Opinion: Morning Examiner

The good, the bad and the ugly of the 'dark money' debate

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Beltway Confidential,Opinion,Mark Tapscott,Morning Examiner,First Amendment,Freedom of Speech,Freedom of Assembly,Dark money

Politics is an arena in which there are many gray areas, but, because it can simultaneously benefit the good guys and the bad guys, "dark money" may be the grayest of all.

Dark money is anonymous contributions used to fund partisan campaigns, either directly in appeals to vote for or against a particular candidate or indirectly through advocacy on behalf of or in opposition to a cause.

Liberals generally are determined to stamp out dark money, while conservatives tend to be worried about the potential for suppressing unpopular political speech. Both sides have philosophical and practical considerations behind their arguments.

The good side

Transparency in campaign finance is always a good thing. Voters have a right to know who a candidate depends upon for contributions because that provides a roadmap for how he or she is likely to vote if elected.

This may be the major point on which there is the most widespread agreement among liberals and conservatives. Everybody benefits when politicians have to disclose all of their funders.

Full disclosure is backed by The Wall Street Journal editorial page, The American Prospect and just about everybody else in between.

The bad side

It's not so simple, however, when the dark money is funding political advocacy by non-candidates. Liberals are crusading now to force donors to 501(c)(4) nonprofits to be disclosed.

Their point is that voters should know if advocacy on behalf of or against a particular government program or public policy proposal benefits the funder of that advocacy.

Put more bluntly, will George Soros or the Koch Brothers, for example, profit somehow by generating public support or opposition to a bill before Congress?

Or, to come at it from an angle that gets too little attention in this debate, does a bill before Congress give a senator or representative the power to extort contributions from successful businesses? Peter Schweitzer's recent book on this theme ought to be a wakeup call for everybody.

The ugly side

All of that said, there remains the reality that anonymity is sometimes essential to the protection of unpopular political speech.

The Supreme Court recognized this reality in its 1958 NAACP v. Alabama decision that affirmed the civil rights organization's need to protect its donors from segregationist violence. The court also recognized the due process and equal protection of the law aspects of protecting anonymous speech.

The same concern is an ever-present reality for highly visible donors to controversial proposals like Soros and the Kochs. Death threats are an all-too-familiar reality for such individuals, regardless of where they stand on the ideological spectrum.

Dark money is a tough issue that ought not be decided on the basis of cliches or political expediency. But if the First Amendment is to be upheld as the Founders intended, it is a circle that must be squared, somehow.

On today's

Editorial: FOIA reform a step forward for government transparency.

Watchdog/Richard Pollock: Accenture's success has come despite checkered federal contracting history.

Beltway Confidential/Byron York: Four of five FCC media study authors were Obama donors.

Beltway Confidential/Joel Gerhke: Federal court backs school that forced students to remove shirts for fear of ethnic violence.

Columnist/Ron Arnold: Obamacrats threaten America's private land-energy boom with Endangered Species Act.

Columnist/Veronique de Rugy: Expect more questions than answers when Obama gets around to releasing a new budget.

PennAve/David M. Drucker: GOP poll finds Obamacare disapproval highest among seniors.

Legal Newsline/John O'Brien: Aetna wants access to asbestos claims at heart of Garlock case.

In other news

CBS News: Ukrainian official claims Russian invasion at airport.

The New York Times: Outrage over sexist remarks turns into fundraising tool.

USA Today: NSA surveillance hurting tech firms' business.

Washington Post: Conservatives vow to press on after Arizona veto.

CNN: Russian warship 200 miles from Florida.

New York Daily News: Obama, Biden frosty to each other in 2012 campaign.

Righty Playbook

The Weekly Standard: Obamacare vs Medicare.

National Review Online: Against complacency.

American Thinker: The pen, the phone and failure.

Bonus must-read

The Federalist: GOP shows in Arizona how quickly it will cave on religious liberty.

Lefty Playbook No, really, you didn't build that.

The Huffington Post: Inspiration from Iberia, Louisiana.

New Republic: Liberals have a problem with bright, shiny objects.

Bonus must-read

UTNE Reader: The dangerous return of water privatization.

Blog Right

Powerline: The Dave Camp tax proposal and Republican reform.

Gateway Pundit: After 3 years, 2 months and 10 days, Tea Party Patriots granted tax exempt status with a phone call.

Marginal Revolution: What I worry about.

Blog Left

Kevin Drum: Poli sci profs says poli sci wizardry didn't help Obama in 2012 after all.

Crooks and Liars: Republicans kill 13,000 Tennessee jobs with VW vote.

America Blog: New research suggests you are what you avatar.

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Mark Tapscott

Executive Editor
The Washington Examiner