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Democrats counter court finance ruling

Legislation to target group, corporate campaign spending

By Dan Eggen
Washington Post / April 24, 2010

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WASHINGTON — Democrats are ready to introduce legislation next week that would sharply limit the ability of foreign-connected companies to participate in US politics and would require sweeping disclosures by corporations, unions, and nonprofit groups that pay for political advertising, according to a confidential summary of the bill.

The proposal, spearheaded by Representative Chris Van Hollen of Maryland and Senator Charles Schumer of New York, is aimed at blunting the effect of a Supreme Court ruling this year that permits companies and unions to spend unlimited amounts of money for or against political candidates. President Obama has sharply attacked the ruling, and many Democrats fear it will unleash a flood of corporate spending likely to favor Republicans.

According to a summary obtained by The Washington Post, the legislation would require corporate chief executives or group leaders to attach their approval of ads, much as political candidates are required to do. It would also mandate disclosure of major donors whose money is used for “campaign-related activity.’’

The latter measure would require powerful trade groups such as the US Chamber of Commerce for the first time to identify the companies that fund its political-related spending.

The measure would also tighten political restrictions on foreign-based corporations, which would be defined as any company that has 20 percent foreign voting shares, a majority of foreign directors, or a foreign national leading US operations. If enacted into law, that provision could affect a significant number of familiar companies, including Budweiser, T-Mobile, and Research in Motion.

Other provisions would mandate disclosure of political spending to shareholders or members and would bar federal contractors earning more than $50,000 from participating in federal elections, the summary says.

Even before its formal introduction, the legislation has attracted sharp criticism from many Republicans and corporate groups, who argue that many of the proposals are excessive and are aimed at discouraging organizations from exercising their First Amendment rights.

Nancy McLernon, of the Organization for International Investment, which represents US subsidiaries of foreign-based firms, said the legislation ignores the rights of US citizens who work for firms based overseas.

But Democratic leaders are hoping that GOP opposition will soften in light of the public mood against large corporations, and they announced last week that Representative Michael Castle, a Republican of Delaware, had agreed to be a co-sponsor of the legislation in the House.

In a 5-4 decision in January, the Supreme Court found corporations have the same rights as individuals when it comes to political speech and can use their profits to support or oppose individual candidates, as long as they do not do so in direct coordination with campaigns.

Yesterday, the Republican Party asked the Supreme Court to allow political parties to raise unlimited contributions. The filing sought to undo a 2002 ban on the raising of soft money — unlimited donations from corporations, unions and others — by national party committees.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.