Campaign Finance

USA Today: Anonymous Political Speech is Bad Because…It Forced Incumbent Senators to Campaign?

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USA Today doesn't like anonymous political speech. In a house editorial today, the paper decries the effects of ruling in cases such as Citizen's United and SpeechNOW that have allowed more money to enter the political arena, especially when reporting requirements don't force disclosure of donors:

Citizens United left the public only one way to protect itself from the rising threat [of more money entering elections]: disclosure. At the federal level, this would be achieved by the Disclose Act, which we opposed two years ago because it exempted a number of powerful interest groups. Today's version, scheduled for Senate debate this month, requires that all groups — social welfare, union and business — to report all expenditures and all donations more than $10,000. Republicans, whose groups are drawing more money so far, are geared up to kill it.

Why is Citizens United so bad? Because

the decision has fostered a whole new era of secrecy. Political strategists on both sides of the aisle have formed non-profit "social welfare" groups to escape disclosure requirements. They have names that convey selfless intentions, such as Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group, or the Patriot Majority USA, a liberal one.

These groups spent $137 million on the 2010 elections. Not surprisingly, one target was veteran Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold— a champion of campaign-finance reform — who lost his seat. Contributions from the Patriot Majority USA, meanwhile, helped save Harry Reid, the Senate's top Democrat, from defeat.

More.

Russ Feingold lost because of money from anonymous donors? And Harry Reid was saved by the same? Please. Shouldn't we be celebrating that two of the best-known senators in the country were forced to, you know, actually compete in races? Why do people get constitutional palpitations when super-incumbents such as Dick Lugar or Orrin Hatch have to break a sweat during primary season, much less a general election? That's a sign the system may just be working finally (that Feingold was the co-author with John McCain of restrictive political speech laws was an ironic cherry on top). USA Today trots out a supposed sob story of a tight congressional race where an incumbent and challenger each spent $2.1 million in a race. But that's bad because the challenger, who got a late-campaign injection of anonymous "outside" money, ended up winning. If South Dakotans are that easily gulled, maybe they shouldn't be allowed to vote in the first place.

In the 2010 Senate race between Feingold and eventual victor Ron Johnson, both candidates spent about $15 million. Independent expenditures broke well in favor of Johnson, who got about $2.3 million in help. Which might considered an equalizer given that Feingold was running for his fourth term.

However pure the intentions of campaign-finance rules, they never fail to tamp down on free speech. For god's sake, the law overturned in Citzens United expressly denied independent groups from mentioning the names of specific candidates within 60 days of a general election! How stupid was that? And a law that could ban the documentary Hillary: The Movie from being offered as a pay-per-view option on cable on the eve of the 2008 Democratic primaries could ban all sorts of speech. That "news organizations" - a.k.a. newspapers that explicitly endorse candidates - always get exempted from laws suppressing political speech hardly helps their credibility on the topic.

Anonymous political speech is at the very heart of the U.S. experience (thanks Publius!). Disclosure rules are inevitably used against politically weak groups (historically, they been used against groups such as the NAACP and the Socialist Workers Party), not against the shadowy-yet-oddly-highly-public billionaire financiers who are constantly invoked as real threats to electoral integrity.

Need more convincing? Watch 3 Reasons Not to Sweat the Citizens United Decision, originally released in February 2010:

Reason on campaign finance.