Less Redress, More Grievances

The first bill proposed in the U.S. Senate in the new session of Congress attacks freedom of speech.

Some organizations use direct mail and other means to urge the public to contact members of Congress on a variety of issues. Currently some of those groups do not have to disclose those efforts to prompt public input.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) is not happy with such freedom from regulation. He has proposed that such organizations should be forced to disclose these efforts if they spend more than $25,000 a quarter and do not have a dues-paying membership (see S1, Sec. 220).

According to CQ Today, Lieberman’s spokeswomen said, “There’s nothing in this measure that will stop, deter or inhibit anyone from petitioning the government.” If that were true, no one in Congress would support Lieberman’s proposal. Congress passes restrictions on First Amendment rights primarily to discourage political activity, thereby increasing the discretion of a member while decreasing their accountability.

This particular measure imposes new costs on the groups who exercise their First Amendment rights. It will also expose the groups and their supporters to abuse and attacks in the political arena. Both costs increase the price of petitioning the government for redress of grievances and thereby reduce its likelihood.

Is Lieberman’s bill constitutional? The U.S. Supreme Court has said that mandatory disclosure of activities tied to First Amendment rights (like say, “the right to petition the government for redress of grievances”) may be justified to prevent corruption (or its appearance) and to inform the public better about candidates or legislation. The groups give money to the U.S. Post Office or other direct mailers, not to members of Congress or other policymakers. Hence, quid-pro-quo corruption is not at issue here. The groups are also informing the public about issues and urging them to contact Congress. How any of this constitutes the “appearance of corruption” is anyone’s guess.

I suspect the traditional justifications for mandatory disclosure do not matter much here. No one seriously believes these direct mail campaigns corrupt politics. Members of Congress no doubt believe that these direct mail groups have more influence than they should have. In particular, members of the new majority running the Senate may believe the direct mail efforts to foster contacts with Congress give “undue influence” to their conservative opponents. Hence, Sen. Lieberman comes up with a bill to throw some sand in the gears of the conservative political machine.

If you ever doubt why the First Amendment exists, consider this: the first thing mild-mannered Joe Lieberman did when a new majority took control of the Senate was to attack the constitutional rights of those who disagree with him.