Friday’s USA Today contained an article describing new legislation under consideration that would require CEOs, union leaders, and third-party groups like the US Chamber of Commerce, to disclose their funding of and participation in the creation of political advertisements. In fact, as proposed, ads would be required to list the top five donors. One must conclude that this legislation, sponsored by Democrats Chris Van Hollen, MD, and Charles Schummer, NY, is in response to a January Supreme Court decision removing financial limits on campaign contributions.
I understand that limiting campaign contributions is a form of limiting free speech. Practically speaking, though, unlimited giving does more to limit the ability to be heard by small donors than it does to free larger donor’s ability to speak. In response to the proposed legislation, President Obama said, “Powerful special interests and their lobbyists should not be able to drown out the voices of the American people.” But we should be careful here before we start complaining. What efforts have we, as individual citizens, taken to have our voice heard? If whining to our friends that we have no voice is the extent of our exercise of free speech then our complaint is without merit. How many letters might someone be able to pen in the 45 minutes spent on hold to talk to the local talk radio host? There are few things as capable of swaying a lawmaker’s opinion as 300 fresh faxes. True, your voice is only one of 300 million in the country and only one of 670,000 your Congressman represents, so It’s easy to conclude you cannot make a difference. But one of 300 should be downright encouraging if not actually motivational.
If you have made genuine efforts to have your opinions considered, however, then I find no fault in attempting to fix a system that is clearly broken. Time after time we hear that the political system is rigged to favor those with money and that part of its dysfunction is the over-influence of special interest groups.
This proposed legislation, though, makes no effort to curb giving. What it does is create accountability. While the right to anonymous free speech has been repeatedly upheld by the Courts and dates back to the Federalist Papers, Americans ought to have the right to know to whom our elected officials are beholden.
Relevant to the pending battle will be the 1987 ruling in Meese vs Keene. The case addressed whether foreign agents can operate anonymously when distributing political propaganda which the Court defined as including not just slanted and misleading material but also materials that are “completely accurate and merit the highest respect.” The Court ultimately ruled that disseminators of propaganda make additional disclosures to better enable the public to evaluate the material’s impact, to allow citizens to add further information that they think is germane and actually fosters, rather than restricts, free speech. I couldn’t agree more. Ask yourself, “Would it make a difference if an ad attacking a candidate’s stance on gun control was paid for by Smith and Wesson or by the ACLU,” as opposed to “This ad made possible by the friends of Candidate John Doe.”
Those who oppose this legislation will have you believe this is a desperate attempt by the Democrats to preserve an “election advantage” and to “limit the speech of those who may disagree with you,” as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell put it. Not only is that a disingenuous characterization of the bill but those making political ads aren’t just exercising free speech. They’re asking us to believe them. They’re compelling us to action. They’re petitioning us to be pawns in their efforts. At the very least we should be suspect of those who compel us to action while yet remaining anonymous themselves.
It was Einstein who noted that it is insanity to do the same thing over and over and expect different results, yet that is precisely our approach to an identified problem with our political system. If special interests have too much influence, we would do well to take measures to remedy that situation.