Today’s Wall Street Journal runs an Op-Ed from James Huffman, 2010 Republican nominee for the US Senate from Oregon.
Running for Senate has changed his views on public disclosure of campaign contributions:
The reality is that public disclosure serves the interests of incumbents running for re-election by discouraging support for challengers.
Huffman paints a picture of intimidation, where potential contributors rebuff him by saying they don’t want to “get their business crosswise with the incumbent.” Potential contributors have “matters pending before a federal agency,” have grants pending, or are working with the incumbent on legislation.
While these objections could indeed reflect fear of reprisal, they look more like contributors who have existing relationships with their Senator. “We’re working on legislation together” is hardly an inappropriate reason to support an incumbent.
Even if Huffman’s account and characterization of contributors’ fears is accepted on its face, however, the characterization that “Donor Disclosure Hurts Democracy” just doesn’t follow. (This may be WSJ’s characterization in the title, and not Huffman’s, but that’s still the spirit of the piece.)
Imagine a world without public donor disclosure. What’s to stop incumbents from creating a fully operational favor factory, where contributors can buy Senators’ meetings, actions, time, and votes. They’d only have to fear oversight from some empowered overseer whose necessity Huffman still acknowledges. Unfortunately, centralizing campaign finance oversight has *already* resulted in an agency paralyzed by partisan gridlock and commissioners who don’t believe in their statutory duty, and that’s *with* public scrutiny of their work. Imagine if our national campaign finance oversight were left entirely to a few experts operating in secret.
There’s only one body that we should fully trust to evaluate how political contributions affect our politics — the public.
A special commission to examine campaign contributions may seem sanitary and objective, especially to someone who recently tried unsuccessfully to break through all the advantages of incumbency.
If Huffman is concerned about the incentives that arise from publicly disclosing campaign donors, perhaps he should consider the dystopia that would come from *not* publicly disclosing campaign donors.
Incumbency advantages are a very real threat to free and fair elections. Shutting the public out of campaign finance disclosure only makes that threat worse.