A big weekend for SC Policy Council in the WSJ

I just received an email that reminded me of something…

This past weekend, there were not one, but two opinion pieces in The Wall Street Journal written by folks affiliated with the S.C. Policy Council.

The first wasn’t at all surprising, as it was written by Communications Director Barton Swaim, who is a regular contributor to the Journal, as well as to the Weekly Standard and other such publications. Barton is an erudite young man and a fine writer. His piece over the weekend put forth a modest proposal for a partial acceptance of the excessive use of the random “like” in common speech. All who love the language should read it, assuming they can get past the pay wall: “Managing the Decline of, Like, a Great Language.”

The second piece was by Policy Council President Ashley Landess, and it had this attention-grabbing headline: “The South Carolina Way of Incumbency Protection.”

You’d pretty much have to think exactly like Ashley to figure out what the piece was about based on that hed. For most people, that would be a leap. Basically, she argued against legislation making its way through our Legislature that would require groups that spend money to affect elections to disclose their donors, claiming ominously that this was some sort of plot by incumbents to silence political criticism.

Which, as I say, is something of a stretch. But a stretch you are motivated to attempt if you are the head of the Policy Council. And a message that would appeal to the editors of the Journal.

Anyway, I was reminded of both these pieces by an email from Barton this morning saying:

Did you happen to see Ashley’s op-ed in the WSJ on Saturday? If not, here it is: http://on.wsj.com/1DDDHDS

I’m hoping you vehemently disagree with it, because we’re holding a public debate on the topic of whether 501c3 groups like ours should have to disclose their donors and I’m looking for something to take the YES ABSOLUTELY position. You’re the first person I’ve asked, because you take contrary positions on just about everything!

It’s moderated by Charles Bierbauer, and it’s happening on Tuesday, May 19, from 6 to 8 p.m.

Think about it?


  1. Thanks for tweeting my eccentric little op-ed. I appreciated you calling me “our own.”

So I had to stop and actually read Ashley’s piece, and decide what I think of it…

Well, “vehemently” is a bit strong. But no, I don’t agree with her.

First, campaign finance has never been a thing I’m that passionate about (it’s about, shudder, money, which bores me, which is probably why I don’t have any). But when forced to think about it, I have tended to say “no” to spending limits, “yes” to disclosure.

The Constitution protects our right to stand up and speak out, not our right to secretly pay other people to speak for us. And a group that pushes transparency as the Policy Council does sets a bad example by wanting to be secretive. Ashley’s piece sort of rings hollow as I read it.

I’m slightly ambivalent about this. For instance, up to a point, I allow people to comment anonymously on my blog. But I restrict what they say more than I do people who are open about their identities. I don’t let them, for instance, criticize others anonymously.

So, given all that, I suppose I could be on a panel. But I’m not nearly as passionate or committed on this as Ashley.

I’ve asked for a few more details…

42 thoughts on “A big weekend for SC Policy Council in the WSJ

  1. Lynn Teague

    The provisions of the bill apply as much to incumbents as to challengers. Ashley describes these provisions as incumbent protection because so far in SC the anonymous ads have come from anonymously funded right wing groups attacking less extreme incumbents. It would be an interesting experiment to see how these folks would feel about the issue if vicious well-funded anonymous attacks were launched against their favorite candidates, incumbent or not. Would they then think citizens should be able to “consider the source” when evaluating statements about political candidates? Personally I want to know the source (and the funders are the real source) of any information that is intended to influence my vote and those of my fellow citizens.

      1. Kathryn Fenner

        Speaking of Cindi–excellent piece in today’s paper!
        I had not heard that someone had tried to pin “tax and spend liberal” on Kirkman “Island of NO” Finlay.

    1. Bryan Caskey

      “Personally I want to know the source (and the funders are the real source) of any information that is intended to influence my vote and those of my fellow citizens.”

      I understand wanting to know, but I hesitate to say we should force people to identify themselves when offering political statements.

      What if I wanted to write a political pamphlet arguing that any SC Legislator who votes for a gun control bill should be defeated? I certainly have the first amendment right to express my political opinion. Now, lets say that I would prefer to stay anonymous, since I’m worried that crazy anti-gun people will come to my house and throw bricks through the windows. Don’t I have the right to advocate for a political opinion and remain anonymous?

      To me, it seems that an argument either persuades (or doesn’t) on its own merit, and the messenger is irrelevant. I don’t think we should require anyone to sign their name to a political statement (or open their books to show donors). Doing so may give your statement more weight, or it may not. We should leave that decision to whomever is making the statement. Two specific examples come to mind. The Federalist Papers were published under the pseudonym “Publius” and Ben Franklin’s early letters to the New-England Courant were under the famous pseudonym “Silence Dogood”.

      I figured that’s the reference that one of the commentator here named “Silence” is alluding to.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Yes, I believe so. Isn’t that right, Silence?

        Partly, my position arises from a preference for transparency. It also arises from my experiences with interests trying to stack the Legislature with their puppets — first the video poker industry, later out-of-state ideologues who hated public schools.

        Both were very well-heeled, enough to make a big difference in campaigns. And the lawmaker targeted by them had no well-heeled supporters who opposed video poker or who defended public schools with which to counteract the effect of all that cash.

        In other words, money outweighed ideas, because only one side of the argument got amplified to voters. So the deliberative process was seriously distorted. Voters would get these highly misleading mailings, with no rebuttal.

        As for the Silence Dogood/Publius precedents… That practice arose out of a time in which one could be hanged for expressing the wrong opinion. That was less likely at the time of the Federalist Papers, but it was still the fashion.

        Two other cultural factors bore upon it, I believe: First, using a classical-sounding alias such as “Publius” gave your argument a lot of extra cachet and legitimacy in that neo-classical era.

        Second, I get the sense that in that generation, writing for publication wasn’t always seen as a proper pursuit for a gentleman. So a lot of things were published under pseudonyms, not just political arguments….

        1. Doug Ross

          I agree with Brad on this one. No limits, full disclosure. I’m not convinced that more spending automatically ensures one side wins. Ask Sheldon Adelson if he’d like his millions back that he threw away on Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney. According to Wikipedia: “Altogether he spent $92 million supporting losing candidates during the 2012 United States presidential election cycle.”

          It takes a LOT of money to get the middle 10% on any issue to pick a side.

      2. Lynn Teague

        In an ideal world, we could all do enough research to independently evaluate the truth or falsity of claims made in political statements that attempt to influence us. However, we can’t, so very often we rely on knowing who is providing the funding and who therefore might influence the information provided. That is why many scientific journals require statements identifying potentially conflicting sources of grants or contracts. That is why legislators are supposed to identify potential conflicts of interest and recuse themselves when appropriate (although in SC in most cases we have no way of knowing that they do so, since they don’t report private income in SC). And that is why the public interest in knowing the source of attempts to influence our vote outweighs anyone’s desire to throw rocks from the shadows.

        In any case, no one is proposing a bill that limits the ability to anonymously fund public advocacy on issues. You could still anonymously say that you believe that gun control is wrong, and that you believe that legislators who vote for gun control should be defeated. You simply couldn’t anonymously say that Senator X voted for gun control and should be defeated.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          And correct me if I’m wrong on this, Lynn. But isn’t this in part about tax-exempt status? Would the Policy Council have to disclose its backers under the bill if it were not a tax-exempt entity?

          If I’m right about that, it doesn’t seem like much of a burden to require an entity that gets such a substantial benefit from the taxpayers to disclose where it’s getting its tax-exempt money from…

          1. Lynn Teague

            You are correct that this relates to tax status, Brad. The League of Women Voters, for example, is a 501c(4) organization. We can advocate on specific bills and lobby legislators, and donations to our overall organization are not tax deductible. We have an education fund that we zealously protect from direct advocacy and use for general public education that is 501c(3) and is a tax deduction for donors.

            1. M.Prince

              Is it really at all easy to distinguish between groups/organizations in terms of 501c(3) vs. 501c(4) status? It seems to me to be asking a great deal, perhaps too much, to determine what constitutes 49% and 51% political campaign activities in granting one status over the other. Can there ever be a bright line?

            2. Doug Ross

              Simple solution: don’t allow tax deductions for any contributions to churches, charities, non-profits, etc. The tax code shouldn’t be used as an incentive to donate.

            3. Lynn Teague

              It isn’t all that hard to distinguish between direct advocacy/lobbying and public education, if you’re honestly trying to do that according to the rules. Those who wish to blur the lines for their own purposes may make it seem more difficult than it is.

        2. Bryan Caskey

          You simply couldn’t anonymously say that Senator X voted for gun control and should be defeated.

          But that’s kind of the whole point of political advocacy, isn’t it? I mean that’s pretty basic.

          “Senator X took position Y. Position Y is bad because ABC. We should defeat Senator X. Tomorrow, vote for candidate Z who agrees with me.


          The Masked Avenger”

          I couldn’t say something like this?

          1. Lynn Teague

            You could say it – and sign it with your real name if you are a tax exempt organization, as masked avenger if not.

            1. Bryan Caskey

              Well, April 15 was just last week, so I can say with 100% certainty that I, Bryan Caskey, am definitely not a tax-exempt organization.

      3. Kathryn Fenner

        I guess I have no issue with actual speech–words, being anonymous. It’s when SCOTUS speech–$$$–gets involved. I don’t know how we get ourselves out of the Citizens United, Buckley v. Valeo $$=speech mess. It’s reductio ad absurdum.

  2. Jeff Mobley

    I’m not a WSJ subscriber, so I couldn’t read the whole article, but I’m assuming it contains substantially the same arguments that are in this page on the Policy Council’s website:

    Disclosure laws should be about providing the public with the information necessary to decide if an elected official or candidate is being bought, or is abusing his/her office. They should not be about suppressing the voices of citizens who want to communicate their ideas on political issues.

    So, should elected officials and candidates be required to disclose all the sources of their income? Absolutely.
    Should they be required to disclose the source of their campaign contributions? Sure.
    Should political advocacy groups be required to disclose their donors? I think it depends, and I think this is an area where the Supreme Court has actually been doing a pretty good job in terms of applying tests to determine, for example, whether the communication expressly advocates for the election or defeat of a candidate, or whether electioneering is the major purpose of the organization.

    In short, disclosure rules can have the effect of burdening free speech, and should therefore be allowed only when it can be demonstrated that there’s a very good reason for such a burden (for example, deterring corruption). The fact that lots of people might find it nice to know the information isn’t, in itself, reason enough to burden (or risk burdening) free speech.

    And as Bryan notes, while it might be nice if we always knew the source of political messages, what’s really important is that the we assess the truth of a political messages.

    1. Bryan Caskey

      “I’m not a WSJ subscriber, so I couldn’t read the whole article…”

      You can work around the WSJ paywall pretty easily. For almost every article, just follow the link to the WSJ article. It will take you to their site, and you’ll hit the paywall, where you see only the first paragraph, and are then asked to log-in to see the rest.

      Simply cut and paste the title of the article into google in a new window or tab and google search the title of the article. Google will pull up its results page, and probably the first search result will be the WSJ page you were just at. Click the link from the Google search, and it should take you to the full article.

      The WSJ has a sort of deal with Google to improve their searchability (or whatever you call it) to give a “first click free” thing. This little trick works about 99% of the time for me.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Um… you can also take all of the newspapers out of a rack after putting in the money for one copy, and then turn around and sell them. But, as Dick Nixon would say, it would be wrong. (Not to mention, in this case, illegal.)

        Just as I think it’s wrong to try to bend public policy to your will while hiding your involvement. We can argue all day about whether it should be illegal, I suppose, but at the least, it’s not honorable. And it’s not respectful of public discourse in a free society.

        Which is why I afford more latitude here on the blog to people who identify themselves, as do you and Jeff and so many others. The anonymous folk get only the respect they deserve, which is not nearly as much…

        1. Kathryn Fenner

          Yeah, but if it’s a ridiculously onerous paywall, like you simply cannot read x article, vs. if you read more than ten articles….I’m not going to subscribe to the WSJ. I might read one article every two months.

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            Well, you’re missing out. I especially enjoy the Saturday paper, which is what the Journal has instead of a Sunday paper — lots of interesting stuff to read and contemplate in the Review section…

            I like the Friday Arena section, too…

          2. Brad Warthen Post author

            Of course, if you live downtown, you can get the NYT delivered. The local distributor has always refused to deliver across the river.

            That doesn’t really matter anymore, since I read my papers on the iPad. But those years when I couldn’t get the NYT, and could get the WSJ (for free, when I was at the paper, since The State delivered it and we got comp copies) got me in the habit of reading the Journal instead…

          3. Kathryn Fenner

            Yeah, I used to read the WSJ on the train in Chicago. There are some interesting pieces, but mostly I read it to stay within bluffing distance of conversations. If I were adding to my subscriptions, I’d add the New York Times before the WSJ. I actually like all those “features” articles.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Of course, those Guy Fawkes masks are just plain creepy. It amazes me that there are people who identify with that image as though it were something positive.

      Kind of like the Tea Party and their snake flags. Or, to go to the origin, the rebellious colonists and their snake flags. Really? You want to project yourself as a snake in the grass?

      All of these people seriously need an image consultant…

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Here’s the thing about that…

        If a person showed up in that painting wearing that mask, everyone in the room would just ignore what he had to say.

        But the bad faith that would be so evident under such circumstances is by no means as evident when you get a flyer in the mail trashing your elected representative, and NOTHING rebutting it. It’s basically all you have to go by if you’re an average voter — unless you have the sort of get-up-and-go to do some research, which too few voters do. (People behind such mailings count on voters being slackers, and are seldom disapppointed.)

        But if you DO have such initiative to look things up, you certainly ought to be able to find out who was sending you that stuff…

      2. Brad Warthen

        Wait, let me rephrase that:

        Everything not forbidden should be compulsory! And vice versa!

        That’s what Doug would expect me to say, and I hate to disappoint… 🙂

  3. M.Prince

    We have more or less backed into this problem by first allowing the amount of money in politics to grow to such vast proportions that politicians have to be constantly in pursuit of it – and then, in part because of this over-sized role, pronouncing money a form of speech. So, like our predicament with an excess of guns, it’s the fact that this matter has grown to such tremendous proportions that makes it so hard to tackle – which, oddly enough, leads some to conclude that limitless (and undisclosed) money is actually a good thing. That, to me, expresses devotion to a perverted notion of liberty (i.e. libertarianism) that indiscriminately declares everything that allegedly expands “freedom” to be good. The outsized role of money in politics may not be such a big deal at the national (i.e. presidential) level, where the sums on both sides are so large. But at the state and local level, it definitely can be destructive of the common good, as Mr.Warthen has described.

    1. Doug Ross

      Term limits would have a positive impact on reducing the power of money in politics. Incumbents get more money because they are in the position to do the bidding of lobbyists and donors.

      But we can’t have term limits because it would cause us to lose the valuable experience of long tenured statesmen/women like Boehner, Reid, McConnell, and Pelosi.

      1. M.Prince

        I’m afraid I can’t see that producing any improvement. Given the expense and effort involved in running, offices limited to a maximum of four and twelve years respectively are likely to attract two categories of candidates: those of independent means (therefore a very thin slice of society) and, more likely, opportunists mainly interested in using public office as a means to obtain other more remunerative positions after their two terms are over. Yes, we have some of this already. But as I see it, limiting the number of terms probably would only make it worse.

        1. Doug Ross

          You’ll never have a chance to replace powerful Republicans without term limits. Never. At least with term limits, there is an increased chance of flipping a seat.

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