Tag: disclosure

Campaign Finance, Disclosure, and Intimidation

Today Politico Arena asks:

Are conservatives hypocritical to argue for eliminating campaign finance restrictions and disclosure requirements, which they once supported, or does their argument regarding donor harassment carry some weight?

My reply:

Let’s just say that conservatives and libertarians have responded to events. When Obama singles out Romney donors for shame for “betting against America” and implicitly threatens them with investigation and more, when corporations that support the work of the American Legislative Exchange Council are harassed until they withdraw their support, and when petition signers in Los Angeles and Washington State are “outed” and then harassed and threatened by opponents, we’ve reached a new low in our political discourse. It’s not enough to disagree about a political issue: you’ve got to silence and even destroy your opponent.

And for what? So we’ll know that the Koch brothers support Republican candidates and free-market causes, or that George Soros supports Democratic candidates and collectivist causes? As if we didn’t know that already. The rationale for disclosure is as phony as the corruption-prevention rationale for our myriad federal and state campaign finance restrictions. Long before those restrictions were enacted, quid-pro-quo corruption was effectively prohibited by our ordinary laws, as it still is today in about half of our states. In the rest, and at the federal level, restrictions work simply to benefit incumbents and, where disclosure is required, to enable those who are so inclined to harass and intimidate their opponents.

The rationale for the confidentiality of campaign contributions is no less persuasive than the rationale for the secret ballot. Would proponents of disclosure want to eliminate the secret ballot, so we know who’s voting for whom? (There’s an opportunity for intimidation!) Then why treat contributions any differently? Sure, rich people can contribute more than poor people. But for every Wall Street there’s a Hollywood, for every corporation there’s a union (with unique advantages), so no one has a corner of contributors—unless, of course, campaign finance laws rig the game in one direction. And so we’re back to incumbent protection, the dirty little secret of the “reform” game.

A Weak Defense of Disclosure

In an earlier post, I wrote about the problems with the Obama administration’s executive order to force government contractors to reveal their political activity.

The administration defends the mandate by arguing “taxpayers deserve to know how contractors are spending money they’ve earned from the government.”

For the first (and perhaps last) time, I rise to the defense of government contractors. The President apparently believes that anyone who sells a good or service to the government must account for the uses of the money received in the transaction in perpetuity? Obama’s press secretary said the President’s “goal is transparency and accountability. That’s the responsible thing to do when you’re handling taxpayer dollars.”

I do not understand this. The government extracts taxes and spends the money. Indeed, government officials should be accountable for that spending. But once the exchange is made, the money belongs to a private firm. It is no longer the property of the taxpayers.  Perhaps the use of a firm’s money should be disclosed, but you need a different argument to justify that mandate. The President seems to be proposing that anyone who does business with the government may have to account for the money they earn in those transactions. That assertion strikes me as a real expansion of government power.

The most troubling part of all this remains the President’s view that he can enact this mandate through an executive order. Americans should be wondering why a rule rejected by Congress can simply be enacted by fiat by the President. The President does not enjoy the power of a king, does he?

The President’s gambit may be in trouble. Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine, is questioning the content of the decree. I am glad she is concerned about the First Amendment. I would be happier if she questioned the Obama-Bush conception of executive power that informs this effort.

Discouraging Speech through Disclosure

David Price, a Democratic member of the House of Representatives from North Carolina, has introduced a bill, the Stand by Every Ad Act,  to mandate disclosure of support for political speech by business and union officials.

Rep. Price cites three harms from such speech: “the opportunity for corporations, unions and associations to dominate the playing field, intimidating public officials and drowning out the candidates’ own messages.”

Notice that these alleged harms are caused by the speech itself and not by the fact that the speech might be anonymous. Notice also that Rep. Price provides no evidence at all that such harms will take place. Where would such evidence be found? Prior to McCain-Feingold, corporations and unions could fund speech. Several states also have permitted independent corporate expenditures. What happened in those years or those states to support Rep. Price’s extreme claims?

It is striking that two of the three harms cited by Rep. Price concern only members of Congress. He claims members will be intimidated or have their “own messages” drowned out. What Rep. Price does not say is how these problems for members of Congress would translate into problems for voters.  Of course, such arguments about the welfare of voters exist, but they are not obvious to most people. Rep. Price, however, saw no need to make the connection between an alleged harm done to a member and the interests of voters.  His argument is centered on the interests and concerns of incumbent members of Congress.  Apparently members consider first their own interests in thinking about campaign finance regulations.

Rep. Price also ignores the fact that voters are likely to receive more information about candidates for office after Citizens United since the hand of the censor has been lifted.

Rep. Price clearly believes mandated disclosure by business and union leaders will effectively discourage them from speaking out during elections.  Given that motivation behind the new disclosures laws, at what point does mandated disclosure translate into chilled speech?

One other disturbing part of Rep. Price’s case for his bill: he hopes to extend disclosure to the Internet.  Of course, disclosure of Internet speech may well lead to other restrictions on speech online.