Don’t restrict disclosure

By The Curry Coastal Pilot April 16, 2011 05:00 am

Republican Jim Huffman believes public disclosure of individual campaign contributions hurts democracy. He wrote in The Wall Street Journal this week about his failed 2010 attempt to defeat Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden. “The disclosure requirement makes the mountain to be climbed by most challengers even steeper,” he said.

His argument for eliminating some disclosure, though, is an argument for a less informed electorate – less confident in the system’s integrity.

When Huffman was running against Wyden, he faced a problematic contest. A law professor at Lewis & Clark law school, Huffman was not a household name before he ran. Although there are plenty of independent-minded Oregonians, there were and are more registered Democrats than Republicans.

The policy differences between the candidates were pretty much what you might expect, the candidates articulate. In the end, Wyden raised $5.7 million in contributions, Huffman about $2.3 million. Wyden won with 866,507 votes to Huffman’s 566,199.

During the campaign, potential individual donors told Huffman they agreed with him, but they didn’t want to get crosswise with Wyden. Some had a matter pending before a federal agency, were working on legislation or were hoping for a federal grant. Disclosure makes “threats possible and fear of retribution plausible,” Huffman wrote.

Or it could be that disclosure gives contributors an excuse.

Huffman found the benefits of disclosure scant, essentially only promoting the re-election of incumbents. The cap of individual contributions at $2,400 provides voters with little information, he wrote. He concluded that reporting should still be mandated for tracking contribution limits – without public disclosure.

Huffman’s experiences trace the issues of the Buckley v. Valeo case. The U.S. Supreme Court decided it in 1976 in favor of public disclosure. And we can’t argue with his experience. Contribution disclosure does infringe on privacy. Disclosure can make raising money more difficult.

But it does not invidiously disadvantage challengers. Challengers do win. As Huffman wrote on his election website after he lost, the story of the 2010 election was how challengers won. The Oregon House and Senate were rebalanced to a nearly 50/50 split between Democrats and Republicans. Congress was also reshaped.

It’s vital that voters make informed decisions. Disclosure is one of the least restrictive means of subduing the harms of voter ignorance and money in politics. It’s also hard to make the case that voters do not already know that the mountain to be climbed by challengers is steeper.

Disclosure is an imperfect instrument of democracy. Without it, voters become less participants and more spectators.

– Wescom News Service (The Bulletin)