The Costs of Campaign Contribution Disclosure

James L. Huffman, former Dean of Lewis & Clark Law School and the 2010 Republican nominee for Senate from Oregon, has an op-ed in Monday’s WSJ explaining how his experience as a political candidate convinced him that mandatory disclosure of campaign contributions is a bad idea.

The reality is that public disclosure serves the interests of incumbents running for re-election by discouraging support for challengers. Here’s how it works.

A challenger seeks a contribution from a person known to support candidates of the challenger’s party. The potential supporter responds: “I’m glad you’re running. I agree with you on almost everything. But I can’t support you because I cannot risk getting my business crosswise with the incumbent who is likely to be re-elected.” . . .

Disclosure makes threats possible, and fears of retribution plausible. Within weeks of a contribution of $200 or more, the contributor’s name appears on the public record. Contributors know this, and they know that supporting the challenger can, should the challenger lose, have consequences in terms of future attention to their interests. Of course no incumbent will admit to issuing threats or seeking retribution, but the perception that both exist is widespread.

The reality of that perception alone should give us pause about disclosure requirements. And it would be naïve to believe that the perceptions have no basis in reality.

He makes some good points, but I am not entirely convinced. There are strong arguments for disclosure. Among other things, it gives voters additional information and could make it easier to assess corruption claims. Huffman argues that since federal law caps campaign contributions at $2,400, disclosure does not do much to prevent corruption, but does discourage support of challengers. More to ponder.

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