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Opposing Views Of Campaign Finance Decision

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Im Madeleine Brand in California.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And Im Melissa Block in Washington, where today the Supreme Court created what one veteran court watcher calls a small revolution in campaign finance law. In a sweeping ruling, the court said corporations can spend freely on political campaigns. The justices ruled five-to-four, striking down limits that have been in place for decades. The decision also struck down part of the McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Law from 2002.

We're going to hear two points of view now. In a moment, a longtime advocate of campaign finance reform, Fred Wertheimer. But, first, to Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House. He's an opponent of campaign finance reform. And, Mr. Gingrich, would it be fair to say you are elated by today's Supreme Court ruling?

Mr. NEWT GINGRICH (Former Speaker of the House): Well, Im delighted. And I think I would say that the real campaign finance reform under our Constitution would be to allow anyone to give unlimited amounts of after-tax money, with the understanding that they would file every night on the Internet what they're spending and how they're spending it, so everybody could see who was involved.

But the convoluted, very complex system that we built over the last 30 years has primarily been anti-middle class. It's been anti-middle class candidates. If you're going to retain constitutional freedom and allow people to criticize their politicians effectively and allow them to be engaged effectively, I think you want to really be engaged in allowing the maximum of resources to be in politics, not the minimum.

I think the fundamental underlying model of bureaucratic finance reform has been wrong. And it's not that Im against reform, but the reform we need is to liberate the American people to criticize their politicians.

BLOCK: And you say that liberation would mean no restrictions on campaign funding at all.

Mr. GINGRICH: I think as long as it's after tax money and as long as it's filed every night after the - on the Internet, that it would be actually very, very helpful.

BLOCK: You say that campaign finance restrictions are anti-middle-class. Im curious how you see this ruling as helping the middle class, as opposed to giving a lot more power to big business. The president said today this is a major victory for powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans.

Mr. GINGRICH: Well, the president was elected in part by labor unions who massed their resources of people, who have no choice but to have their money taken out of their dues. The president spent money that was donated through to a variety of organizations, including MoveOn.org, by very, very rich people.

Now, all Im saying is you as a citizen ought to the right to complain about your incumbent congressman, or your incumbent senator, or your incumbent president - and you should not be constrained by the government, you should not risk criminal proceedings. And thats what the Founding Fathers wrote. Thats why the First Amendment has the right of free speech and it has been I think stunningly perverted by the kind of regulations we've had over the last 30 years, and theyve been profoundly wrong.

BLOCK: You're saying that this ruling affects the average citizen expressing his or her voice, as opposed to corporations being allowed to spend freely.

Mr. GINGRICH: Im saying that it allows you to have a middle-class candidate go out and find allies and supporters who are able to help them match the rich. And able to help them match the incumbent. Remember, incumbents run with millions of dollars in congressional staff, congressional franking, congressional travel. And they have all the advantages of being able to issue statements from their incumbent office. And the challenger - the person out there who's the citizen who's rebelling, who wants to change things - is at an enormous disadvantage in taking on incumbents.

This will, in fact, level the playing field and allow middle-class candidates to begin to have an opportunity to raise the resources to take on the powerful and the rich.

BLOCK: Mr. Gingrich, when you bowed out of the presidential race in 2007, you mentioned McCain-Feingold as a reason. You said it penalizes being a citizen, that you couldnt campaign and at the same time run your group, American Solutions.

Do you think this ruling today changes that? And does that mean you might be a candidate in 2012?

Mr. GINGRICH: I actually dont know yet. Our attorneys are looking at the ruling, but it's a pretty long ruling and they haven't figured out what it means. But this is a different setting than 2008 and we would certainly look at it in a different way.

I do think this ruling makes it easier for, you know, pro free enterprise conservatives who are critical of government to acquire the resources to take on very, very wealthy liberals who want to buy seats.

BLOCK: And would that include you? Are you now thinking more seriously about a campaign?

Mr. GINGRICH: I might. We have to wait and see. If there's a movement for real change and if there's a real sense that we can recruit candidates at every level to change things, then (unintelligible), I would certainly have to look at it very seriously..

BLOCK: Newt Gingrich, thank you.

Mr. GINGRICH: Thank you.

BLOCK: Republican Newt Gingrich is former speaker of the House. He now chairs the group American Solutions, a conservative political advocacy organization.

And now we're joined by Fred Wertheimer, founder and president of the non-profit group Democracy 21, which is dedicated to campaign finance reform.

Fred Wertheimer, Newt Gingrich just now described his reaction to the ruling today as delighted. Whats yours?

Mr. FRED WERTHEIMER (Founder/President, Democracy 21): Well, my reaction is that this is an absolute disaster for the American people. With the stroke of a pen, five justices just wiped out a century of American history. I am anything but pleased with this decision. This is the most radical and destructive campaign finance decision in the history of the Supreme Court.

BLOCK: We just heard Newt Gingrich saying that the system as it is now is broken. And that if anything, it's anti-middle class the way it is now. That this ruling, in his view, levels the playing field for middle-class candidates, not for billionaires who can self-finance their campaign.

What do you make of that argument?

Mr. WERTHEIMER: Well, I think I start off from the standpoint of citizens and the idea that this levels the playing field for citizens is dead wrong. What this decision means is major banks, major insurance companies, major drug companies, major energy companies can spend five or $10 million or more directly to elect or defeat a federal candidate.

Now, what that means is a member of Congress or a candidate that is sitting there, knowing that if they vote against the interests of these major corporations, they will be blown out of the water by expensive campaigns the likes of which we have never seen.

BLOCK: The court's ruling today, though, doesnt apply just to corporations, right? Labor unions would also now be free to spend too.

Mr. WERTHEIMER: It applies to labor unions, and they will have similar opportunities to exercise influence buying corruption. But of course the labor unions simply are in a different world than corporations when it comes to the assets they have available. Labor unions are tiny compared to the corporate interests in this country and the assets they hold.

You know, the court reversed decisions from 1990, 2003 and 2007 without any changed circumstances to justify these abrupt reversals. The only change we've had is in the makeup of the court, and the Supreme Court is not supposed to issue decisions based on who happens to be on the Supreme Court for the moment. If thats the case, we will just have to wait till one of these justices leaves the court, and then assume we can get back the century-old history that has upheld these protections against corruption.

BLOCK: What do you expect to be emerging from Congress in the form of legislation that might blunt the impact of this ruling on campaign finance?

Mr. WERTHEIMER: Well, we want to see Congress explore all options to see what can be done to re-impose some restrictions on corporations and labor unions, in their efforts to spend money in federal campaigns.

This opinion will not stand the test of time or history, in my judgment. It simply will not. It is alien to everything that has come before it for the last century and beyond. And it is completely inconsistent with the interest of the American people in having a government free from corruption.

BLOCK: Fred Wertheimer is founder and president of the non-profit group Democracy 21. Mr. Wertheimer, thank you.

Mr. WERTHEIMER: Thank you.

BLOCK: And at our Web site you can find analysis of today's Court decision, along with a timeline tracing the evolution of campaign finance law. Thats at NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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