Court changes campaign funding landscape
WASHINGTON, Jan. 21 (UPI) -- The U.S. Supreme Court Thursday ruled 5-4 to overturn restrictions on corporate and union campaign contributions, changing the landscape of political financing.
The 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act forbids corporations and unions from using their general treasury funds to make independent expenditures for an "electioneering communication" or for speech that expressly advocates the election or defeat of a candidate.
Corporations could sill set up a political action committee, but PACs are subject to even more restrictions and disclosures.
The majority said "restrictions on such expenditures are invalid" while overruling an earlier high court precedent and part of another.
"Although the First Amendment provides that 'Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech,'" Justice Antony Kennedy wrote for the majority, the law's "prohibition on corporate independent expenditures is an outright ban on speech, backed by criminal sanctions. It is a ban notwithstanding the fact that a PAC created by a corporation can still speak, for a PAC is a separate association from the corporation. Because speech is an essential mechanism of democracy -- it is the means to hold officials accountable to the people -- political speech must prevail against laws that would suppress it by design or inadvertence."
The court's four-member liberal bloc signed on to parts of the majority opinion, but not the core ruling on corporate contributions.
But only Justice Clarence Thomas dissented in part because the majority did not strike down the laws' requirements for disclosure of campaign donors. Disclosure exposes speakers, he said, and "I cannot endorse a view of the First Amendment that subjects citizens of this Nation to death threats, ruined careers, damaged or defaced property, or pre-emptive and threatening warning letters as the price for engaging in core political speech, the 'primary object of First Amendment protection.'"
The case involved an attack "documentary" called "Hillary: The Movie." The film's backers wanted to make it available as an "on demand" movie on cable television during the 2008 race for the presidency.
But federal courts ruled the movie, financed partly with funds from unnamed corporations, violated the 2002 McCain-Feingold law.
Reactions mixed to campaign finance ruling
WASHINGTON, Jan. 21 (UPI) -- Reactions were mixed Thursday to the U.S. Supreme Court's 5-4 ruling that struck down restrictions on corporate and union political campaign donations.
A conservative non-profit called Citizens United brought the case to the Supreme Court after the lower courts said its documentary, "Hillary: The Movie," was subject to federal restrictions and disclosure laws.
David N. Bossie, president of Citizens United, called the ruling a "tremendous victory."
"Today's U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing Citizens United to air its documentary films and advertisements is a tremendous victory, not only for Citizens United but for every American who desires to participate in the political process," he said in a statement.
Others saw the ruling as a defeat for the public.
Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, said it was time to "shed a tear for democracy."
"Today, in the case Citizens United v. FEC, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that corporations have a First Amendment right to spend unlimited amounts of money to influence election outcomes," Weissman said. "Money from Exxon, Goldman Sachs, Pfizer and the rest of the Fortune 500 is already corroding the policy making process in Washington, state capitals and city halls. Today, the Supreme Court tells these corporate giants that they have a constitutional right to trample our democracy.
"In eviscerating longstanding rules prohibiting corporations from using their own monies to influence elections," he added, "the court invites giant corporations to open up their treasuries to buy election outcomes. Corporations are sure to accept the invitation."
Pelosi: Votes aren't there for healthcare
WASHINGTON, Jan. 21 (UPI) -- U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Thursday she doesn't have the votes to pass the current Senate version of healthcare reform.
Pelosi has been trying to sell the Senate version to reluctant House Democrats so a healthcare bill could be sent to President Barack Obama soon. House liberals have expressed displeasure with the Senate measure and moderates in both chambers have concerns about passing the sweeping legislation without bipartisan support, The Washington Post reported.
"I don't think it's possible to pass the Senate bill in the House," Pelosi, D-Calif., said after meeting with her caucus. "I don't see the votes for it at this time. There are certain things the members simply cannot support."
The only possibility would be for senators to initiate a package of amendments that would address House concerns about their bill, she said. Among other things, Pelosi said members were opposed to a Senate language benefiting only Nebraska's Medicaid system, the level of federal subsidies the Senate would offer uninsured individuals and a provision that would levy a new excise tax on high-value policies.
Republican Scott Brown's victory Tuesday in a special Senate election in Massachusetts sent the White House and congressional leaders scurrying to rethink the scope of the healthcare system overhaul. Brown was elected to fill the seat held for nearly 50 years by the late Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy, stripping the party of its filibuster-proof majority.
Obama seemed to indicate favoring House and Senate votes on a scaled-back version that would retain some popular provisions, The Washington Post reported.
"We know that we need insurance reform, that the health insurance companies are taking advantage of people," Obama told ABC News. "We know that we have to have some form of cost containment because, if we don't, then our budgets are going to blow up. And we know that small businesses are going to need help."
White House spokesman Reid Cherlin said in a statement Obama still wants comprehensive reform.
"(Let's) be clear that the president's preference is to pass a bill that meets the principles he laid out months ago: more stability and security for those who have insurance, affordable coverage options for those who don't, and lower costs for families, businesses and governments," Cherlin said.
Obama seeks new bank restrictions
WASHINGTON, Jan. 21 (UPI) -- U.S. President Barack Obama Thursday proposed new limits on the size and scope of financial institutions to curb excessive risk-taking and protect taxpayers.
The proposals would be in addition to the financial reform package moving through Congress, Obama said in a statement.
"While the financial system is far stronger today than it was one year ago, it is still operating under the exact same rules that led to its near-collapse," Obama said.
Under one proposal, banks no longer could "stray too far from their central mission of serving their customers" by barring them from owning hedge funds or other private equity funds, Obama said.
"When banks benefit from the safety net that taxpayers provide," Obama said, "it is not appropriate for them to turn around and use that cheap money to trade for profit."
The second proposal would limit consolidation in the financial sector.Obama said the long-standing principle of a deposit cap guarding against too much risk concentrated in one bank should be applied to the broader forms of funding used by large financial institutions.
"The American people will not be served by a financial system that comprises just a few massive firms," Obama said. "That's not good for consumers, it's not good for the economy."
He called on congressional members of both parties and the financial industry to work together to achieve financial reform. However, he noted, a campaign against financial reform already has begun.
"If these folks want a fight, this is a fight I'm ready to have," Obama said.
"My resolve to reform the system is only strengthened when I see a return to old practices at some of the very firms fighting reform," Obama said. "It is exactly this kind of irresponsibility that makes clear reform is necessary."
Guantanamo Bay may be used in Haiti effort
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, Jan. 21 (UPI) -- U.S. officials said Guantanamo Bay may be used in humanitarian efforts focused in Haiti in the wake of a devastating earthquake.
Joint Task Force Guantanamo Bay spokeswoman Maj. Diana Haynie said while there has been no official orders regarding a possible "mass migration from Haiti," soldiers at the U.S. base in Cuba have begun setting up beds, tents and toilets, CNN reported Thursday.
"There's no indication of any mass migration from Haiti," Haynie said of the preparations. "We have not been told to conduct migrant operations."
Haynie added the preparations were being conducted "as a prudent measure," since "it takes some time to set things up."
Meanwhile, Gen. Douglas Fraser, commander of U.S. Southern Command, said Guantanamo Bay would serve as an ideal site in the Navy's shipment of supplies to Haiti.
"Guantanamo Bay proves its value as a strategic hub for the movement of supplies and personnel to the affected areas in Haiti," the U.S. military official said.
Officials estimate as many as 200,000 people were killed in the Jan. 12 earthquake. The 7-magnitude quake also left as many as 2 million people without shelter.
Rain, snow, wind pummel SoCal, Arizona
LOS ANGELES, Jan. 21 (UPI) -- People in mudslide-prone areas of Los Angeles were told to sign papers waiving authorities from safety responsibilities if they don't leave, officials said.
California was hit Thursday by the fourth, and possibly worst, storm in a series of storms rolling in from the Pacific Ocean since last weekend, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Since Sunday, the National Weather Service measured more than 4 inches of rain in several inland locations and reported waves of 15-20 feet along the Pacific coast.
People living in areas subject to mudslides were ordered to evacuate, but some chose to stay, prompting officials to seek waivers of safety responsibility, the Times said.
"I'm not going to roll the dice. There's no reason to do that," Barry Powell of Glendale, Calif., told the Times about his decision to leave. "You've got lives involved."
Some of the worst flooding was around San Pedro, south of Los Angeles, officials said. Inland, the string of storms dumped more than 2 feet of snow on some of the mountains of California and Arizona.
Accumulations of up to 7 feet were possible around Flagstaff, Ariz., the Times reported.
Heavy rains also brought flash flood warnings around Phoenix, where 2 to 4 inches of rain were expected in addition to what fell earlier in the week.
In the southern United States, Florida and Georgia were getting belted by storms that hit the West Coast earlier this week, weather watchers said.
Severe thunderstorms were expected to push across southern Alabama, northern Florida and southern Georgia through Thursday night, AccuWeather.com reported. The strongest thunderstorms could be capable of producing powerful winds, hail and lightning.
Strong winds could down trees, cause property damage and overturn semi-trucks, and spawn isolated tornadoes as well, forecasters said.
Heavy rain was forecast over the Tennessee Valley and Carolinas, with the possibility of flash flooding, AccuWeather.com said.
A fast-moving area of low pressure was expected to move through the mid-Atlantic through Friday, forecasters said. Precipitation was expected to be low, with the best chance of snow in Pennsylvania, Maryland and eastern West Virginia.