Will companies go wild on campaign spending?

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When it comes to spending big money on national elections, the rhetoric goes, corporations are about to walk through the swinging saloon doors of a new era in campaign finance with their checkbook holsters packed and ready for a Wild West-like shootout.

Can you imagine the cries of "Yee haw!" from the executive suites over at Disney, Darden or Harris Corp. as they lock and load funds straight from the corporate treasuries and prepare to fire with expensive television advertisements for or against candidates?

Hardly.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruling last week that opens the door for more direct spending by corporations in federal elections likely will be felt more like the sting of a BB than the merciless piercing of big ammunition.

Let's take a look at why:

What (didn't) happen in 2008. Back in 2007 the U.S. Supreme Court decided a case known as Federal Election Commission v. Wisconsin Right to Life Inc. That case overturned some of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reforms and allowed corporations to run ads in the days and weeks before an election, as long as they didn't explicitly urge people to vote for or against a candidate, said Columbia Law School professor Nathaniel Persily. The ads could, however, say things like, "Call Congressman (fill in the blank) and tell him his policies are killing America."

That should have paved the way for corporations to let loose during President Barack Obama's race against John McCain in 2008, but they didn't. The idea that the "floodgates" are now open as a result of the court's decision last week in the Citizens United case (which allows ads to actually urge voting for or against a candidate) is exaggerated, Persily said.

"The truth is the floodgates were already pretty much open," he said. "That did not happen in 2008."

The ever-important brand image. None of the corporations I phoned this week to ask how the ruling may affect them wanted to talk about it. Either they didn't respond to my inquiry or gave the old, reliable "no comment." That should be an indication that most companies don't want to be associated with big campaign spending. Why alienate potential customers? That doesn't mean they don't give. Anyone who takes the time to search one of a number of free online databases can find out how much Darden CEO Clarence Otis, for example, gave to Gov. Charlie Crist or Kendrick Meek's campaigns for U.S. Senate (he's hedging his bets with $2,400 to each man). But the kind of spending the new ruling allows means that a company could run ads (which must be done independently of the candidates) and they would be labeled as paid for by the company that bought them. My guess is most companies won't want that exposure, which is far more brazen than records buried in a database.

Florida as a test case. Here in Florida the laws already allow corporations to participate directly in state elections with independent ad buys and even go further than last week's court ruling because they allow companies to contribute directly to candidates. They are subject to the same $500 limit as individuals. Contributions to the parties are unlimited. Still, big spending by corporations via independent ad buys, also permitted in Florida, is not prevalent.

"I guarantee our elections are as rough as they come," said Tallahassee election law attorney John French. "If corporations aren't stepping out here, they won't in other states."

Jeff Milyo, an economist at the University of Missouri, has studied states with strict campaign finance laws and those with only minimal rules. For the most part, he said, there's little difference when it comes to the competitiveness of elections, voter turnout or — the reason these laws are in place to begin with — corruption.

"The lesson from the evidence that we have is that reforms in general tend to have little to no effect," he said. "For that reason, I'm skeptical that the decision last week was some sort of earthquake in American politics."

That is not to say that there won't be changes as a result from the ruling. And the potential for a big influx of money from unions and corporations is certainly there and happens to come at a time when some industries feel they are facing more regulation than ever by the federal government in the wake of the recession and bailouts.

But the idea that companies are going to come out with barrels blazing is full of holes.

Beth Kassab can be reached at bkassab@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5448. Read her blog at OrlandoSentinel.com/thebottomline.
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