The House on Thursday voted to prevent the Justice Department from enforcing certain advertising restrictions in campaign finance law.
The vote came one month after the Supreme Court loosened some of the legal barriers that Congress had placed on corporate- and union-financed television ads.
The 215-205 vote would prevent criminal enforcement of any of the law’s advertising provisions. It would not affect any civil penalties imposed against violators by the Federal Election Commission. Most campaign finance infractions are handled by the FEC.
The prohibition on criminal enforcement was added to a spending bill that finances the Commerce and Justice departments as well as some other federal agencies. The Senate has not acted on its version of the spending bill and advocates of strict campaign finance laws vowed to kill the House provision there.
At issue are restrictions in the 2002 campaign finance act that banned corporations and unions from paying for political “issue ads” that mentioned a candidates for federal office within 60 days of a federal election and 30 days of a primary or caucus.
“We should not allow criminal penalties to be imposed on citizens for engaging in protected speech,” said Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., who prompted Thursday’s vote.
Conservatives have long been critics of restrictions on campaign finance, saying they inhibit freedom of speech. Some liberal-leaning organizations and labor unions have also objected to the advertising restrictions.
The Supreme Court ruled that the law unconstitutionally prohibited certain issue ads, even if they named candidates for federal office. The Federal Election Commission is taking steps to devise new regulations that would comply with the court’s ruling.
Campaign watchdog groups objected to Pence’s amendment, arguing that the Supreme Court did not declare all restrictions on electioneering communications unconstitutional.
“What Representative Pence has done is say, ‘we will not fund the Justice Department to carry out its obligations to enforce the existing laws of the land,’” said Fred Wertheimer, president of the advocacy group Democracy 21. “It’s irresponsible and it’s wrong.”