In his State of the Union address to Congress Wednesday night, President Barack Obama took an unprecedented swipe at the U.S. Supreme Court, sharply criticizing its ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.
Obama claimed that “the Supreme Court reversed a century of law to open the floodgates for special interests — including foreign contributions — to spend without limit in our elections.” Obama added that he doesn’t “think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities.”
However, the decision by the Supreme Court, which affirmed the right of advocacy groups, businesses and unions to spend independently on political speech, does not change existing federal law barring political contributions and expenditures by foreign nationals.
As five Supreme Court Justices watched stone-faced, Justice Samuel Alito shook his head and seemed to say, “Not true, not true.”
“The President’s swipe at the Supreme Court was a breach of decorum, and represents the worst of Washington politics — scapegoating ‘special interest’ bogeymen for all that ails Washington in an attempt to silence the diverse range of speakers in our democracy,” said Bradley A. Smith, chairman of the Center for Competitive Politics.
Smith, a former FEC Chairman, detailed how foreign nationals are already prohibited from participating in American campaigns:
… the definition of foreign national also includes non-resident aliens. And the FEC’s regulations [11 CFR 110.20(i)] provide that:
A foreign national shall not direct, dictate, control, or directly or indirectly participate in the decision making process of any person, such as a corporation, labor organization, political committee, or poltiical organization with regard to such person’s Federal or non-Federal election-related activities, such as decisions concerning the making of contributions, donations, expenditures, or disbursements in connection with elections for any Federal, State, or local office or decisions concerning the administration of a political committee.
The New York Times noted that “[t]he president appeared to have mischaracterized the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn restrictions on corporate-paid political commercials by suggesting that the decision invited political advertisements by foreign companies, too.” PolitiFact.com posted an item headlined “Why Alito shook his head: Obama exaggerates impact of Supreme Court ruling on foreign companies,” determining Obama’s comments to be “barely true.”
The President also said that “[l]ast week, the Supreme Court reversed a century of law…” But it didn’t. The Court reversed a twenty-year old opinion that could not be reconciled with the balance of campaign finance cases.
“Multinational corporations and established interests can afford to establish political action committees, hire campaign finance lawyers, and hire an army of lobbyists in Washington,” Smith said. “Citizens United allows all grassroots groups and companies to speak out in the political debate, rather than allowing large corporations and beltway interests to dominate our republic.”
House and Senate committees will hold hearings next week to consider a potential legislative response to the Citizens United decision.
Obama also proposed further punitive curbs on registered lobbyists, which have already caused thousands of lobbyists to deregister in response. In his remarks Wednesday, Obama proposed requiring lobbyists to disclose each contact they make with administration or congressional officials as well as “strict limits” on contributions to federal candidates.
“Further restricting the First Amendment rights of those who petition the government on behalf of clients — public-interest groups, small businesses owners and unions — will not enhance our democracy, it will stifle the voices of Americans outside Washington from complex policy debates,” Smith said.
Note: This post has been updated to add and clarify content.