An interesting commentary appeared in the Wall Street Journal titled How Donor Disclosure Hurts Democracy: As a candidate, I learned how much potential campaign contributors fear incumbent retribution.
The author, James L. Huffman, was a candidate for U.S. Senate from Oregon last year. His thesis is that disclosure of the identity of donors to political campaigns discourages people from contributing to challengers, and thereby increases the power of incumbents. So many people or business firms, he argues, have relationships with some government agency, and they don’t want to risk retribution from incumbents who learn contributions have been made to their challengers.
I agree. It’s a problem not only at the federal level, which is I believe what Huffman’s article focuses on, but also at the state and local level.
But what about government transparency? A comment left to the article stated “This is the most ridiculous argument against government transparency I have ever heard.” But contributions made to political candidates are not government action. Contributions are made by individuals (or corporations, or unions, etc.) and these are not the acts of government. Transparency is not an issue in this regard.
One comment included a novel solution: “The solution is to require that all political donations be anonymous. A candidate can not sell influence if he does not know who is buying.” Here the argument is made that the candidate should not know the identity of donors, there presumably being some sort of clearinghouse between the donors and candidates. Donors, of course, could still communicate to the candidate that they made a contribution. And, of course, anyone could falsely claim to have contributed to any politician they wanted to influence.
For me, political contributions are a form of speech. I see no need for rules that require people to identify themselves in order to exercise their right to speech. Of course, no one is required to listen.
In the end, the best solution is government — at all levels — without the power to dispense favors and punishment, thereby eliminating the reason why many political contributions are made. A government without this power is likely to be a limited government, run on principle rather than opportunism and expediency.
How Donor Disclosure Hurts Democracy
As a candidate, I learned how much potential campaign contributors fear incumbent retribution.
By James L. Huffman
In the debates about campaign-finance regulation and the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision of last year, there seems to be widespread agreement on one thing: Public disclosure of political contributions is a good thing. That was my view as well, until I campaigned as the Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate seat in Oregon in 2010.
The reality is that public disclosure serves the interests of incumbents running for re-election by discouraging support for challengers. Here’s how it works.
A challenger seeks a contribution from a person known to support candidates of the challenger’s party. The potential supporter responds: “I’m glad you’re running. I agree with you on almost everything. But I can’t support you because I cannot risk getting my business crosswise with the incumbent who is likely to be re-elected.”