The newest variety of bundling disclosure

Bundling disclosure has been getting a lot of coverage recently.  Until recently disclosure had typically been aimed only at the contributions that lobbyists arrange for lawmakers.  But Tuesday’s edition of Roll Call mentioned ($) a new variety of bundling disclosure that would include "checks lobbyists arrange for outside political action committees, such as those for EMILY’s List or the National Rifle Association."

So what’s it all about?

As with so many new ideas in the world of campaign finance regulation, it’s about closing a perceived "loophole."  Defending the measure, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) argued:

If we are requiring the disclosure of bundled contributions to political party committees, those same disclosure rules should also apply to contributions to PACs.  Party committees represent all members of that party affiliation.  PACs, on the other hand, represent more narrow, special interests.  Why should the former be exposed to more sunshine, but not the latter?

Rep. Smith surely intended his question to be rhetorical, more "sunshine" being a self-evident good.  But, as we have frequently discussed, disclosure is not always a good thing and there may be good reasons to exempt bundled contributions to PACs from this additional disclosure.

The rationale behind bundling disclosure has typically been that bundling allows lobbyists to receive the same sort of "credit" with lawmakers that they might receive if they were allowed to contribute the money directly.  Disclosure, it is argued, will prevent lawmakers from doling out preferential treatment to successful bundlers by making the "credit" public.  Or, even if it does not prevent it, bundling disclosure is said to make legislators electorally accountable for any preferential treatment.

With that rationale in mind, we return to Rep. Smith’s rhetorical question: why shouldn’t we disclosure bundled contributions to PACs?  One possible reason is lobbyists cannot "corrupt" a PAC.  And even if they could, why should we care?  A PAC for, say, the NRA isn’t in a position to dispense political favors to lobbyists; that danger is unique to office-holders.  Nor do PACs pose any substantial threat of the reformers’ dreaded "circumvention."  PACs are subject to contribution limits that would prevent them from making an attractive conduit for a lobbyist intent on skirting the bundling disclosure rules.  And, in any event, it’s unclear to what extent lobbyists actually bundle contributions to PACs.  As Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) noted, "[Lobbyists] are paid to try and influence legislation before Congress. . . They don’t go register to lobby the NRA PAC or to go lobby an environmental PAC or go lobby a right-to-life PAC."

Too often, when disclosure is being debated, the first question is "why not?"  This approach is backwards.  Everyone, even the oft-maligned lobbyist, is entitled to the presumption that their private political associations are their own business.  Disclosure of any sort has the potential to chill these private acts of political association by forcing them out into the open.  Before we go doing that, we ought to make sure we have a good reason. If there is a compelling reason to disclose bundled contributions to PACs, it is unclear what it might be.  It is certainly not the same justification that applies to contributions to candidates, officeholders, leadership PACs, and political party committees.

The Center for Competitive Politics is now the Institute for Free Speech.