Money in Politics is Only Dangerous to Incumbents

Today CCP President David Keating testified before the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration (video included).  The hearing, which discussed S. 2219, is the most recent effort by the reform community to expand non-profit disclosure requirements.

This latest effort comes on the heels of a number of previous attempts to dramatically expand the amount of information reported by the non-profit community.  Like most of the previous attempts to enact some form of the DISCLOSE Act, the measures contained in the bill overstep the bounds of what is necessary to prevent corruption.

If enacted in its current form, the bill would dramatically alter the fundraising and public advocacy efforts of nonprofits.   Under the proposed law, donors cannot both keep their membership payments and donations private while still contributing to a group’s general fund.  In other words, donors would have to choose between rights guaranteed under Citizens United or the protection of their identities guaranteed in NAACP v. Alabama when making donations.

This is a difficult choice the reform movement is asking donors to make.  At the hearing, Fred Wertheimer (President of Democracy21) said that secret money in American politics is dangerous money, and that citizens are entitled to know who is spending to influence their elections.

The real question is this: if you manage to become convinced that secret money is indeed dangerous, who exactly is in danger? If one rejects the notion that Americans are simpletons incapable of judging a political message on its merits, then the danger clearly lies with incumbent members who fear the message.

Along the same lines, Senator Lamar Alexander pointed out that by substantially increasing contribution limits, candidates for office would wrest control of the political message from outside groups.  While we at CCP support raising contribution limits, we do not do so to deliver control of the political speech back into the hands of politicians at the expense of other political actors.  We reject what seemed to be the overall sentiment at the hearing: namely,  that politics needs to return to business as usual with control of the system vested in incumbents and their regulators.

Senator Alexander pointed out in his opening statement that disclosure is not in the Constitution, but that free speech is.  Democracy may not be pretty, but the First Amendment is meant to ensure that no voice is squelched.  In his closing statement, Senator Charles Schumer mentioned that the “Right of free speech is not absolute.”  Hopefully, the bill’s supporters can keep in mind that political speech is incomparable to shouting “fire” in a crowded theater.


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