Last week, the House of Representatives passed the dishonestly named DISCLOSE Act after weeks of backroom dealings
and closed-door meetings. The bill, which aggressively attempts to limit the First Amendment rights of millions of Americans, was brought to a floor vote after a 45-page amendment was dropped into it the previous evening in the Rules Committee. For a bill supposedly aimed at disclosure, the process by which it was passed was anything but transparent.
This highlights the cynical nature of the bill. This legislation is co-sponsored by Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, and Rep. Chris Van Hollen, Maryland Democrat, who just happen to be the chairmen of the House and Senate election committees. The men responsible for re-electing incumbents are writing the rules to kneecap challengers in a year the polls tell us is rife with unhappiness about incumbents. This is an effort to change the rules to silence opposition from the peasantry.
Cleta Mitchell, a nationally renowned expert on campaign finance law, points out the fallacy of couching the bill's intent in terms of disclosure: "The real purpose of this bill is to silence any criticism of Democrats in Washington by the business community so Democrats can continue to pursue a government takeover of the nation's free-enterprise system. If only business had the courage to do what the Democrats fear so much that they're willing to shred the First Amendment."
Called DISCLOSE (Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light on Spending in Elections) though it's aimed at anything but, the bill is a thinly veiled attempt to stifle unfavorable political speech by making entrance into the political dialogue difficult, expensive and open to harassment. This, however, is only the case for disfavored types of associations of people and not all groups that wish to speak out.
For example, unions are not silenced by the provisions of this bill. This is a significant departure from the long-standing campaign-finance-law field of play, on which corporations and unions typically have been treated the same. So while TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program) recipients, government contractors and companies with less than 80 percent domestic ownership are silenced, unions with international members, that bargain on behalf of public employees or represent workers of companies that receive government bailouts are free to speak. A brief look into the political contributions of these groups makes clear why the incumbent majority would be interested in silencing businesses but not unions.
The bill's sponsors, marketing it as a response to the Supreme Court's ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (FEC), are heeding the advice of the president's chief of staff by ensuring the "crisis" of a landmark First Amendment victory does not go to waste. DISCLOSE, as it is written, goes far beyond the parameters of the decision and aims to silence political advocacy that the left has wished to eliminate for years.
It does this by requiring that all donors to an organization be disclosed. Never mind that campaign expenditures are already reported with precision and punctuality to the FEC, or that the Supreme Court has upheld the right of citizens to associate privately. Congress, in a fervor fueled by an impending election that does not look good for the majority, wishes no person who thinks ill of the current majority to be able to do so without the government taking note.
The bill further places onerous requirements on groups wishing to speak by decreasing the threshold at which contributions must be reported and shrinking the timeframe groups have to comply. The burden this places on the exercise of free speech must not be underestimated. Grass-roots groups, akin to the ones that have become increasingly more prevalent as Congress spends the country into the ground, do not have the resources to comply with complicated reporting rules.
With a midterm election only months away, Democrats know expediency is of the highest importance. Thus, this bill breaks from traditional campaign-finance dictum once again by not providing time for the FEC rule-making to clarify the extensive new provisions in the bill. Thus, where the bill's sponsors failed to intimidate, they hope to obfuscate, confusing speakers into silence.
While the DISCLOSE Act squeaked by the House with 219 votes, its future in the Senate is uncertain. The untimely passing of Sen. Robert C. Byrd no doubt throws its success into even further doubt, as several senators on both sides of the aisle have expressed concerns over the legislation. As they should - the DISCLOSE Act seeks to confuse and intimidate speech, create tiers of privileged speakers and effectively allow the government to monitor and choose who is saying what, when. While most, if not all, of the bill almost certainly would be struck down in court, the absence of an expedited review in the legislative language makes certain the restrictions on speech would be around for the coming November elections, if not the presidential campaigns in 2012. Such a subversive effort to stack the deck for the Democratic majority, whose president's approval ratings are upside down, will likely be remembered by voters when they go to the polls in fall - whether Democrats succeed in abolishing the First Amendment or not.
Grover Norquist is president of Americans for Tax Reform.
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