How ruling affects campaign spending

Dahlia Lithwick

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Kai Ryssdal: This ruling would have been a big deal whenever it came down. But coming as it did during the same week as that big Senate election in Massachusetts and in the run-up to this fall's Congressional races, well, the possibilities are endless. Dahlia Lithwick covers the Supreme Court for Slate.com. Dahlia, good to have you with us.

Dahlia Lithwick: Thank you for having me.

Ryssdal: Look forward for me to the 2010 midterm elections here. We've got 10 months to go, plus or minus. Does this decision today mean that we're going to have banks and health care companies and labor unions out there just spending money willy-nilly?

Lithwick: I suspect as much. I think that pretty much everybody agrees this is going to, the word you're going to hear a lot today is, open the flood gates of corporate spending that will by and large benefit the Republicans more than the Democrats.

Ryssdal: Unions also, though, get to spend, right?

Lithwick: Yes, they do get to spend, although Lyle Denniston at the SCOTUS blog just pointed out today that it's not clear that they're quite as free as corporations to spend as much as they want.

Ryssdal: As with most of this, it's all going to be sort of developed as we go on in the politics of this, right?

Lithwick: I think that's true. What we heard a lot of today was the good government groups and the campaign refinance reform groups saying, this is the beginning of the end, the sky is falling. Democracy 21, one of those groups, issued a statement saying, "During 2008 alone Exxon Mobil generated profits of $45 billion, with the diversion of even 2 percent of those profits to the political process, this one company could have outspent both presidential candidates and fundamentally changed the dynamics of the 2008 elections." On the other end of the spectrum, you're getting groups who have really supported the notion of giving corporate speech a certain amount of constitutional personhood, saying, no, no, this isn't going to open any flood gates. The lawyer for Citizen's United in this case, Tedd Olson, said, "The vast majority of corporations are either nonprofit advocacy groups, like Citizens United themselves, or just small businesses," and this is going to really, he said, "enable them to band together to counterbalance the political speech of the rich."

Ryssdal: For all of what you just said on either side of this discussion, there's a chance that it might increase transparency, I mean we've had these 527 groups over the past five or six years without really knowing a lot about their donors. Now, we're going to have these companies, they're going to have to declare. Could that be a positive?

Lithwick: Well, the one thing that the court agreed on today was that the disclosure provisions of the campaign finance laws remain intact, so we're going to have transparency, but I think most folks say that's really a drop in the bucket compared to the enormity of what was unloosed today.

Ryssdal: I read a great post today. It might have actually been on Slate, as a matter of fact, that said this is basically the deregulation of the political process, if you think about it.

Lithwick: Well, it is. And I think it's really important to look at it in the constitutional context. This is the court going way beyond the four corners of what they needed to do to decide this particular case. This was a case about a movie, remember? It was a very, very narrow question when the court first got it last term. A lot of folks are comparing this, I think not completely inaptly, to Bush vs. Gore in terms of the court reaching way out to take on an issue that didn't need to be quite this explosive.

Ryssdal: Is Congress now going to reach out and try to sort of corral the court and change the finance laws so they stand up to this scrutiny?

Lithwick: There's all sorts of talk about that. And one of the first things we heard on the announcement of the opinion was that Congress is going to get back to work and try to figure out some way to get around this, but I think for the most part Congress really has an uphill battle to get back to anything that looks like the last century's worth of campaign finance law.

Ryssdal: Dahlia Lithwick. She's a senior legal correspondent at Slate.com. Dahlia, thanks a lot.

Lithwick: Thank you so much for having me.

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