Sen. Al Franken engaged in a fairly high-brow tussle over election law with a former chair of the FEC at a committee hearing this morning – a disagreement that prompted the one-time official to accuse Franken of “showmanship.”
The Judiciary Committee hearing focused on the impact of the Supreme Court’s recent “Citizens United” decision, which gave corporations new freedoms to inject money and influence into politics. Franken introduced a response bill this January that bars companies from political spending if, among other things, a foreign entity controls 20 percent of their business.
In written testimony, former FEC chair Bradley Smith, now with the Center for Competitive Politics, said that such a provision would unfairly allow a “non-controlling [foreign] shareholder” to limit American political spending. Smith is supportive of the Citizens United decision and is described by the New York Timesa as a "leading legal critic of campaign-finance rules."
Franken took issue with Smith’s classification of a 20 percent shareholder as “non-controlling,” and countered that almost all state laws which define corporate control classify it as 20 percent or less.
(The ensuing argument is complicated, but it boils down to Smith saying that state laws defining corporate control are irrelevant to their discussion. Franken contends that they are relevant since, due to Citizens United, lawmakers will have to define what constitutes a “controlling” shareholder in terms of federal election spending.)
The tone of the discussion escalated when Franken began asking for “yes or no” answers (a tactic that has led to heated exchanges in the past).
Franken: “So let’s look at how states define a controlling shareholder. Yes or no, please. Do you know how Delaware, the leading state for corporate law, defines a controlling shareholder?”
Smith: “No I don’t, nor do I think it is relevant to the question of whether it is control.”
Franken: “I asked you to respond yes or no sir, and you said no.”
Smith: “The question is whether you actually want serious answers or whether you’re engaged in a little showmanship. If it’s the latter, I’ll accept that.”
Committee chairman Pat Leahy Interjected: "All right, Mr. Smith, that ranks with your put down of the Vermont legislature."
Leahy was referencing Smith's other off-script moment of the morning, when he argued with Leahy over whether the Vermont Legislature “freaked out” over the Citizens United case. Leahy slapped down Smith's suggestion. “I think I understand it a heck of lot better than you,” he said of the legislature.
Video of the exchange is here, around minute 100.