Deep-Sixing 527 Groups

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If the last national elections were memorable at all, it was largely due to the influence of the "527 groups" such as Swift Boats Vets for Truth, Move On, etc., who operated outside the major parties and rarely pulled their punches (read: blows both high and low) when it came to political discourse. Given that such groups leaned heavily toward the Dems ($265 million vs. $154 million sez the Wash Post), it's no wonder the Reps are now trying to hamstring them as the midterm elections draw near. As the Post reports:

As part of the House GOP proposals, "527" organizations that operate independently of the political parties would no longer be allowed to collect unlimited sums from individuals. Democratic-leaning 527s have accepted tens of millions of dollars from such wealthy backers as investor George Soros and insurance mogul Peter B. Lewis.

Instead, the groups would be governed by federal campaign finance laws that would restrict such giving to a total of $30,000 from individuals per year. By contrast, during the 2004 election cycle, Soros gave $27 million and Lewis gave nearly $24 million to Democratic-oriented 527 groups, according to PoliticalMoneyLine, a nonpartisan research company.

Deep Irony Alert: We can in most ways thank Sen. John McCain, the rageaholic from the great state of Arizona, for the rise of 527s, whose influence, if not actual existence, is largely a function of his idiotic (and idiotically popular) notion of "campaign reform" (also known as "abridgements to the First Amendment"). McCain has railed against 527s, even as he waxed elegantly about them back in 2001, telling the Post, "I'm glad a guy with a billion dollars, or two billion dollars, wants to spend is money on an issue he feels strongly about."

Since when is more political speech bad political speech? Perhaps this latest flap will convince more Americans that campaign-finance reform is never about getting "the money out of politics" (the usual rationale). Rather, it's about getting challenges to power out of politics.

If you don't believe that, then check out Reason's bits with Bradley Smith, former head of the Federal Election Commission here.

And when people–including Republican House Majority Leader John Boehner, who's leading the charge now against 527s–start talking about how "disclosure" is the key to fair and open elections, consider these two tidbits. First, anonymous political speech is what made America not just great but possible in the first place (and it's one of the reasons why Boehner's home state of Ohio, like two dozen other states, have banned it at various times). Second, and more important, disclosure regulations are regularly used to smack down political dissent. Read all about that here.

NEXT: Justifying Preemptive War

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  1. I recently read an opinion piece in the Detroit Free Press which not only opposed private funding of campaigns, but encouraged publicly funded campaigns. What better use of my tax dollars than paying for TV commercials for candidates I don?t support?

    On an unrelated note, I absolutely love the self-advertising Reason does with the clearly-doctored pictures of models holding suspiciously 2-dimensional copies of the magazine. I assume these are stock photos of models that have never actually heard of the magazine. In any circumstances, they are hilarious, and I think maybe Badnarik could have used these kinds of photos in his campaign.

    Michael Badnarik: In favor of a sexier America.

  2. Political money is like water moving downhill–it’s always gonna find a way. The only beneficiaries of all of these bullshit laws and regulations are lawyers.

  3. I don’t get the “I’m only wearing green because of St. Patrick’s Day” joke in the ad. Is this a goof on environmentalists? A hint that she would otherwise be naked? Some bizarre reference to envy or Islam?

    Oh, yeah, back on topic, I am still amazed and saddened by the widespread support for restrictions on political speech one finds across the political spectrum. When I was young I felt like the sacred nature of “free speech” was drummed into my head by righties and lefties alike, and now it seems that they were all full of it. Shameful.

  4. The trouble with the 527s is that they are not accountable for what they say and act as proxy attack dogs for candidates. I don’t know how – but we need to reign them in….

    JMJ

  5. The Bipartisan inCumbent Retention Act (BCRA) had little to do with reforming campaign finance and a lot to do with protecting sitting politicians. It places limits on political speech under the guise of regulating money. All the more appalling is that Bush signed it and the SCOTUS bought Congress’s line of BS.

    The House is scheduled to vote on a bill to exempt online communications i.e. bloggers from McCain/Fiengold. The bill is called the “Online Freedom of Speech Act.” That makes the meaning of BCRA pretty clear.

    We have reached the point where Congress is doling out Freedom of Speech favors. People not only find this acceptable the are encouraging it. When it passes you will see displays of blogger triumphalism that will make Rathergate look like a child’s tea party.

    Those of us who understand the concept of what a right is will mourn the day they killed the First Amendment. And on that grey day in the future when Congress decides that bloggers should no longer have their exemption we will – if we are still allowed – be there to say I told you so.

  6. “The trouble with the 527s is that they are not accountable for what they say”

    What exactly do you mean by make them accountable? Accountable for what? Care to elaborate? With examples perhaps?

  7. I love the way someone who posts using a pseudonym complains about 527s being “unaccountable for what they say.” Ironic? Hypocritical? You make the call.

    527s are as accountable as anyone else in the marketplace of ideas. They can say what they want and be abused for it just like anyone else. That’s the only accountability I’m interested in.

    Sounds to me like Jersey wants “accountability” to include things like jail time and fines for saying the wrong thing. If not, Jersey, just what do you mean?

  8. Emme, well, take for example to the Swift Boat Vets. Through misrepresentation and obfusgation they slandered a presidential candidate with impunity. If Bush himself had uttered the same lies the Swifties told, he’d have been exposed for the sleazy liar he is. Instead, he claims he’s no part of it. The 527s are a problem. However, what to do about it is beyond me.

    JMJ

  9. “However, what to do about it is beyond me.”

    How about nothing. If all they’ve got is misrepresentations and obfuscations then they (and whatever nonsense they’re spouting) will be exposed.

    And anyways, don’t we have laws on the books for your scenario? Libel and slander?

  10. Jersey, if the Swifties were lying or whatever, the 527s from the other side should have been able to debunk them. You say if Bush said the stuff they said, he would have been exposed. Why were the Swifties any less vulnerable to exposure?

    The solution to speech you don’t like (as you have no doubt heard a million times) is more speech. Think a 527 (or anybody else) is full of it? Speak up and explain why they are wrong or deceitful.

  11. The Swifties weren’t running for president. Instead, they were doing his dirty work for him so that he could be above the fray. I, again, don’t know what can be done about these outfits. Some election rules would help, though.

    1: No corporate or union or any other profit or non-profit organizational contributions to any candidate at any level.

    2: $10 cap on all individual donations to any candidate at any level.

    And let the 527s have at it, I suppose – but with FULL AND PLAIN disclosure of who’s paying for what.

    JMJ

  12. So, Jersey, since candidates can’t take moeny form anyone not an individual human being, and can only take $10 apiece from them, how are campaigns going to be funded?

  13. “And let the 527s have at it, I suppose – but with FULL AND PLAIN disclosure of who’s paying for what.”

    I don’t know. This suggestion just seems so creepy to me.

  14. RCD – With a whole lotta $10 bills. 😉

    Emme – what is “creepy” about that?

    JMJ

  15. The response to speech is more speech. True.
    More important is to have a well educated public.

    The trouble in the current age is that the liar (urm… speaker) with the most money gets to set the agenda and drown out the speech of those in opposition to the lie (urm… speech). I don’t see a regulatory way to stop the liar with money, but finding ways to let the less monied voices be heard as well has to be worth it.

    I don’t have a problem with my tax dollars helping to fund an open debate (even when there are people in the debate I disagree with). I am sure many here would disagree (cf, Kevin).

  16. “Emme – what is “creepy” about that?”

    The idea of not being able to express your political views unless the government puts the high beams on your identity for everybody to see is creepy. It also deters people from supporting unpopular political views.

  17. Why not get rid of all the campaign finance laws and just have instant, full and open disclosure of anything (money, plane rides, etc.) given to a candidate or political party?

    I’ve been witnessing “campaign finance reform” since the reign of Nixon and it seems to me all we’ve gotten for it is that now you can actually attract the attention of a federal prosecutor for expressing an opinion in the “incorrect” time and place. Not much of a reform, if you ask me.

  18. I think this is more aptly titled “Chickens coming home to roost”, as “campaign finance reform” has classically been a plank more for leftward leaning politicos than right (and for obvious reasons – seems rich liberal individuals are more generous with their largesse than rich conservatives).

    Frankly I don’t see why “how are campaigns going to be funded?” should be a rhetorical question. But that doesn’t mean I think the solution to bad “campaign finance reform” is more “reform”.

  19. As for the girl in green.
    If that’s what a sexier America looks like I may have to become a communist.

    http://moxie.nu/moveabletype/archives/003307.php

  20. Surely Jersey is a Reason plant. No way does a real H&R poster believe such crap. The swifties weren’t debunked because their claims couldn’t be proven false. Had Soros found them to be lying he could have spent his 27 million telling us. Anyway, full disclosure is no solution. God help any employee I find to be contributing to the Democratic party.

  21. Jersey,

    Does your momma know you’re a troll?

  22. I believe 527s are just as accountable as the next type of media entity. They have to obey the same laws regarding libel and slander that newspapers, magazines, and television news networks have to. Beyond those laws, I don?t think it would be possible to regulate them because different people have different views of what is ?true.?

    ?Political money is like water moving downhill–it’s always gonna find a way. The only beneficiaries of all of these bullshit laws and regulations are lawyers.? -ChrisO
    Good point!

  23. I’m sick of people assuming that only money effects the results of elections. Roy Barnes outspent Sonny Perdue 15 million to one, but still came out a loser.

  24. As for the girl in green. If that’s what a sexier America looks like I may have to become a communist.

    I’m glad I run Adblock. If I let that image get cached on my workstation, I might get busted for child pornography.

  25. The trouble in the current age is that the liar (urm… speaker) with the most money gets to set the agenda and drown out the speech of those in opposition to the lie (urm… speech).

    Not really. The best-funded 527 of all is MoveOn, and it so far their track record is pretty much one of total failure.

  26. Emme,

    “The idea of not being able to express your political views unless the government puts the high beams on your identity for everybody to see is creepy. It also deters people from supporting unpopular political views.”

    Your incuriousness astounds me. I want to know WHO is telling me WHAT and I want them to PROVE what they are saying. This is our democracy, not some game.

    Douglas,

    “Why not get rid of all the campaign finance laws and just have instant, full and open disclosure of anything (money, plane rides, etc.) given to a candidate or political party?”

    Wow. More legalized bribery. Great idea. (Not)

    James,

    “Surely Jersey is a Reason plant. No way does a real H&R poster believe such crap. The swifties weren’t debunked because their claims couldn’t be proven false. Had Soros found them to be lying he could have spent his 27 million telling us. Anyway, full disclosure is no solution. God help any employee I find to be contributing to the Democratic party.”

    Google me. You’ll soon see who I am.

    It’s not so much that the Swifties “lied” directly, per se. It’s that they played fast and loose with the truth and carefully stated their opposition to Kerry as if it were based on something they couldn’t even know. As for your “employee(s)”, God help them, period.

    Sage,

    “Does your momma know you’re a troll?”

    Google me. I’m not a troll, just an avid debator.

    James,

    “I’m sick of people assuming that only money effects the results of elections. Roy Barnes outspent Sonny Perdue 15 million to one, but still came out a loser.”

    Anecdotes are like bung holes. Do you know why?

    JMJ

  27. “Since when is more political speech bad political speech?”

    When its availability is based on your wealth. The wonderful marketplace of ideas functions, ideally, as a meritocracy, in which ideas can be effectvely challenged and have to be defended on their merits. When one subset of those ideas can be expounded with much greater volume (both definitions) than alternate ideas, it tilts the playing field away from the mertitocracy.

    The fact that mitch thinks the Swift Boat Vets’ claims weren’t debunked (and the fact that Nick Gillespie thinks they operated independently of the Republican Party and Bush campaign) demonstrates this problem. “More speech” implies some kind of parity between the speaker and the rebutter. It does’t seem to work as we want it to when one party is much bigger, louder, and richer than the other; and when one party is both shameless, and capable of pretending to be independent of their real boss.

  28. I’m sick of people assuming that only money effects the results of elections.

    Levitt had a section about this in Freakonomics. Not the best section by a long shot, but it was enough to make me rethink the effects of campaign money on elections. Well that and the fact that MoveOn has spent so much and received absolutely nothing for it.

  29. RC

    Move-On is very adept at shaping which issue is being talked about… too bad for them that they have no idea how to pick an issue.

  30. JMJ,

    Well, I Googled you and found out that you’re a raving moonbat. Your rants against the right are like the heads side of a coin screaming at the tails. While some of your criticisms of the right are valid, the people you support basically want to make us all slaves. You are no better than they are, just different. Lefties and righties deserve each other; you’ll share a special place in hell if there is one.

  31. It does’t seem to work as we want it to when one party is much bigger, louder, and richer than the other; and when one party is both shameless, and capable of pretending to be independent of their real boss.

    Joe, regardless of the proclivities of the GOP or the nature of the Swifties, I hardly think you can claim that the Dems did so poorly in 04 due to a lack of money.

  32. Campaign finance reform obsessives are particularly notorious for living in their own little worlds. JMJ is a very nice example.

  33. joe, its an imperfect world. The marketplace of ideas may allow the wealthy to spout lies with more volume, but I am 100% confident that any attempt to solve this problem will be much, much worse.

    Call it the Iron Law of Politics – money and power will find each other. Attempts to keep them apart via campaign finance reform will simply serve the interests of both money (which can afford to find the loopholes) and power (as such laws invariably entrench incumbents).

    Campaign finance laws have only made the problem you complain of worse.

  34. It does’t seem to work as we want it to when one party is much bigger, louder, and richer than the other; and when one party is both shameless, and capable of pretending to be independent of their real boss.

    Godalmighty, joe. Do you really believe that the Dems and their networks of allies and affiliates are poorer and less coordinated than the Repubs and their networks?

  35. From a list at Harper’s

    Margin by which total votes for Democrats in the last three Senate elections exceeded those for Republicans: 2,900,000[Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives]

    Number of seats won by Democrats and Republicans, respectively: 46, 56

    This says something about the issue. I’m not sure what.

  36. Science:

    Those number are due to the senators’ being distributed two to a state rather than by population. They merely reflect that the average state won by a Rep had fewer voters than the average state won by a Dem.

  37. joe,

    First of all, it is far from clear that the richer and louder party won the last election. Secondly, how far into Harrison Bergeron territory do we have to go before we achieve your conception of “parity?” Each newspaper op-ed page must include the same number of articles, or is it words, or is it characters, from supporters of each party? Or can newspapers have a clear party line if a paper with the opposite views is published in the same town, and it has a similar level of circulation? What if one party has a good writer, and the other party has a crappy writer?

    Also, I have no idea why it matters whether or not the Swift Boat Veterans had any connection to the Bush campaign or the GOP. Does it have any bearing on whether what they said was true? Aren’t ad hominem attacks a logical fallacy?

    And, if the Swifties were debunked, then why is there a need for changes to the law? The fact that they were debunked proves that 527s are not useful.

    I fear that joe and jersey think the common people are too stupid to understand politics, too ignorant to tell the truth from fiction, and so their overlords, for the interest of the proles, of course, not maintaining their own power or anything like that, must ration out speech to those deemed reliable by the intellectual classes. Either that or they don’t trust the ability of the left wing elite to debate the right wing elite, and feel the lefties need a little affirmative action to make up the difference, to level the playing field.

  38. Stretch,

    First, the most successful campaign ever run against a sitting president during wartime is not a bad showing.

    Second, in this case, I don’t think the problem is that the Democrats had too little money, but that the former Nixon operatives who ran the Swift Boat group had a deadly combination of too much money and too little shame. A little transparency would have done wonders, if the campaign responsible for this ad had to put it out under their own name.

    RC, as much fun as it is, declaring that a problem you don’t want solved to be unavoidable, without actually doing the hard work of thinking through proposals, isn’t very intellectually honest.

    “Do you really believe that the Dems and their networks of allies and affiliates are poorer and less coordinated than the Repubs and their networks?” You mean, do I believe that MoveOn was controlled and sponsored by the Kerry campaign, the way the Swift Boats were controlled and sponsored by the Bush campaign? No, I don’t. The fact that MoveOn predated Kerry’s campaign and worked on behalf of his opponent, whereas the Swift Boat group was created just in time for the Bush campaign, is a bit of a tipoff for me.

  39. Stretch,

    First, the most successful campaign ever run against a sitting president during wartime is not a bad showing.

    Second, in this case, I don’t think the problem is that the Democrats had too little money, but that the former Nixon operatives who ran the Swift Boat group had a deadly combination of too much money and too little shame. A little transparency would have done wonders, if the campaign responsible for this ad had to put it out under their own name.

    RC, as much fun as it is, declaring that a problem you don’t want solved to be unavoidable, without actually doing the hard work of thinking through proposals, isn’t very intellectually honest.

    “Do you really believe that the Dems and their networks of allies and affiliates are poorer and less coordinated than the Repubs and their networks?” You mean, do I believe that MoveOn was controlled and sponsored by the Kerry campaign, the way the Swift Boats were controlled and sponsored by the Bush campaign? No, I don’t. The fact that MoveOn predated Kerry’s campaign and worked on behalf of his opponent, whereas the Swift Boat group was created just in time for the Bush campaign, is a bit of a tipoff for me.

    “Also, I have no idea why it matters whether or not the Swift Boat Veterans had any connection to the Bush campaign or the GOP.” Because they were able to put out the libelous attacks as directed by Bush/Cheney2004, while shielding the campaign from the backlash.

    “And, if the Swifties were debunked, then why is there a need for changes to the law?” Because the factual debunking that took place, repeatedly, was not able to have the effect we’d expect in the “marketplace of ideas” model – the defeat of their ideas in the public mind. You still believe they haven’t been proven to be dishonest.

    blabbetty blabbetty blabbetty blah master elitist common folk blabbetty blabbety blah. Must be nice and warm in your own navel.

  40. Hmm. The Reason server created a hybrid of my response to RC and my response to mitch.

    Damn biotech wheel hamsters!

  41. joe,

    So, the factual debunking didn’t have the effect of defeating the Swift Boat Veteran’s ideas in the public mind. How could that be? Because the left wing 527s only had $265 mil? Or because they didn’t know how to efficiently spend the $265 mil? Poor little rich boys, call up Uncle Soros for some more, then.

    Oh, and “blabbity blah” is not that convincing an argument.

  42. Real Bill – Thanks! I’ve never been called a “moonbat” before! Cool!

    JMJ

  43. Emme,

    “The idea of not being able to express your political views unless the government puts the high beams on your identity for everybody to see is creepy. It also deters people from supporting unpopular political views.”

    “Your incuriousness astounds me. I want to know WHO is telling me WHAT and I want them to PROVE what they are saying. This is our democracy, not some game. ”

    Wanting them to PROVE what they are saying is totally independent of WHO is telling you what.

    I could understand why WHO is telling what is somewhat relevant. But I think the gains from such a policy outweigh the costs. The main cost being that mandatory disclosure (being coerced into disclosing what political issue you support financially) will deter people from supporting unpopular causes. It’s an invasion of privavcy that I find troubling and yes creepy.

  44. RC, as much fun as it is, declaring that a problem you don’t want solved to be unavoidable, without actually doing the hard work of thinking through proposals, isn’t very intellectually honest.

    Seriously, joe, is there a single case where regulation of speech has made the world a better case? Just because you are unhappy with the current state of affairs doesn’t make a reflexive call for more state control very intellectually honest, either.

    joe, the respective networks of the Repubs and Dems are much bigger and more complex than MoveOn and the Swifties.

    The fact that MoveOn predates the Kerry campaign does nothing to prove or disprove their independence from the Dem party as a whole. I seem to recall a fair number of connections between the two.

    The fact that a group of veterans with an animus against John Kerry didn’t bother to oppose him on the national stage until he was the Presidential nominee is hardly evidence of collusion and coordination.

    Your double standard continues to astound me. When it comes to campaign money, organization, or ethics, there really isn’t much to choose between the parties, IMO.

  45. Emme, I don’t get it. Why one Earth would you not want to know WHO is telling you what? These people are trying to change your world. Don’t you want to know who and why?

    JMJ

  46. “Emme, I don’t get it. Why one Earth would you not want to know WHO is telling you what? These people are trying to change your world. Don’t you want to know who and why?”

    Read my post dumb-ass.

    There are a lot of things I’d like to know about people. But they’re better left private. And I indicated that who is saying what IS somewhat relevant, but not enough to force people to disclose what political causes they support.

    Are you kidding me? A law that forces people to disclose what political issues they support? Can you get any more big-brother than that?

  47. Joe, you’re arguing two different things here, or at least you were.

    The wonderful marketplace of ideas functions, ideally, as a meritocracy, in which ideas can be effectvely challenged and have to be defended on their merits. When one subset of those ideas can be expounded with much greater volume (both definitions) than alternate ideas, it tilts the playing field away from the mertitocracy.

    I was responding primarily to this assertion. I do not believe that any sort of financial constraints were the reason for the Democrats not getting elected. I do not believe that the GOP could expound their ideas with any greater volume than the Dems. As you pointed out, given the circumstances the Kerry campaign could be considered a great sucess. In other words, at least as far as the Dems and Reps are concerned, the playing field is relatively equal. Ironically, campaign fincance reform has effectively limited the idea market to the two parties, tilting the playing field massively in their favor and squelching dissent. It seems that if you are truly in favor of a meritocratic marketplace of ideas that you would wish to at least heavily alter the current campaign law, even if we might disagree on how to do such.

    Your other point about the GOP being shameless and sneaky I agree with, but it’s almost a non-issue to me, as whenever I hear something like this I’m reminded of the quote from The Sting: “What was I supposed to do – call him for cheating better than me, in front of the others?”

    To be honest, I don’t think it would have made one whit of difference if the Swities were officially acknowledged as GOP flunkies. In fact, I fully believe that the GOP had a pretty good contingency plan just in case it became necessary. They’re sneaky like that.

    I completely understand the desire to have full disclosure and transparancy of massive campaign contributions, but I have no idea how to balance that with protection for anonymous political speech. Ultimately, all people really want is to stop corruption in politics. I do not believe this is even remotely feasible and if your best shot is a law which limits the free speech of individuals while having a negligible (or perhaps even beneficial) effect on establishment politicians, then I’m going to have to pass.

  48. Emme, if some one is making a public point anout public policy than why one Earth should they themselves be private? And yes, we have laws like that all over the books. And don’t call ME a dumb-ass when you’re the one utterly sheepish and incurious in this matter.

    JMJ

  49. “Emme, if some one is making a public point anout public policy than why one Earth should they themselves be private?”

    Because it allows people to support causes they believe in without fear of backlash. Without that anonymity support for unpopular causes would not be as strong. I’m not saying disclosure is irrelevant. But once again, the costs of mandatory disclosure outweigh the benefits in my opinion. Do I really have to say this a fourth time? Are you pulling my leg or do you really not understand what i’m saying?

  50. Douglas,

    “Why not get rid of all the campaign finance laws and just have instant, full and open disclosure of anything (money, plane rides, etc.) given to a candidate or political party?”

    Wow. More legalized bribery. Great idea. (Not)

    Gee, you’re too smart for me.

    So, what gives you the right to limit what anyone else spends their money on?

  51. Jersey,

    Are you against the secret ballot as well?

  52. Don’t make me bring out my “FDR and Teddy Roosevelt primarily financed their campaigns from two or three rich friends and nobody cared” club and start swinging it around, because I just might.

    Really, the only thing I can conclude from the last election and the future of 527’s is that are very bad investments. I think I’ll stick with my 529 – at least it pays for my kid’s college.

  53. Why one Earth would you not want to know WHO is telling you what? These people are trying to change your world. Don’t you want to know who and why?

    Sorry Jersey, while there is epistemological reasons for sourcing FACTS (oh, and the Swifties claims were “facts”, as in eyewitness accounts and verifiable incidents from the public record) that are not otherwise verifyable, overwhelmingly the speech involved with 527s and other commentators is analysis. It is a primate of rhetoric that where a proposition comes from is irrelevant. If you are going to challenge, you must challenge on the merits even if it is found scrawled on a bathroom wall or tacked to the courthouse door. Oh, and yes, Kerry is a Viet Nam war hero… TO THE NVN COMMIES! DUH!

  54. To say that WHO says something is not relevent to WHAT is being said is akin to saying, “Well, we don’t know if it’s a fox or not, but at least someone’s guarding the hen house.”

    Silly.

    JMJ

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