Wyden-Murkowski Bill: Vague, Over Broad, Speech Chilling

ALEXANDRIA, Va. – The Center for Competitive Politics (CCP) today released an analysis of the “Follow the Money Act of 2013” that was announced this week by Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska).

The report says the bill would “radically expand the reach of government regulation on speech critical of elected officials and force many, if not nearly all, advocacy groups to register and file burdensome reports with the federal government.”  The analysis was written by CCP President David Keating and Senior Fellow Eric Wang.

Among the problems with the bill cited in the report:

  • Regulated speech is defined so vaguely that it “could be construed to cover normal issue advocacy by groups working on any contentious issue,” permitting enforcement that would be “based on the vagaries of government bureaucrats or, worse, politically motivated officials.”
  • The White House would control FEC regulations for citizens groups.  “This would mark the first time in the history of modern campaign finance law that the party that controls the White House could effectively take charge of writing a portion of campaign finance regulations.
  • Because of the bill’s broad definition of “covered contribution,” the bill would actually require inaccurate reporting and junk disclosure.  “A contributor who had no prior knowledge of the ad and even if they disagree with the particular expenditure would find themselves listed in public reports as financing the expenditure.”
  • The legislation would make certain officers “personally liable for penalties in the event of noncompliance, even if the noncompliance is due to mere negligence.”  Penalties include a tax imposed on these officers, which would make it very difficult to find people willing to serve in that capacity, unless groups “pay such individuals a substantial premium, an effective deterrent or tax on political activity.”  Candidate committees would be exempt from the new penalties or taxes.
  • The bill also contains an IRS death sentence for noncompliant groups.  “A group with a budget in the millions filing reports that were 99% correct could easily make errors totaling over $25,000 in an election cycle, and find its tax status threatened as a result.”
  • The bill would allow the government to charge a user fee for advisory opinions about how to comply with the law.  “This merely adds insult to injury.  Not only do potential speakers face a prior restraint on their speech, but now they have to pay an additional tax merely for the ‘privilege’ of having the government tell them what its own laws mean, whether the advice is correct or not.”

“Senators Ron Wyden and Lisa Murkowski are at least (somewhat) candid about their motivations when they say ‘The goal of this effort is disclosure, for disclosure’s sake,'” write Keating and Wang.  “Whether or not they have an ulterior motive of protecting their own incumbency is another matter.”

Keating and Wang also make a point to outline the provisions of the bill that are commendable, including an increased itemized contribution reporting threshold for candidate committees, the ability for candidates to disavow independent ads, and an FEC e-filing requirement for Senate candidates.

A copy of their analysis can be found here. To schedule an interview, please contact CCP Communications Director Sarah Lee at 770.598.7961.

The Center for Competitive Politics promotes and defends the First Amendment’s protection of the political rights of speech, assembly, and petition. It is the nation’s largest organization dedicated solely to protecting First Amendment political rights.

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