Twelve-term U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) was recently criticized in independent political ads funded by a group calling itself Concerned Taxpayers of America.  Rep. DeFazio wanted to know who was behind the ads, and he wasn’t willing to wait until the group filed its quarterly campaign finance report in October to find out.  The Washington Post reports DeFazio as wondering, “Is this a corporation? Is it one very wealthy, right-wing individual? Is it a foreign interest? Is it a drug gang?”


170817449_bd1745ca45_mSo Rep. DeFazio did what any reasonable incumbent politician would do in that situation—with reporters in tow, he went to the address the group had listed with the Federal Election Commission and started shouting through the mail slot until someone agreed to speak with him.


No really.


DeFazio’s mail-slot-shouting antics were clearly a media stunt.  And his concerns that a “drug gang” might be funding ads that tie him to Nancy Pelosi are . . . well let’s just call them far-fetched.  But DeFazio’s behavior is illustrative of larger problems with campaign finance disclosure.


All Concerned Taxpayers of America did was make arguments about DeFazio’s qualifications for office.  But rather than debate the merits of those arguments, DeFazio would rather debate about the identities of the people criticizing him.  Logicians have a phrase for this: argumentum ad hominem.  By focusing debate on the speakers, rather than their speech, disclosure impoverishes the political debate.


More troubling, however, is the fact that disclosure creates the opportunity for direct personal retaliation.  DeFazio’s stunt would not have been possible if Concerned Taxpayers of America had not been required to record an address with the FEC.  And while DeFazio was merely interested in publicity, not everyone makes such benign use of disclosure information.  For example, in 2004, Gigi Brienza made a $500 contribution to John Edwards’ presidential campaign.  As a result, her name, address, occupation, and employer were all listed on the FEC’s website.  This allowed an animal-rights terrorist group to discover that she worked for Bristol-Myers Squibb and to place her name and home address on a list of “targets” beneath the message “Now you know where to find them.”  While Brienza was never attacked, she has subsequently cut back her political activity—she will never again make a contribution over the federal disclosure threshold of $200.


Proponents of campaign finance “reform” invariably downplay or ignore these social costs of disclosure, and courts, unfortunately, have been too willing to accept their arguments.  We hope that antics like DeFazio’s will prompt courts to reevaluate that stance.  Judges might be more skeptical of disclosure if they simply asked themselves, “Would I criticize a politician if it meant he might come to my house and shout through my mail slot?”


Image Source: MyEyeSees