Media Watch: “Clarifying” the First Amendment for the Supreme Court

May 9, 2014   •  By Joe Trotter
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Public Citizen’s Lisa Gilbert wrote an op-ed for Roll Call yesterday slamming our “byzantine” system of campaign finance (Answers for Our ‘Byzantine’ Campaign Finance System). Hitting on everything from corporate disclosure to independent expenditures, Lisa writes:

Congress needs to take swift and decisive action to mitigate the damage caused by the Citizens United and McCutcheon decisions. Citizens across the country, of every political stripe, are infuriated with the unlimited and undisclosed money rapidly drowning out the public voice in elections, and are demanding reasonable limits and full disclosure of money in politics.

Thankfully, our founders came up with a system of government that is at least halfway decent at preventing tyranny of the majority when it comes to protecting people’s rights, especially when those people and their rights aren’t particularly popular. The article goes on to say:

Various witnesses and senators today called for a plethora of solutions to bring us closer to those goals, including: 1) legislation introduced by Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, that would mandate 48-hour disclosure of significant campaign contributions and expenditures; 2) a ban or restrictions on “joint fundraising committees,” which as evidenced by the Republican Victory Fund, are likely to become the preferred fundraising vehicle for major donors under McCutcheon; 3) a Securities and Exchange Commission rule, in response to the 750,000 investors and members of the public who have called for mandated disclosure of corporate political spending by publicly held companies; 4) an IRS rule that would provide “bright lines” definitions of political intervention by nonprofit organizations and enforce the current law prohibiting 501(c)(4) nonprofit organizations from making more than de minimis political expenditures; and finally 5) a constitutional amendment, ratified by Congress, that clarifies for the Supreme Court what the First Amendment really means. The biggest news of all at the hearing was a surprise and welcomed announcement by Sens. Tom Udall, D-N.M., and Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., that the Senate will proceed with an upcoming vote on such an amendment.

American democracy is at dire risk in today’s byzantine system of unregulated and undisclosed money in politics. It is up to our members of Congress and regulators to take the next step on the heels of today’s hearing to bring it into the modern era.

Lisa’s representation of our campaign finance system is riddled with half-truths and mischaracterizations.

First of all, none of the money that goes to super PACs or social welfare organizations is “unregulated.” Super PAC donations are publicly disclosed on an easily searchable database, and any expenditures super PACs make are disclosed to the FEC and the public.

Contrary to frequent claims about “unregulated,” “undisclosed money, significant monetary contributions to social welfare organizations are disclosed to the IRS (schedule B). Sure, the disclosed information might not wind up in the hands of anti-speech activists trying to shame people and boycott their businesses for contributing to unpopular causes, but that’s not the point of disclosure. Then, when money is used by either super PACs or social welfare organizations in making independent expenditures, it is publicly disclosed on the FEC’s website.

It’s truly scary that those who manage to twist the definition of “unregulated” into, essentially, “doesn’t give me all the information I want when I want,” thinks that they should “clarify” the meaning of our first, and arguably most important, enumerated protection against tyranny to the greatest legal minds in our country.

It’s sad that the pro-regulatory community sees stripping Americans of their political associational and speech rights and handing them over to politicians as something that will save us from the “dire risk” of our constitutionally-protected rights. The truth is that these proposed amendments, which, if passed, will be use as authorization to create self-interested incumbent-protecting, anti-challenger laws, really are the first concrete steps down the road to making our nation a true oligarchy.

Joe Trotter

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