Mr. Noble in His Gyrocopter

April 16, 2015
posted by Bob Bauer

Long in the field of campaign finance, well versed in its triumphs and tribulations, Larry Noble of the Campaign Legal Center objects strongly to the suggestions for disclosure reform I co-authored with Professor Samuel Issacharoff.  It’s all a magic trick, he argues, that accomplishes the reverse of its stated intention: it moves contributions into the dark, raises the risk corruption and disregards the lessons of Watergate.  The public is not “gullible”: it won’t buy it.

It is difficult not to imagine that Mr. Noble is engaged in theater of his own, something like the aerial feat performed yesterday by the mailman in a gyrocopter who touched down on the Capitol grounds with a similarly passionate appeal for campaign finance reform.  This gentleman, undoubtedly sincere but less clearly prudent,  entitled his project “Kitty Hawk”, after the Wright Brothers’ fabled flight in North Carolina in 1903.  Larry, if he were maneuvering a craft, might have  named it “Watergate,” and he would have refreshed the message by 70 years, with only another four decades to go to cross over into the current century and to the present time.

In both cases—the journey of the gyrocopter and the blog posting– we have a show of outrage meant to carry the point home on sheer conviction.  Reliance on moral certitude is a staple of reform debate of the Watergate vintage, as is the disbelief that anyone of sound mind and conscience could hold a different view.  The problem, of course, is that others do have opposing views and defensible grounds for holding them.

The campaign finance reform debate is a debate precisely because what Larry hold to be self-evident is not so obvious to others, and because what he is sure is right is quite controversial.  Dissenters include those who question the expansive definition and supposed prevalence of corruption on which Larry depends for the force of his claims.  They are joined in their doubts by others who fear that reform measures have other harmful effects, such as invasion of privacy and exposure to retaliation.

Yet others worry that the reform program Larry hails has inadvertently prompted the move toward “dark money.”  The experience with these reforms is, at best, mixed, and reasonable observes might conclude that it should be re-examined and alternatives that attract broad, bi-partisan support should be considered. This, Professor Issacharoff and I argued, is a worthy objective.

The main substantive point of our article was this: disclosure serves an important purpose, that of educating voters, but that in this era of (c)(4)s, Super PACs and other innovative vehicles expending hundreds of millions,  reform should focus on the major political money.  One can argue about the threshold for contribution disclosure—right now it is absurdly set at $200– but it does seem quaint to worry overly much about a couple of thousand in donated dollars when another several million are being spent on the side for the benefit for the same candidate.   So wherever the threshold is set, it is the source of the many millions that voters would find it useful to know something about.  And, as Sam Issacharoff and I emphasized, the interest being served is not primarily that of preventing corruption, but of equipping the voter with information that informs their political choices.

We said more, about which Larry says little.  We discussed how within a structure for reform a number of issues could be addressed and various views accommodated: the timetable for pre-election advertising disclosure, Internet regulation, the role of the IRS, the extension of certain pre-election reporting requirement to activities other than broadcast advertising, and other measures to protect the privacy of the “small donor.”  

But we lost Mr, Noble at the point at which we suggested that the threshold for contribution disclosure be significantly raised, even up the limit that the law establishes as the boundary at or below which there is little risk of corruption or its appearance.   But had we proposed $2,000 or $1,500, Larry’s resistance would have been the same.  And if that is not the case, and he is open to a major adjustment, he could have said so, and the discussion could have been extended rather than foundering on his charge that we are out to fool everyone.

But then again, Larry made his choice: he would prefer fly the “Watergate” into battle. The vehicle he has chosen, of course, has its allure and can still attract an audience, but it cannot stay airborne for long.


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