Legal experts are warning that the public should brace for an unprecedented barrage of harsh attack ads during this year's congressional election season now that the U.S. Supreme Court has erased longstanding limits on corporate and union campaign spending.
One group that hailed the decision, and is already poised to turn that decision into fresh legislative clout is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a powerful lobbying force in Washington that has emerged as one of President Obama's toughest critics.
In recent days, Chamber President Thomas J. Donohue has been preparing members of congress for what he said would be "the largest, most aggressive" campaign effort in the group's 100-year history.
"As Americans choose a new House and senators this fall," Donohue said earlier this month, "the chamber will highlight lawmakers and candidates who support a pro-jobs agenda and hold accountable those who don't."
In practical terms, Thursday's court ruling in the case of Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission unshackles groups such as the Chamber, allowing them to spend as much as they want on television advertising during the closing weeks of the campaign, and letting them directly call for the defeat of a candidate. (Gone will be those oblique ads that urge viewers to "Call your congressman.")"You will see more, sharp-edged, candidate-specific advertising, closer to the elections," predicted Joseph Sandler, an election lawyer who for many years represented the Democratic National Committee. "That will make it more difficult than it already is for members to take tough votes in an election year."
Republicans believe the ruling could help tip the fundraising scales back in their direction, after Democrats took advantage of the internet to help gain a fundraising advantage in the 2008 presidential contest.
Recognizing the potential threat posed by the Chamber and others, lawyers in the White House spent Thursday morning poring over the 176-page opinion, preparing to mount a legislative effort to unwind the court's ruling. Democratic leaders on the Hill were also pledging a major push to dial back the court's action.
Campaign legal experts like Sandler said they were still digesting the decision, but weren't sure Democrats should be so quick to declare the ruling "cataclysmic." For one thing, he noted, the ruling provides the same new freedom to labor unions.
"There will be some balance," Sandler said.
Also, many states already allow this type of corporate and union spending in state-level contests and they have not seen it result in a significant advantage for one party over the other.
Hans von Spakovsky, a former Federal Election Commission member, said critics of the ruling were acting "like Chicken Little."
" The answer to speech that they don't like is not to restrict that speech," he said.
Chamber officials offered no analysis of the ruling, other than to say they were pleased with the outcome.
"We applaud the Court for affirming that our system can only be made stronger through open and honest debate," said Robin Conrad, Executive Vice President of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's National Chamber Litigation Center, in a statement e-mailed to reporters. "The U.S. Chamber is committed to robust and active participation in the political arena."