John York

John York

U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro of Texas tweeted out the names and employers of 44 Trump donors living in San Antonio on Tuesday.

“Sad to see so many San Antonians as 2019 maximum donors to Donald Trump,” he added. Perhaps fearing this shot across the bow was too subtle, Castro later retweeted MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough’s assertion: “If your business funds Trump’s campaign, then you are supporting white supremacy. Full stop … You are complicit.”

In an era of partisan boycotts, flash mobs and mounting antifa violence, Castro’s shaming of people for making legal campaign contributions exposes the targets of his ire to both financial and physical harm. Coming but days after two political extremists (one on the far-right and one on the far-left) went on killing sprees, this gross attempt to harass and intimidate political opponents should be roundly condemned.

Castro’s “tweet to arms” reveals the danger of liberal campaign finance proposals that would reveal personal information on anyone who dared donate to any candidate or politically active group. Currently, political campaigns, party committees and PACs must reveal the name, city and state of residency, occupation and employer of anyone who contributes $200 or more. Other organizations are not.

Trade associations like the Chamber of Commerce, “social welfare groups” like the Sierra Club, and nonprofit membership organizations like the National Rifle Association that engage in many activities unrelated to political campaigns are not obligated to identify their donors. They are, however, permitted to give a limited amount of money to Super PACs.

The DISCLOSE Act would change that. It would require any of these types of membership groups to release the personal information of anyone who gave them more than $1,000 to the nonprofit, regardless of the purpose behind that gift. While the espoused intent of this bill is to shed light on “dark money” – that is, political spending that cannot be traced to a specific individual – the Castro incident demonstrates the danger of publicly disclosing the personal information of donors.

These dangers are bound to hit closer to home for conservatives given that popular culture and, increasingly, corporate boardrooms have turned decisively to the left. Increasingly, those who dissent from “politically correct” orthodoxy are treated as pariahs.

Simply voicing right-of-center opinions in internal memos and message boards cost several Google engineers their jobs. When the IRS illegally leaked the National Organization for Marriage’s donor list to the Human Rights Campaign, one of the group’s supporters was forced to step down as CEO of Mozilla. Liberals crowed that this “signified a milestone for LGBT equality.”

Compared to the chilling effect additional disclosure laws would have on both free speech and the freedom of people to associate with, and support, organizations like Planned Parenthood, the NAACP, the Sierra Club or the NRA, the potential benefits are slight. "Dark money” represented less than 3% of total campaign contributions in 2018 and is a shrinking share of overall spending.

Further, it is unlikely that additional transparency will achieve the broader objective of driving out graft and influence peddling. As it is, popular politicians often survive even the most clear-cut corruption and well-publicized allegations. It is very unlikely citizens will take the time to pore over Federal Election Commission records and lobbying disclosure forms, read up on Securities and Exchange Commission enforcement actions and sift through omnibus bills to sniff out signs of foul play for themselves. If you see a political ad sponsored by the NAACP or the NRA, do you really need to know who the organization's donors are to make a judgment call on the credibility of that ad?

The only likely outcome of greater disclosure is more harassment of conservatives by far-left politicians and activists, as well as nonprofit organizations losing support because members of the public will fear the exposure that comes from contributing to an organization whose ideals and goals they agree with. While some conservatives might be tempted to support seemingly moderate steps toward full transparency of campaign contributions, the risks are far too great.

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John W. York, Ph.D., is a policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation. This piece originally appeared in The Washington Examiner.

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