This piece originally appeared in Washington Examiner on February 6, 2019.
What if members of Congress told you the only way to preserve democracy in America was to give them more power over how Americans speak about Congress?
You might ask whether they understand the concept of democracy.
Fundamentally, democracy requires that citizens be free to speak out about those in power, and to associate with like-minded citizens for that purpose, without government intrusion.
But according to some members of Congress, our democracy is already on life support. Why? Americans are exercising these essential freedoms a little too freely, supposedly. So House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and other politicians are asking you to support their “bold reform” plan to “restore democracy” in America: H.R. 1.
As things stand now, the public can just form groups and speak about the government anytime they like. Congress can’t even tell them how much money they’re allowed to raise and spend! But, don’t worry: a congressional “Democracy Reform Task Force” is fighting to “ reaffirm Congress’ authority to regulate” how Americans spend their money on political advocacy.
Americans already face numerous restrictions when they speak about members of Congress around the time they’re up for re-election. Spending a mere $250 triggers government reporting of election campaign activity and supporters. If you form an election campaign group that spends just $1,000, you must register with the government, then report all the money you raise and spend on a strict schedule with penalties for missed reports or errors. Then, you must hand over a list of the names, addresses, and employers of every contributor who gives more than $200, along with each contributors’ precise level of support. And the federal government will make this list publicly available to everyone on the Internet.
Fortunately, the law doesn’t force every group that ever mentions a candidate to expose their supporters’ personal information. It allows non-profit groups, charities, and others who treasure their members’ privacy to spend a limited amount on political advocacy while devoting most of their resources to other things. In 2018, these groups accounted for less than 3 percent of campaign spending. But again, don’t worry! House Democrats are fighting to ensure that these groups never speak out again without them, and everyone else, knowing how much you gave, along with your address and place of employment.
You may think that which groups you choose to support is none of the government’s business. You may even agree with the Supreme Court, when it said “that compelled disclosure of affiliation with groups engaged in advocacy may constitute as effective a restraint on freedom of association as [other] forms of governmental action.” But somehow, House Democrats view respect for “ the vital relationship between freedom to associate and privacy in one’s associations” as anti-democratic.
Democratic leaders of the House believe the best way to convince people Congress should have more power over political advocacy is to scare them about the influence efforts of “special interests.” They’d like you to fear “big-money and corporate special interests” along with “well-connected special interests.”
But often lost among those who push for more campaign finance regulation is the effect that such regulations have on groups that do not have massive budgets, are not large corporations, or aren’t well-connected. These are the groups hit hardest when government regulations make civic engagement more legally risky, more complex, more burdensome, and more expensive. In fact, imposing more rules on advocacy (which come with compliance costs and risks) is the best way to ensure that only the most connected and most well-funded groups participate in our democracy at all.
It is not a threat to democracy that groups of people with specific policy preferences (or “special interests”) are constantly attempting to influence those in power. The freedom of groups to let Congress know what policies their members support or oppose is fundamental to democracy. In fact, the very existence of H.R. 1 itself can be traced to years-long efforts by advocacy groups ( many of which are very well-connected, have lots of money, and receive corporate contributions) with a “special interest” in passing more campaign finance regulation.
House Democrats have dubbed H.R. 1 the “ For the People Act.” But the power granted in this bill is not going to the people. It’s going to politicians. The best way to preserve “government of, by and for the people” is to reduce the government’s power to control political speech.