Thursday's Supreme Court decision lifting restrictions on corporate spending in elections has been widely interpreted as a terrible blow to democracy.
Fred Wertheimer, founder of Democracy 21 and one of the foremost advocates of campaign finance reform, called it "a disaster for the American people and a dark day for the Supreme Court." And President Obama himself said the decision would allow big business to "drown out the voices of everyday Americans."
But some observers say that while the decision is a big deal, it's not going to have the catastrophic impact on upcoming elections that doomsayers expect. Before Thursday, the Federal Election Commission forbade corporations from spending money directly on political advertisements for or against a candidate within 30 days of a primary election or 60 days of a general election. Within that time frame, money for "electioneering communications" had to be funneled through political action committees, which are bound by fundraising restrictions.
Now corporations are free to skip the PACs and advertise for or against candidates as much as they want, whenever they want.
Mark Schmitt, editor of the American Prospect, wrote in a blog post Thursday that the overturned restrictions on corporate spending weren't so restrictive to begin with.
"Corporations can use their political action committees to directly influence election outcomes; they can use their own funds to run ads before the 30- and 60-day pre-election windows; they can say anything they want, at any time about issues," Schmitt wrote. He pointed out that corporate spending on non-candidate-specific issue advertising has been effective in killing health care reform, creating the environment that allowed Republican Scott Brown to win Ted Kennedy's Senate seat in Massachusetts.
This argument does not persuade Wertheimer.
"There's a qualitative difference between spending money on issues and conducting direct campaigns against or for members of Congress," he told HuffPost. "There's simply a qualitative difference between legitimate issue ads and campaign ads. Some groups have been doing sham issue ads that get close to the line, but this creates an open season."
Former FEC chairman Bradley Smith, now chairman of the Center for Competitive Politics, a group that opposes restrictions on campaign finance, said after the ruling that "the idea that corporations are going to devote 10 percent of their profits or something like that to independent political expenditures is just absurd." Smith said that before the McCain-Feingold law banned "soft money," corporations did not use their spending freedom to the extent that critics of the Supreme Court's ruling now say they will.
Others have pointed out that the court did not overturn disclosure and disclaimer requirements. A big corporation might not want its name associated with an attack ad, though it's pretty easy to circumvent disclosure by sending the money over to trade groups like the Chamber of Commerce.
But it's not simply the money itself -- the mere threat of fundraising for a lawmaker's opponent gives lobbyists enormous leverage. As the New York Times's David Kirkpatrick puts it, "If you vote wrong, a lobbyist can now tell any elected official, my company, labor union or interest group will spend unlimited sums explicitly advertising against your re-election." The threat could have a chilling effect on candidates and policymakers.
Fred Wertheimer remains convinced there will be a big change during this year's election season.
"I see no basis to conclude we're not going to see more money spent because of this," he said. "We'll find out soon enough, but my expectation is that it will have an immediate impact in the 2010 elections."
Panicked Democrats are certainly acting under that assumption, as leaders in both houses of Congress are currently weighing several potential legislative responses to the decision, including an amendment to the Constitution.