- The Washington Times - Friday, December 29, 2006

NASCAR driver Kirk Shelmerdine is a middling, underfunded driver. His car’s exterior has room to spare. So, two years ago, he spent $50 or so on a large Bush-Cheney ‘04 decal and pasted it to his rear quarter-panel. No money changed hands between the driver and the campaign. The busybodies at the Federal Election Commission cried foul, and seriously considered fining him for a supposed transgression which, in the end, amounted to the public expression of a political opinion. Thankfully, they didn’t fine him: The matter closed this week with a warning not to do it again.

The usual thing to do in Washington is to let such a matter pass once the regulatory tea leaves are fully read, to consider the warning simply a bureaucracy’s Kafkaesque way of admitting error while also saving face and turf. In this case, the bumper police took the wrong course of action.

This fits a pattern of intimidation of everyday political expression. That is perceptible across federal agencies. Recall that the IRS alleged that some 2004 sermons were too pro-Kerry and others were too pro-Bush — to the point of considering revocation of tax exemptions. In one California case, the IRS only began investigating a sermon which was allegedly excessively anti-Bush after its denizens read about it in a daily newspaper.

In this case, the angels on pinheads were the methods by which the space on Mr. Shelmerdine’s car should be valued. In fairness, the inherent quashing of political liberties does seem to have dawned on at least a few heads at the FEC.

With the Democratic Party braced to control Congress, this problem could easily worsen, which is just another reason to worry about this “warning” Mr. Shelmerdine has received. The FEC now purports to possess punitive powers even over a NASCAR driver who voluntarily expresses a political opinion in plastic on his automobile. It can now attempt to exercise those powers if and when the issue arises again. It might not for years. But when it does, the claim forms something of a precedent. Some day, these powers will be dusted off. They will be used.

Americans of all political persuasions deserve better.

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