Special Interest Win

Supreme Court Slam-Dunks Campaign-Finance Reform in Montana Case

Nancy Pelosi’s Democrats are furious over the Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling Tuesday in a Montana case, but Obama declined to comment. Eleanor Clift on why campaign finance has so little political resonance.

06.26.12 8:45 AM ET

Democrats have yet another reason to be depressed about the Supreme Court.

In a 5-4 ruling, with all five Republican-appointed justices voting together, the court knocked down a Montana law that would have kept in place long-standing limits in the rural state on political contributions.

Monday’s decision dashed hopes that the court might be willing to reconsider its ruling in the 2010 Citizens United case, which opened the door to unlimited and undisclosed sums of money from outside interests and an array of nonprofit, tax-exempt “social welfare” organizations with thinly concealed ties to the candidates and the two major parties.

Montana’s Democratic governor, Brian Schweitzer, denounced the court for imposing its will on his state, telling MSNBC that “now we have to accept dirty, secret, corporate, and even foreign money.”

Democrats on Capitol Hill also criticized the court ruling, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi resurrected her DARE, an acronym for “disclose, amend, reform, and elect.” Its centerpiece is the DISCLOSE Act, which would lift the veil on all political donations and make donors accountable to the public. The bill passed the House but fell five votes short in the Senate. Pelosi sees the court ruling as a catalyst to rally her members and the public around a constitutional amendment that would overturn Citizens United and put the lid back on special interest money.

Meeting last week in the Capitol with a small group of reporters, Pelosi spoke about her disgust at the process as it has evolved and the implications for democracy when the voices of the many can be drowned out by the checkbooks of the few. Pelosi said the flood of money “suffocates the system” and is a form of “political oppression.” She stopped short of endorsing former Clinton labor secretary Robert Reich’s depiction of the large sums of money, much of it going into negative ads and what Democrats call voter suppression efforts, as “a slow-motion coup.”

“He has that luxury of using such a word,” she said, “but I would just say it undermines our democracy, and that our democracy is at stake in this election if they’re allowed to have money talk in the way that it does without anybody even knowing who the source of that voice is.” Pelosi noted that she had recently been in seven or eight states and in three California cities, and said that wherever she travels, she finds universal revulsion at the unlimited sums of undisclosed money entering politics.

It’s not just from Democrats, she said, recalling the standing ovation she received at the George H.W. Bush Library at Texas A&M, where she was a guest speaker on Presidents' Day and talked of reining in Citizens United.

“People know that this whole thing of poisoning the debate and this horrible misrepresentation of facts and attacks on people, does it attract anybody to the process? Do you want to run? Do you want to vote? Do you want to pay attention? Do you want to turn off your TV?” Pelosi asked.

While a reform agenda appeals to the crowd at the Bush Library, and to Democratic activists scrambling to keep up with Mitt Romney’s seven-figure donors, it has never caught on as a broad campaign issue. “It’s very difficult to get ordinary voters excited about campaign-finance reform,” said Jack Pitney, professor of American politics at Claremont McKenna College. “It’s remote from their lives. If you’re worried about your next house payment, why should you care about the difference between a 501-C4 and a super PAC?”

It’s also hard for voters to apportion political blame. Sure, Republican-appointed justices control the high court, but the public sees President Obama, who blew off public financing limits last time, raising a lot of money. How do they parse the difference, if there is any? The politics are muddied, as are the legalities.

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This past weekend, Romney met with his big donors at a retreat in Park City, Utah. Among them was Karl Rove, who founded Crossroads GPS, which does not disclose its donors and which is injecting tens of millions into Romney’s campaign efforts at the same time it is supposed to be independent of the Romney campaign.

It is a thin line that separates Rove’s organizations and others on both sides of the political divide from the candidate they benefit, as they are for the most part staffed by former aides. Political satirist Stephen Colbert organized his own super PAC earlier this year, calling it “Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow,” and then renaming it “The Definitely Not Coordinating with Stephen Colbert Super PAC.” Colbert shined a spotlight on the campaign-finance system and offered the clearest explanation of how it works, said Pitney, who shows clips from the comedian’s show in his class.

In a week dominated by other major decisions on the Arizona immigration law and, later this week, Obamacare, the Montana decision is getting scant attention. White House spokesman Jay Carney said the president’s views on Citizens United are well known, and Obama didn’t have anything to say about the Montana ruling. As for the political impact, “There’s a lot of big money in politics, from the perspective of ordinary voters, what else is new?” said Pitney.