New Evidence on the Costs of Mandating Disclosure

Over the next few years, most arguments about campaign finance regulation will be about extending mandated disclosure to some of the independent spending freed up by the Citizens United decision.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, James L. Huffman offers a unique perspective on mandated disclosure: he was a candidate for the U.S. Senate last year. He argues that mandated disclosure means incumbents know who funded the campaigns of their challengers.  Incumbents do not have to actually threaten anyone; disclosure plus circumstances means a cautious businessperson will stay clear of electoral participation. Huffman also claims that some people who might have contributed to his campaign heard from associates of his opponent who said contributing to Huffman might be a bad idea.

We have heard such testimony before about the malign effects of disclosure. George Soros said some potential contributors to his efforts to unseat former President George W. Bush stayed on the sidelines because of concerns about publicity (see James V. Grimaldi and Thomas B. Edsall, “Super Rich Step Into Political Vacuum; McCain-Feingold Paved Way for 527s” The Washington Post, October 17, 2004).  Now we have a Senate candidate citing “dozens” of examples of a similar chilling of political speech.

Some might think incumbent protection is no longer a problem since 69 House seats changed hands in 2010 (and a similar number in the two previous House elections). If you think that, please recall that the House has 435 seats, all of which could potentially change hands. Yes, the advantages of incumbency have become somewhat smaller in recent years. But those advantages remain significant, and disclosure does increase the risk of contributing to a challenger, especially when the odds are overwhelming that those now in office will win re-election.

What should be done? Huffman notes that many Americans consider mandated disclosure to be all benefits and no costs. We might begin by gaining a more realistic view of the disclosure calculus. That more realistic view should include the costs of disclosure including lower participation and the ways mandated disclosure make public debates more irrational. At a minimum, existing disclosure thresholds should be dramatically raised. Forcing disclosure of the names of those who contribute less than $1,000 serves no public purpose.

We also should not mandate disclosure of the names of those who support speech independently of candidates and the parties. The only justification for such a mandate would be educating the voters. In other words, voters are thought to look for cues about who to vote for by considering who spends money on speech favoring a candidate. Does that seem plausible? If not, forced disclosure of independent spenders would not be constitutional. If Congress nonetheless enacts disclosure for independent spending, the U.S. Supreme Court should rigorously consider both the end served by such laws and the relationship between the means of disclosure to that end. Does disclosure of independent spending really educate any voters? If so, what about the costs to free speech identified by Professor Huffman? Once we set aside conventional pieties, does forcing people to tell government officials about their political activities really offer much to nation? Or does such coercion do little more than indulge those who equate politics with the pleasures of preaching hatred of those they despise?

Last year I wrote a Cato policy analysis of the justifications for disclosure after Citizens United.