The New Vehicle of Choice

A National Journal column published this week worries over the growing trend of 501(c)4 organizations – which unlike 527’s, can, for the most part, avoid disclosure if they avoid express advocacy – as the communication vehicle of choice for those that want to speak out during the 2008 election.

The column includes the usual criticism that 527s, and now 501(c)4s, use "unregulated money" to make "an end run around" BCRA. But this column goes further, suggesting that it all is a "dangerous trend, exacerbated by dwindling judicial and federal restraints."

Less than clear is what is dangerous about the trend.

The column alleges that "the problem for campaign finance regulators — and voters — is that so-called issue ads, which are protected by the First Amendment, can be tough to distinguish from election ads, which are subject to regulation."

Why this is a "problem" for voters is not entirely clear. The implied "problem" for regulators is more clear – they have a difficult time policing political speech when they are unable to discern police-able speech from speech that can remain free of any government interference. Of course, those who prefer not to live in an Orwellian world are thankful for this "problem" and can only hope that one day more political speech is freed of government regulations.

Even the column, despite its disdain for outside spending, recognizes what drives them:

"It’s little wonder that interest groups are weighing in. Activists on both sides of the aisle are fired up over high-stakes issues: the war in Iraq, the economy, health care and environmental policy."

But, the column continues, "as interest group spending escalates, so does the secrecy that surrounds it. The more that political activists rely on 501(c)4 groups, the less voters will know about who’s paying for this election."

The underlying belief in the column is that disclosure for disclosure’s sake is a good thing. But as CCP has written before, "Too often, when disclosure is being debated, the first question is ‘why not?’  This approach is backwards."

Again from a previous CCP post: "In the end, we think elections would be better if less attention were given to who paid for what, and more attention were given to what candidates actually think and propose to do in office.  And while we believe that in some cases disclosure can provide a valuable check on government, we are nervous when it is embraced without much thought.  Disclosure is not always good for what ails ya, it does come with a price in loss of privacy, and paying too much attention to names, rather than issues, can sometimes even make us less informed."

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