E.J. Dionne writes on DISCLOSE, and gets the law wrong again

September 14, 2010   •  By Brad Smith
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In the whack-a-mole game that is putting to rest misrepresentations about existing campaign finance disclosure laws made as part of the push to pass the partisan DISCLOSE Act, E.J. Dionne is the latest mole in need of whacking.

In his September 13 column, Dionne gives us the typical horror story:

“[I]magine a member of Congress telling a lobbyist from Consolidated Megacorp Inc. that she would do all she could to block an extra $2 billion in an appropriations bill to purchase the company’s flawed widgets for the federal government. A week later, television advertisements start appearing in the representative’s district portraying her as corrupt, out of touch and in league with lobbyists.

It turns out they are being paid for by Consolidated Megacorp through contributions to a front group called Americans for Clean Government. Shouldn’t the voters be able to know who is behind the ads?

E.J. blames all this on the Supreme Court decision Citizens United v. FEC.  The solution, he is quite sure, is to pass the DISCLOSE Act, an egregiously partisan bill introduced by Chuck Schumer with the avowed purpose of chilling political speech.

Just one problem: under existing law, voters do know who is behind the ads.  We’re not sure why the government is buying widgets at all, flawed or not, but if Americans for Clean Government spends over $1000 to runs ads and those ads urge voters to vote for or against the Senator, then Americans for Clean Government qualifies as a PAC and must disclose all of its donors, and the amount they contributed.  That’s 2 United States Code Section 434(a)(4).  You can, as they say, look it up, even if E.J. Dionne won’t. 

But what if the ads merely “portray her as corrupt, out of touch, and in league with lobbyists,” while not urging her defeat?  Well, then, if they’re run within 60 days of a general election or 30 days of the primary, they are electioneering communications, and Consolidated’s role in financing them will be disclosed under reports filed pursuant to 2 U.S.C. 434(f)(2)(E).  And if Americans for Clean Government is organized under Section 527 of the internal revenue code, as most such groups are, then they have to disclose all of their donors to the Internal Revenue Service, regardless of when the ads run.  That’s 26 Internal Revenue Code Section 527.

You know, we’re not world famous reporters like E.J. Dionne, so maybe we don’t understand the ethics of modern reporting.  But we would have thought that reporters had some obligation to try to get their facts straight.  This is not hard stuff.  In the future, E.J., you can call us at 703-894-6800, or email jpatch@campaignfreedom.org.  We’ll fix you up, so your next column can reflect reality.

Of course, more conspiratorially minded sorts might begin to think that E.J. and others who keep getting the law wrong want to confuse the issue, so they can create pressure to pass a bill that regulates and in some cases prohibits speech that was legal even before the decision in Citizens United, but could never make it on its own merit.

Brad Smith

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