Scattered Clouds 46° Good Evening
Scattered Clouds 46° Good Evening

OPINION: Confrontation between the branches on latest Court ruling

FILE - In this April 9, 2008 file

FILE - In this April 9, 2008 file photo, Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito Jr. speaks at John Carroll University in University Heights, Ohio. Photo Credit: AP

A syndicated columnist for The Washington Post, Broder has been covering national politics since 1955.

The sober, sprawling State of the Union address President Barack Obama delivered last Wednesday was marked by one extraordinary moment.

It came when the president looked down at the robed members of the Supreme Court seated directly in front of him, and criticized their recent 5-4 decision that he said "will open the floodgates for special interests, including foreign corporations, to spend without limit in our elections."

While Democrats stood applauding his call on Congress to pass legislation narrowing the impact of the ruling, the TV cameras caught Justice Samuel Alito, one of the two George W. Bush appointees who made the reversal of precedent possible, apparently mouthing the words, "Not true."

Such direct confrontations between the branches of the federal government are almost unprecedented, and they set the stage for what ought to be a serious debate.

The following day, much of the discussion was focused narrowly on the question of whether Obama was correct in saying that foreign corporations would be unleashed on American elections by the decision.

The dissenting opinion of Justice John Paul Stevens had put the proposition more carefully. It said that the reasoning behind the majority opinion, barring restrictions on corporate-financed political ads, "would appear to afford the same protection to multinational corporations controlled by foreigners as to individual Americans."

But the majority opinion specifically said it was not deciding that question, because no foreign-controlled entity was involved in this case. Lawyers differ in their speculation on how the court would rule if that question is presented.

But Obama does not want Congress to wait for possible further damage to campaign finance regulation by the conservative wing of the court. Democrats are ready to attempt legislative steps to reduce the impact of the ruling that the First Amendment invalidates all past efforts to limit domestic corporations using their own funds to support or oppose candidates.

Several senators and representatives have already introduced bills that would, if found constitutional, keep intact the existing ban on ads financed by foreign or foreign-controlled corporations.

On Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee will convene to canvass ideas for going further in order to limit the newly proclaimed rights of domestic corporations and unions to finance campaign ads from their own treasuries. One option might be an attempt to preserve the ban for corporations that employ Washington lobbyists, or enjoy government contracts, or receive government bailouts or other substantial subsidies.

Another idea is to require the CEO of a company to appear at the end of its political ad, just as candidates already have to do. Or to require the main funders to be identified by name or corporate logo in their ads. Or, some suggest, a law might require stockholder approval for any corporate political message.

Some political observers speculate that companies will be slow to take advantage of the new political freedom the court has given them, holding back rather than risking a high profile that might cost them customers.

But the Democrats do not want to take that chance. With the 2010 campaign season about to begin in Illinois - which has a primary Tuesday - congressional Democrats are understandably eager to shut down the corporate spigot as much as they still can, and as fast as possible.