The court's ruling Thursday lets corporate America start advertising candidates much as they market products and tell viewers to vote for or against them. While it almost certainly will lead to a barrage of hard-hitting TV ads in the 2010 elections, its implications reach far beyond that.
The ruling was a victory for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the AFL-CIO, the National Rifle Association and other interest groups most likely to run ads with money from their treasuries. It's unlikely major corporations would want their name on an ad, but they can avoid that by giving money to interest groups, who would then run ads and disclose the spending under the groups' names. It also presents a new option to wealthy individuals who were allowed to spend millions on their own to run election-time candidate ads before, but now can join forces to do so and get more bang for their bucks.
The court's 5-4 opinion represents the latest development in the cycle of scandal-law-loophole that has typified the United States' approach to campaign finance regulation.
From the corporate titans of the early 20th century bribing candidates, to Watergate in the 1970s, Democratic fundraising scandals during the Clinton years in the 1990s and most recently, the Jack Abramoff influence-peddling case, Congress has periodically tried to rein in political spending only to have loopholes emerge or political players mount successful constitutional challenges to the rules.
The court seemed to sweep those concerns aside, saying that it doubted election-time ads could lead to the corruption of lawmakers and that in any case, proponents of the ban hadn't provided any proof of corruption.
Campaign finance watchdogs predict members of Congress now will cast their votes on controversial legislation with an eye to whether their position on it risks inviting a barrage of special-interest ads against them before the election, or on the flip side, could draw outside spending favorable to them.
"I just think the court got it dead wrong if it thinks that a $10 million expenditure in a campaign can't buy influence of a corrupting nature the same way that a $10 million contribution can," said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, who pressed for the ban on election-season corporate- and union-financed ads that the court swept away.
For those like Wertheimer who believe the threat of corruption justifies restrictions on campaign money, it could get even worse.
Heartened by the court's view that corporations have the same free-speech rights as citizens, opponents of campaign finance restrictions think the time is ripe to press the justices to go still further and do something not allowed since the robber-baron bribery scandals of a century ago: let corporations and unions give money directly to candidates.
"If all speakers are going to be treated the same, why wouldn't a corporation be able to make a contribution to a candidate" just as individuals and political action committees can? asked Jim Bopp, a conservative lawyer involved in several lawsuits that have scaled back campaign finance rules over the past few years, including the one decided Thursday.
Bopp thinks the conservative-leaning court might even go for a case arguing that donors should be able to give as much money as they want to a candidate: "You certainly have some justices who say that the contribution limits cannot be imposed at all."
The ruling could bring more than office politics to the workplace. Bopp reads it to permit corporations and unions to speak freely about elections to employees and authorize partisan politicking on their property, rather than stop at simply encouraging workers to vote, as they've had to do until now.
Just as opponents of campaign finance regulation are considering further challenges, campaign finance watchdogs and their allies in Congress plan to pursue legislation to try to deal with Wednesday's ruling. What they could do to restrict corporate and union campaign ads after the nation's highest court called a ban unconstitutional is unclear.
And in the middle of it all are voters, the people whose opinions the new spending will seek to influence.
The court seemed to agree with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's contention that voters want more election ads and that they are craving the viewpoints and information that will be presented in them.
But if the country's experience in the years before the McCain-Feingold law, when corporations and unions poured millions of dollars into election-time ads that targeted candidates but stopped short of calling for their election or defeat, is any indication, much of the new ad spending will likely be aimed at turning voters against a particular candidate, rather than urging them to vote for one.
That may please voters who do not like the candidate anyway, but it could turn off some voters so much they tune out. Getting key voting blocs to stay home on Election Day can be as important as getting voters to turn out.
The ruling leaves intact major parts of a hard-won 2002 campaign finance law, but it is unclear what will happen with those in coming months. That is the McCain-Feingold law, named after its sponsors, Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russ Feingold, D-Wis.
The Republican National Committee is challenging one of the law's pillars, a ban on corporate and union donations to political parties.