It is disconcerting to discover that Brad Smith is disappointed in an earlier posting here. He holds strong views on political law issues but he expresses them clearly, expertly and with principled consistency: he rightly says that he has maintained an independent position against even the expectations, on some issues, of natural allies in the Republican Party. Now Brad expresses frustration that I misrepresented his tone and argument in an exchange with Paul Ryan of the Campaign Legal Center over the IRS’s proposed regulation of 501(c)(4) political activity.

Brad views the exchange as substantive; yes, it was, in part. But I also thought that it illustrated the shortcomings of the contemporary campaign finance debate, which for years has stalled on mutual mistrust and oversimplification. This is not to say that I believe—and I do not believe—that Brad is a habitual practitioner of these exaggerations. Yet somehow disagreements in this field manage to slip sooner or later, to some degree or the other, into these styles of argument.

To be clear:

Brad is correct to say that he does not control the headlines of his op-ed. So to the extent that my argument rested on the reference to the IRS “power grab” in the op-ed headline, Brad is not fairly faulted. I do note, however, that in another of his op-eds immediately before this last one, the title was “The IRS Attack on Political Speech.” Brad’s views have now twice come advertised in this way.

And readers might see more in Brad’s writing to support this advertising than he supposes or intends. Brad tends to depict the IRS as at least complicit in a plot by “the left” to use ill-founded disclosure regulations to smoke out their political adversaries—to “harass and boycott and in some instances cases even vandalize and threaten” them, as he put it in an interview with Janine Turner, posted to the Center for Competitive Politics website. Nowhere in the interview, held after his “Power Grab” Op-Ed, does Brad indicate that the Service may have merely fumbled its regulatory assignment. In his writing, Brad seems certain that the IRS “targeted” conservative groups and that this was the result of the Left’s designs to harass their political adversaries.

That Brad has not singled out IRS career employees is certainly true. But he withholds the benefit of the doubt from more senior officials. So it was not altogether fanciful of my posting to suggest that Brad takes a dark view of the IRS’s behavior and its effect on free speech and association.

Brad also wonders why I brought campaign finance into the argument, when his purpose was to comment on IRS regulations. But Brad himself has situated the IRS (c)(4) controversy squarely within the ongoing debate about campaign finance reform. See The IRS Attack on Political Speech, The Wall Street Journal (Aug. 5, 2013)(“Thanks to ‘campaign finance reform,’ citizen groups must … apply to the IRS for a tax license to speak on politics”). He sees the struggle over the IRS rules, quite reasonably, as an argument over whether the Internal Revenue Code is the vehicle by which certain campaign-related activity should be captured and made subject to financial transparency requirements.

My point was that some reform advocates are not interested in hounding their political adversaries but are committed to transparency standards that they believe tax-exempt groups are evading through the (c)(4) classification. And I am quite convinced that, for his part, Brad is not looking to encourage, nor do I believe that his position would invite, special interest control of our government. And yet these are included among the themes of the exchange between Brad and Paul.

Brad agrees with my general point about the state of the debate, but finds his exchange with Paul to be an “oddly” chosen example. He may well be right. I could have looked—and would have found—far less informed, more feckless commentators than Brad Smith and Paul Ryan. But maybe it is precisely because of their standing in the field that their exchange was notable for lapsing into charges of “allowing special interests” to dominate electoral politics or having “the goal…to hamper the political opposition.”

Finally, Brad attributes to me a “pox on both your houses” posture. Here I would answer that few actively engaged in these debates can claim absolute innocence of rhetorical zest or of political or ideologically motivated barbs: I know I make no such claim. These are topics on which one tends to have strong views. But by now, all of us who have been in it for a while can recognize the decay that has set in to these exchanges.

Like Brad, I would hope that the New Year is one in which any one of us could discuss these issues without being cast or portraying others as either an enabler of special interests or a left-wing Inspector Javert hunting down political enemies. And Brad and I can also agree that we are all better off with—in his words— a “campaign finance debate [that] can move forward, both substantively and rhetorically.”

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