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Adventures in Campaign Finance Law

I’ve alluded to this vaguely before, but there are legal restrictions on what kind of things can be written on this blog or its sister sites. This isn’t actually so much an issue of tax status — we’re products of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, the 501(c)4 cousin to CAP’s 501(c)3 and thus allowed to engage in some political advocacy — as it is of, somewhat ironically, the McCain-Feingold bill, BCRA as it’s now known. As you may recall, one of that law’s provisions was aimed at preventing outside groups like labor unions and corporations from intervening in a political campaign. When liberals here about a regulation banning a “corporation” from doing something, we tend to conjure up a mental image of Toxic Sludge, Inc. or National Shady Bank bank a 501(c)4 organization is a kind of corporation, too. Thus, among other things, we’re not supposed to comment on the “character, qualifications, and fitness for office” of different electoral candidates.

As a writer this has made me unusually aware of the subtle differences in different ways of phrasing certain points. It’s one thing, legally speaking, to say that so-and-so said such-and-such even though such-and-such isn’t true and another thing entirely to say that so-and-so is a liar and you can’t trust liars with enormous public responsibilities. The first is just a commentary about things in the world. The second attacks someone’s character (so-and-so is a liar) and someone’s fitness for office (so-and-so can’t be trusted with important responsibilities). In addition to making me hyper-aware of these differences in phrasing, it’s also made my hyper-aware of the difference in political impact between saying when so-and-so said that he was lying and saying that so-and-so lied that time reminds us that he’s an untrustworthy liar. There’s a reason why the law draws the distinction between those two kinds of charges. Permitting the former while banning the latter really does, whether rightly or wrongly, constrain the ability of an outside organization to engage in electioneering. If your organization — a political campaign, say — isn’t subject to those BCRA rules you may not be keenly attuned to these kind of distinctions. But if you overlook the difference, you do so at your own peril.

UPDATE: Legal informs me that this is slightly wrong and the prohibition on corporate expenditures predates McCain-Feingold, it’s just that the passage of the act has ushered in an era of enhanced scrutiny being paid to these issues.

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