Common Cause has produced a report to show the involvement of the “religious right” in a systematic legal attack on campaign finance restrictions. At the center of the tale is lawyer Jim Bopp and around him are clients with passionate commitments who wish pursue them without financing limitations or disclosure.  Common Cause describes this as a “crusade.”

As a descriptive piece, there is nothing wrong with this report. The activities of Bopp and his clients are presented with reasonable accuracy, as far as one can tell.  But on another level, the report could be read to be making a political point—to imply that the religious right, waging this “crusade” against campaign finance, is exhibiting an unsavory zealotry on regulatory issues like the one some might attribute to its religious commitments. The word “crusade” is not here a throw -away.  It appears in the title of the Report, then again in the Executive Summary, and finally once more in the Conclusion.  It is an imputation to this cause of extremism.

This is typical of an unfortunate certain line of argument that would judge the merits of a reform position by the politics of the proponent. It is also selective in its choice of targets. The “religious right” is not alone in resisting campaign finance restrictions, both limits and disclosure, as obstacles to the pursuit of a program they believe to have paramount political, moral or social importance. This can be true of crusades on the left and the right, and also of those “crusades” that are secular in character but conducted in a crusading spirit.

Professor Larry Lessig, for example, has undertaken what has been described elsewhere as a “crusade,” this time in favor of restrictions on money and politics: “Lessig’s crusade against money in politics,” Evan Osnos of The New Yorker has written, can be traced back to 1998….”   Osnos is writing about Lessig’s choice to employ an avenue of unlimited spending —a Super PAC—that he aims to close to all others. Precisely because, as he sees it, desperate times call for desperate measures, he is willing to live with what he calls the “irony” of exploiting the fruits of deregulation in order to re-regulate. His is a higher purpose, and he appeals to it in justifying this strategy.

And along the way, as result of his difficult experience, he has concluded that even disclosure is a mixed blessing.  Like those in the “religious right” described by Common Cause, he has come to believe that public reporting can expose donors to harassment:

(T) ransparency has its costs: [MAYDAY) committed to full transparency about its donors (over $200). That commitment was costly. Because our large contributors were known, it was easier for at least one powerful incumbent to leverage his power against our contributors.

Unlike the organizations in the Common Cause report, Professor Lessig has committed to the transparency about which he has these reservations. But he takes the “religious right’s” point about disclosure’s costs.

So while Larry Lessig’s goals are entirely opposed to those of Jim Bopp and his clients, their positions are comparable: in each case, these crusaders care about a political objective that they take to be hindered by financing restrictions, and in each case, they wish to clear those restrictions away in working toward that objective.  Beyond their ideological differences, each is worried about the costs of regulation—like the risks of disclosure.

Common Cause may not have intended its report as an argument for regulation that is based on the politics of those opposing it. But if that is the case it wishes to make, it is not a thoughtful contribution to the debate and not a model to follow.

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