Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Campaign-finance disclosure rules have encouraged harassment of donors and coarsened public debate.

See Wall Street Journal March 10, 2010 Notable and Quotable at

Notable & Quotable
Former Federal Election Commissioner Bradley A. Smith on campaign-finance disclosure rules.

"Campaign-finance disclosure rules have encouraged harassment of donors and coarsened public debate.

Imagine if the George W. Bush administration, in its waning days, had introduced something called the Patriot II Act. To prevent terrorists and foreign agents from influencing American governments and political parties, the act would require political campaigns and other groups to report the names, addresses, and employers of their supporters to the federal government, which would enter the information into a database. The act would also give businesses access to this database, enabling them to make hiring decisions, credit determinations, and other choices based on political activity. Can anyone doubt that Patriot II would be widely considered a gross violation of civil liberties?

Fortunately, the government never passed such a bill. Unfortunately, it didn't need to: this is already the law, and it has been for over 30 years. It is, in fact, one of the most popular laws in America: the Federal Election Campaign Act, which does indeed require campaigns, political parties, and certain citizens' groups engaged in politics to report the names, addresses, and employment information of their financial supporters. This information is maintained in a government database that is available to anyone—businesses, union bosses, local officials, nosy neighbors, and whoever else might be curious about somebody's politics.

The idea of limiting financial support of politics remains deeply controversial, even seven years after the passage of the so-called McCain-Feingold bill, which extended many of the Federal Election Campaign Act's limitations on contributions to previously unregulated political activities. Yet even the most ardent opponents of McCain-Feingold seldom question the disclosure requirements of the original 1972 act. So widely accepted is the idea that campaign contributions and personal information about donors ought to be public that many people don't even consider it regulation. When the First Amendment counsel for the ACLU, the late Marv Johnson, met in 2006 with a prominent congressional reformer to argue against a proposal to regulate grassroots political activity, he was assured that no new "regulation" was contemplated—"just disclosure."

But it's far from clear that the forced disclosure of political contributions has benefited society. Disclosure has resulted in government-enabled invasions of privacy—and sometimes outright harassment—and it has added to a political climate in which candidates are judged by their funders rather than their ideas."

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