The Transparency-Privacy Trade-Off (or Bargain)

September 13, 2016
posted by Bob Bauer

The Brennan Center Report on the state of disclosure, “Secret Spending in the States,” usefully examines transparency policy issues presented by high-impact spending in low-information contests at the state and local level. It argues that dark money is not the only problem and focuses on the additional questions raised by "gray money" – –funding disclosed by reporting entities but received from organizations giving no indication of the interest or funding behind them. The Report then selects examples from various states of dark money and gray money controversies or issues. The Center sets out a program of reform and points to some progress made in the states.

The current divide over these reporting issues is so sharp that it is unlikely that the Center will immediately win over the usual skeptics. These skeptics’ complaint is that terms like “dark money” or “gray money” are highly charged but hopelessly vague, and that they are being used to justify proposed reforms that would impede the exercise of free speech rights. They are loathe to empower the government to do too much, and behind this is the conviction that government in the control of particular political interests will use disclosure to hound adversaries or subject them to public harassment.

But the skeptics might be surprised that the Brennan Center Report does not minimize the burdens and political risks of disclosure regimes. It argues for reasonable monetary thresholds, to keep the smaller contributions out of the public reports; for reasonable exemptions for especially vulnerable participants; and for "other reasonable accommodations" to allow donors to support organizations for charitable or social welfare purposes without falling within disclosure requirements that apply to the financing of political activities. In addition, the Center quite sensibly would have "[any] penalty for failure to disclose… fit the severity of the violation."

Trump, Taxes, and the Choice of Law or Politics

August 18, 2016
posted by Bob Bauer

Mark Patterson observes that Donald Trump refuses to make the personal tax disclosure that is routinely and without exception expected of senior federal officials. He describes Congress’ strict enforcement of this obligation, which includes the deep probing of returns by the Senate Finance and other congressional committees that, in Patterson’s words, require “answers [to] dozens of detailed questions about sources of income, deductions, investments, tax treatment (and immigration status] of domestic employees and other topics.” Yet Trump says that in his case, it is “none of your business,” and so he is relying on the absence of any legal requirement of disclosure to deny the public what the senior officials he would appoint if President would have to provide. Patterson recommends that either the law be amended to compel presidential candidates to release this information or to provide it to congressional committees for review followed by a public assessment. (Note: Mark is one my colleagues at Perkins Coie.)

Why would presidential candidates, charged with reporting specific categories of financial information, not have to include their tax returns? The choice now is deemed to be theirs: a choice determined only by the pressures, or incentives or disincentives, of the political “marketplace”, or a personal sense of ethical obligation.

Committing this question to a purely political resolution represents a judgment that voters will set and enforce the transparency standard. They will either reward disclosure or punish candidates for resisting it, but one way or the other, voter will is what counts, and there is no need or place for a legal requirement. In fact, on this theory, it is better for the question to be referred to the voters, because they are the ones to ‘vet” the presidential candidate and to insist on what information they should have to meet their “vetting” function.

Corporate Regulation of Internet Politics

August 15, 2016
posted by Bob Bauer

Nate Persily has written intriguingly about the “dangers” and “opportunities” presented by the increasing prominence, and perhaps eventual dominance, of Internet platforms as outlets for paid political speech. We’re not in a television age anymore, he cautions. Now we have portals that have fundamental decisions to make about whether and how to apply policies devised for commercial speech to political communications. Those decisions concern standards of tone, fairness, accuracy and content, e.g. hate speech, but also those of transparency, such as requiring more complete disclosure than the just an organization’s name might provide of the true sources of financing for its paid ad.

The opportunity Professor Persily sees is for these Internet platforms to effect policies beyond the constitutional authority and probably the political reach of the government. The danger he points out is that private organizations may use their market power to engage in censorship practices and to do so without full transparency or accountability.

This is a timely, insightful call for attention to a transition in the political marketplace that might otherwise escape full and searching notice. A major problem is the one of trying to have it both ways. We might ask these Internet platforms to be restrained in the exercise of their power in some respects, but less in others, depending entirely on variable judgments of the worthiness of the goals. Professor Persily has suggested measures to address what he describes as “well-known pathologies of the campaign finance system.”

The voting rights and campaign finance wars have been fought on terrain largely shaped by two major and controversial decisions: the Crawford case on voter ID requirements, and Citizens United on independent spending. Critics have lamented Crawford’s naiveté about the stated value and inevitable partisan misuses of ID requirements, but it seemed that supporters had going for them the “common sense” judgment that voters required to have an ID to board a plane can be reasonably asked to produce one to vote. So one might have thought that Crawford was here to stay, even as the Justice who wrote for the Court, John Paul Stevens, has expressed regret.

Citizens United got more bad press in many quarters for opening up direct corporate political spending and for giving a boost to Super PACs. Its author, Anthony Kennedy, continues to defend it. He points to the silver lining: the court’s brief, arguably cursory, salute to disclosure, even as Kennedy concedes it is not yet working in practice as he had hoped it would. The critics who think the court flipped open the Pandora’s Box of campaign finance have put whatever hopes on the antidote of disclosure, and more speculatively on a constitutional amendment to overturn the case’s core permissiveness.

In light of developments of recent weeks, it is interesting to consider where the law set in motion by these cases is heading.

Reform and the “Chaos Syndrome,” Part II

June 24, 2016
posted by Bob Bauer

Jonathan Chait disagrees with the Jonathan Rauch’s point about the bite-back effects of modern reform as one explanation for political dysfunction. The problem Chait sees is that the GOP has gone mad and that a reversal of course on reform—e.g. opening up more resources for the parties—won’t make any significant difference.

Rauch does not dispute that there is a limit to what can be expected of his reform-the-reforms program. He also looks for the source of the problem in wider causes, though his emphasis is not on the qualitative difference between the major parties’ styles, tone and tactics. He does suggest that the 1970’s reforms, including but not limited to the passion for full transparency, can make it harder to achieve constructive discussion and compromise even when this healthier politics might otherwise be possible.

Chait cites studies validating his case that the resistance to compromise with a reviled opposition has advanced to a destructive degree within the GOP. But there is evidence to suggest that this hyper-partisanship may be spreading and there may be less to distinguish partisans on this score over time if the current trend holds. Pew has just published a study concluding that “partisans’ views of the opposing party are now more negative than at any point in nearly a quarter of a century.” Among its findings: “Exactly half of Republicans and 46 percent of Democrats said they find talking politics with a member of the opposing party to be ‘stressful and frustrating.’”