Twelve-term U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) was recently criticized in independent political ads funded by a group calling itself Concerned Taxpayers of America. Rep. DeFazio wanted to know who was behind the ads, and he wasn’t willing to wait until the group filed its quarterly campaign finance report in October to find out. The Washington Post reports DeFazio as wondering, “Is this a corporation? Is it one very wealthy, right-wing individual? Is it a foreign interest? Is it a drug gang?”
So Rep. DeFazio did what any reasonable incumbent politician would do in that situation—with reporters in tow, he went to the address the group had listed with the Federal Election Commission and started shouting through the mail slot until someone agreed to speak with him.
DeFazio’s mail-slot-shouting antics were clearly a media stunt. And his concerns that a “drug gang” might be funding ads that tie him to Nancy Pelosi are . . . well let’s just call them far-fetched. But DeFazio’s behavior is illustrative of larger problems with campaign finance disclosure.
All Concerned Taxpayers of America did was make arguments about DeFazio’s qualifications for office. But rather than debate the merits of those arguments, DeFazio would rather debate about the identities of the people criticizing him. Logicians have a phrase for this: argumentum ad hominem. By focusing debate on the speakers, rather than their speech, disclosure impoverishes the political debate.
More troubling, however, is the fact that disclosure creates the opportunity for direct personal retaliation. DeFazio’s stunt would not have been possible if Concerned Taxpayers of
Proponents of campaign finance “reform” invariably downplay or ignore these social costs of disclosure, and courts, unfortunately, have been too willing to accept their arguments. We hope that antics like DeFazio’s will prompt courts to reevaluate that stance. Judges might be more skeptical of disclosure if they simply asked themselves, “Would I criticize a politician if it meant he might come to my house and shout through my mail slot?”
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