and it will continue. There are primaries coming up in Illinois and other places this year. It will influence the primaries and the general election. This general election is very significant because it looks like there are 45 or 50 toss-up seats for the Democrats in the House, and about 10 toss-ups in the Senate. In a toss-up election a great deal of money is spent, and now even more money can be spent against the incumbents.”

Q - Was this a decision that people saw coming?

A – I think a lot of people anticipated this court to be somewhat conservative, and that they would change the precedent in this area. So there were strategies by the White House and on the Hill to have legislation ready to go in case the decision went this way.

Q - What kinds of things will be included in that legislation?

A – The reports of it are to deal first with foreign corporations, because that’s the most controversial aspect of this. There are others who are pushing for having the name of the organization or corporation on all the ads like what we have now for federal candidates. Others are pushing for regulations on corporations and unions to require a vote to spend the money.

The bottom line is I don’t think they’ll do any of that this year. There’s a problem with the filibuster in the Senate, there’s not a clear coalition for reform in the Senate, so I don’t see it moving ahead.