More campaign finance disclosure silliness

Since everyone is all atwitter that this year’s presidential campaign will somehow set some new bar for negativity, it is worth remembering the attacks made on Abraham Lincoln, which were not only often vicious (e.g. “His head is shaped something like a ruta-bago, and his complexion is that of a Saratoga trunk. His hands and feet are plenty large enough, and in society he has the air of having too many of them…. He could hardly be called handsome, though he is certainly much better looking since he had the smallpox….”), but so numerous that Lincoln noted, “If I were to read, much less answer, all the attacks made upon me, this shop might just as well be closed for any business.”

But what brought Lincoln’s quote to mind this morning were a couple more foolish articles about campaign finance disclosure. There is so much foolishness being said about disclosure these days that, well, if we were to read, much less answer, all the complaints about a lack of disclosure, this shop might just as well be closed for any business. Which, come to think of it, may be the idea.

Anyway, occasionally it is still worth the effort, and two articles in particular caught our attention this morning. The first comes from Norm Ornstein at the American Enterprise Institute. Ornstein’s piece in Roll Call begins with a subtle but common error in reform writing. Ornstein argues that in Citizens United v FEC, “the [Supreme] court, by an 8-1 margin, endorsed robust disclosure as a disinfectant against the unlimited spending it unleashed.” Actually, the Court did not unleash unlimited spending (there are many checks on spending – it is indicative that only legal restraints seem to cross Ornstein’s mind), but more importantly, it did not see legally unlimited independent expenditures as some type of evil that had been “unleashed” and had to be “disinfected.” Rather, the Court, following the wisdom of the founders in framing the First Amendment, and reams of peer-reviewed political science studies showing that spending informs and motivates the electorate without corruption, struck down laws that artificially limited spending because it viewed more political speech as a good thing.

So working from the presumptions (rejected by the Court) that too much political speech – at least by the wrong people – is a bad thing, and that government regulation of speech is a good thing, Ornstein complains that “Voters this fall, especially in battleground states, are going to be deluged with awful spots, with a majority of them likely to come from groups with innocuous names such as Crossroads GPS, that will end with the disclaimer that it was paid for by an organization unaffiliated with any campaign or candidate. But voters in most cases will have no idea who is behind these ads or funding them.”

Now, let’s dissect that. Let’s start with the particular example Ornstein uses. Does anyone who cares enough about politics to want to know who is funding ads not know what Crossroads GPS is and who is behind it – or at least have the ability to do a quick Google search and find out. If Ornstein doesn’t know, then he has no business claiming to an expert on government or politics. Of course, it’s true that some groups may be less well known that Crossroads. But what Ornstein exhibits here is that the alleged problem is much less than his own alarmist rhetoric would have us believe.

Of course, it is true that voters may not know the exact funders of Crossroads. But they almost certainly “have an idea” who is behind them. Is more needed? Why? Is it really true that we can’t judge the quality of the message without more? Is it really true that we can’t decide if candidates supported by Crossroads are too pro-business for our tastes, without more? Probably not. And as we have written previously, there is a serious cost to seeking more – the ability to join organizations and engage in anonymous political speech and action is a hard-won and very important constitutional right we should not throw away lightly.

But the really silly part of Ornstein’s column is what comes next. For many years, broadcasters have been required to maintain a log of political advertisers. Ornstein wants television and radio stations to be forced to put this log on-line (currently they are only required to maintain the logs in paper form). OK, fine. What does this have to do with finding out “who is behind” Crossroads or any other political advertiser? Hint: Nothing. Putting this info on line may make it easier for Super PACs to informally harmonize their activity with the candidates they support, but it won’t reveal one thing about “who is behind” the groups who are already identified – not only in the logs, but on the ads themselves – as paying for the ads. Ornstein himself never tries to make the connection, because, well, there isn’t one.

So is Ornstein intentionally doing a bait and switch – trying to get people worked up about one problem and using that to propose an unrelated policy he favors – or is he just unable to put the parts together, in which case AEI should probably fire him as a man not worth the title of expert. Well, come to think of it, either answer would make him ineligible for a job here at CCP.

Our second silly article of the day comes from the Associated Press, and it also goes to the question of “who is behind” all this nefarious spending. The AP has a big story about “mysterious” donations and asks, “Just how much disclosure is enough to satisfy transparency?” Well, here’s what we know – from the story itself – about the “mysterious” donation they use as the example for the story, from a corporation called Sea Spray:

SeaSpray is, in fact, a financial fund managed by Boston-based Hellman Jordan Management. One of the firm’s top executives, Gerald Jordan, and his wife, Darlene, received $200,000 apiece in unspecified “disbursements,” company executive Susan Lynch told The Associated Press, and asked that the money be sent directly to Restore Our Future rather than to the couple’s personal bank accounts.

… the Jordans are hardly strangers to Romney and his presidential campaigns. The couple hosted a $50,000-per-couple fundraising event for Romney at their Florida home last week, and Darlene Jordan was listed in an invitation as a host of an Orlando fundraiser last August for the former Massachusetts governor.

The two have also offered financial support to Romney and the Republican Party. Gerald Jordan gave $2,500 to Romney’s presidential campaign in June and April 2011, and Darlene Jordan contributed the maximum $30,800 to the Republican National Committee in December. Gerald Jordan also contributed more than $40,000 to a fundraising account for Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a possible running mate for Romney.

Maybe it’s just me, but that doesn’t sound too mysterious.

Of course, the answer might be that it took a few hours work and a few days time for the AP to find this out. You’d think the AP would be glad – after all, that’s what they’re supposed to do, right – investigate and report. We wouldn’t want to put them out of business. But let’s suppose that the public never did learn just “who was behind” the donation: how much would it matter? Ask yourself – does it matter to you to learn that major donors to an organization trying to elect Mitt Romney president are long time Mitt Romney supporters that you’ve almost certainly never heard of? Has learning this just now affected your thinking about Romney, or your likelihood of voting for him? Does it make you more suspicious of ads from Crossroads?

The AP goes on to describe four more donations “without donor identities,” an interesting description given that they go on to identify each donor. For example, they cite as one such donor without “identity[y]” Fair Oaks Finance LLC, which they then inform us is “registered to investment brokerage head Charles R. Schwab, who along with his wife, Helen, each gave $125,000 to the super PAC. Schwab has also given more than $80,000 to Republican candidates and causes in the current election cycle, including two $2,500 donations to Romney’s presidential campaign.” Shocking. Maybe next week we’ll get a headline, “Pro-Romney donors donate to pro-Romney groups.” That would certainly be illuminating.

What Ornstein and AP columns have in common is an alarmist tone that is never really accounted for, sort of as if someone were to rush excitedly into your office today around noon and blurt out, “oh my gosh, they’re serving lunch in the cafeteria! And the food is being prepared by the cooks!”

We can’t begin to read, much less answer, all the silly stories out there about the horror of Campaign 2012 and the alleged lack of disclosure. But now and then we’ll try to address one, just as a reminder to apply a little common sense skepticism to the stories you’ve undoubtedly seen and will undoubtedly see more of.

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  1. […] are many good reasons to maintain the privacy of donors. We’ve written about it here and here. But if we’re going to talk about “dark” money and who benefits, let’s make […]

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