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Another shock to the Washington system

By Ed Rollins, CNN Senior Political Contributor
  • Ed Rollins says the Supreme Court's ruling on campaigns will have a big impact
  • He says campaign finance rules are dead, for all practical purposes
  • He says corporations and unions will have to disclose their spending for and against candidates
  • Rollins says ruling will encourage more competitive elections

Editor's note: Ed Rollins, a senior political contributor for CNN, is senior presidential fellow at the Kalikow Center for the Study of the American Presidency at Hofstra University. He was White House political director for President Reagan and chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

New York (CNN) -- Still reeling from Tuesday's shocking upset in the Massachusetts Senate race, the political class got hammered again Thursday by the Supreme Court, which, for all practical purposes, outlawed campaign finance rules and made the already irrelevant Federal Election Commission obsolete.

If you believe in free speech and that the First Amendment means what it says, then you will be happy with the Supreme Court's ruling Thursday in a 5 to 4 decision regarding Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.

If you believe that a system of checks and balances that limits how much money a candidate can spend and who can give to that candidate then you won't be happy with Thursday's decision.

For all practical purposes, campaign finance regulation is dead and the way we run campaigns will be altered for the foreseeable future. I assume the Democrats in Congress will try to modify the ruling by attempting to pass new laws. I don't think they will be successful and certainly not before the 2010 midterm elections.

The court overruled decisions it had made 20 years ago and stated that corporations, labor unions and public advocacy groups could spend unlimited funds advocating the election or defeat of candidates for federal office, meaning Congress or the White House.

In 1907, Congress passed the Tillman Act banning corporations from donating money directly to federal candidates. Corporations still won't be able to do that. But what they can do under the court's Thursday ruling is run their own campaigns advocating the election of someone or the defeat of someone. All they have to do is disclose what they are spending and on whom.

Video: Court eases campaign limits

Under the new rules, or more correctly with no rules, you as a voter may have to ask yourself why is the Teamsters Union or Goldman Sachs or some other corporation or labor union spending all this money to defeat or elect this congressman or senator.

That is not a bad thing to know. I believe this will be offset by allowing for more competition and that will be a good thing. Raising money is the most difficult part of running a campaign. Many a good candidate falls short because he or she can't meet the hurdles that have been set up to protect incumbents.

The floodgates for money will obviously be opened by the court's decision and that may give good candidates the opportunity to compete against incumbents who have tremendous government resources that help them run year-round campaigns on taxpayer dollars.

Equally important, it will allow candidates to run effective campaigns against millionaires and billionaires who self-fund their campaigns. Michael Bloomberg recently spent over $108 million of his own money to win his third term as mayor of New York. The recently defeated governor of New Jersey, Jon Corzine, spent over $100 million of his own money in his races.

The court's decision adds another uncertainty to an already nervous Congress and will make some senators and representatives who thought they were election-proof get back out and start listening to their voters. Following Tuesday's upset in Massachusetts, where Democrats lost a Senate seat they had held for 57 years with the election of Scott Brown, many more members now know they are not invincible.

To make our Congress work for us, we have to make it listen to us.

Tuesday's election was the wake-up call and the court's decision will make our system more competitive. A Congress listening to the voters is what will make it relevant to us again. There will certainly be campaign abuses, as there are now, and many will not be happy with the court's ruling, but the full disclosure law lets you know who is doing what and that's a good thing.

Sure, Washington is scrambling to figure out what this all means. But I must agree with Chief Justice John Roberts, who in his own separate opinion, said that upholding the limits would have restrained "the vibrant public discourse that is at the foundation of our democracy."

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ed Rollins.