Commentary

Gore’s Secret Donors

A recent New York Times story brings news of Vice President Gore’s evolving views on campaign finance regulation: “Peter Knight, Mr. Gore’s chief fund-raiser, said some of the money for the Gore recount fund had come from large donations by wealthy people, but he declined to name them.”

You may recall that we had a modest debate this past summer about the role of undisclosed contributions to so-called 527 groups. Such groups raised funds from anonymous contributors to support issues ads during this year’s elections.

You may also recall the avalanche of attacks on such anonymous fundraising.

  • The Washington Post called for complete disclosure and suggested defenders of anonymous giving were “in love with the dark.”
  • Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.) noted that secret contributions were the latest source of corruption in politics, a “dangerous invitation to scandal.”
  • Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas), sponsor of a bill to force disclosure of 527 contributions, argued that “our political system is being polluted with substantial amounts of secret contributions and secret expenditures used to attack candidates.”
  • The editorial writers of the New York Times decried 527 groups as “shadowy tax-exempt organizations that are secretly raising and spending unlimited sums of money to influence federal elections.”
  • Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) equated the secretive activities of some 527 groups to “certain evils in our society,” including murder, rape and robbery.

Indeed, Gore himself called for disclosure of the officers and finances of Section 527 organizations as part of his proposal for new regulations on campaign finance. Gore called such groups “the equivalent of Swiss bank accounts for campaigns.” Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) introduced a disclosure bill for 527 groups. And that leading expert in political ethics, Rep. Patrick Kennedy, affirmed, “The only issue that matters is where the money is coming from. That’s the main public interest here.”

This hysteria — and what else to call a period when funding issue ads is compared to murder, rape, and robbery? — led to a law requiring disclosure of contributions by 527 groups.

At that time many across the political spectrum raised doubts about disclosing contributions from 527 groups. They worried whether disclosing contributions would chill freedom of speech and association. They noted that anonymous giving protects the privacy of the contributor, thereby precluding retribution by political enemies. And they recalled Justice Harlan’s admonishment, “Inviolability of privacy in group association may in many circumstances be indispensable to preservation of freedom of association, particularly where a group espouses dissident beliefs.”

Gore and his contributors now seem to recognize the value of anonymous giving, as well they might. Imagine a wealthy individual committed to Gore and willing to support his bid for a recount. Let’s say he learns that his contribution will be disclosed. Here are the questions crossing his mind: If Bush wins the presidency, will I be the target of political retribution? Will that deal with my Republican business partners still go through? Will my name be published in the newspaper? Clearly disclosure would have a chilling effect.

Gore may yet disclose the contributors to his recount fund. After all, he has enough public relations problems at the moment without charges of hypocrisy. But advocates of campaign finance regulation should be demanding full disclosure right now. If anonymous giving is as much of a threat to American democracy as they and Gore said last summer, any secret giving — especially by wealthy individuals — should be immediately brought into the sunlight to ward off corruption in the struggle for Florida. (Can we look forward to a New York Times editorial demanding disclosure of the sources of the recount fund?)

I believe Gore’s donors have a right to contribute anonymously to his efforts in Florida. Privacy of association and protection from retribution for political commitments are important American values. What I can’t stomach is a double standard on the part of campaign finance reformers who brayed about 527s but thus far have been silent about Gore’s secret donors.

John Samples is director of the Center for Representative Government at the Cato Institute.