The 10th Circuit decided another disclosure case, Coalition for Secular Government v. Williams, on the mandatory reporting of “issue speech”. It held that an individual collecting small sums to wage a campaign on ballot questions did not have to comply with registration and disclosure requirements applicable under state law to “issue committees.” The "committee" that was really just a one-person enterprise was too "small scale,” the government's interests too limited: the cost in the particular case exceeded the benefits.
Did this result turn in any way on the nature of the advocacy – – that it was on issues, not for or against candidates? The courts have long distinguished electoral from issue speech in determining the scope of constitutional protections. Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1(1976); Citizens against Rent Control v. Berkeley, 454 U.S. 290 (1981); First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti, 435 U.S. 765 (1978). The government's interests in the case of campaign speech are more varied and include both the prevention of corruption and its appearance, and the assistance that disclosure provides to enforcement of contribution and other regulatory limits. The 10th Circuit found those rationales “irrelevant or inapplicable to issue committees,” and while it has upheld Colorado's issue committee disclosure in principle on the strength of another interest, the voters’ informational interest, it concluded that this interest was insufficient to sustain the law as applied to the Coalition for Secular Government.
In campaign finance law, this distinction between issues and campaign speech has led reform advocates and their allies in legislatures to insist that while the difference may matter to constitutional analysis some of the time, this cannot be not the case all of the time. They maintain that some issue speech is often campaign speech in disguise, and the Supreme Court in McConnell upheld "electioneering communication" disclosure on the basis of its finding that some issue speech was a “sham.” Now the courts must entertain claims in as applied to cases that the plaintiffs’ issue speech is not a sham, that it is the real thing, and that it cannot be regulated as campaign finance spending.
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.
The authors of the Bright Line Project proposal for ferreting out and regulating 501(c)(4) political intervention have given the matter a considerable amount of thought and have submitted to the IRS a detailed proposal. In a number of respects, the approach that they originally announced has changed. Its purpose, however, remains one of offering clarity where now there is very little, much to the frustration of practitioners looking to offer clear guidance to their clients. It is a worthy project and addresses a major problem: no one knows what distinguishes social welfare from electioneering activity, and the consequences of the confusion have been plain for all to see.
At the same time, the proposal has to answer the question of whether it is possible for the Internal Revenue Service to tackle questions like this with a reasonable prospect of general public acceptance and confidence. There is reason to doubt it. For as noted in analysis of an earlier Bright Line Project proposal, and as seems still true in this revised version, the agency would have considerable discretion in deciding whether 501(c) communications have crossed into the restricted political zone. And this task—operating within the political world—is one which tax agency officials are not trained or well suited for, nor expected to be.