Congress Continues Campaign to Chill Political Speech

Congress Continues Campaign to Chill Political Speech

Jan 14, 2021 Patrice Onwuka

With the start of a new session, Congress has resurrected a sweeping election reform bill that’s certain to stifle funding to political advocacy.

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., reintroduced House Resolution 1, the For the People Act, which was passed by the Democratic-led House in the last session of Congress but failed along party lines in the U.S. Senate.  

This nearly 800-page bill covers many liberal policy priorities meant to cement Democratic dominance at the polls from outlawing gerrymandering to D.C. statehood. It also includes reforms that would restrict spending on political advocacy and chill donations to organizations that influence elections.

As Brad Smith of the Institute for Free Speech wrote in an analysis of the bill’s previous iteration, “These limitations would reach far beyond campaign speech to regulate discussion of legislative issues and public affairs. The restrictions also extend far beyond 'super PACs' to apply to literally any civic or membership organization that engages in such discussion. For advocacy groups, unions, and trade associations, several of the limits proposed in H.R. 1 would operate as a total ban on speech.” 

Democratic officials would have us to believe that this bill would help to salvage our democracy, claiming it will “protect the right to vote, ensure the integrity of our elections, hold elected officials accountable and end the era of big, dark, special-interest money in our politics.”  

What they really mean is that they intend to undo the seminal Citizens United decision, which lifted the restrictions on what corporations, associations, and unions could spend on elections—a victory for freedom of speech.

Under campaign finance provisions within this bill, nonprofit organizations (including 501(c)s) that make campaign-related disbursements of $10,000 or more total in an election cycle would be required to disclose their donors. That would open individuals and charitable organizations up to harassment and retribution, especially in this polarized environment. Donors would simply stop giving.

Ironically, this would hurt liberal candidates as much as, if not more than, conservatives. As of a week prior to Election Day 2020, liberal nonprofit groups reportedly spent more than four times the amount of their conservative counterparts. This continues a trend from 2018, when for the first time liberal groups outspent conservative groups. 

In addition, ethics reforms place new disclosure requirements on Senate-confirmed White House senior staff about lifetime political donations including to 501(c)4 organizations. That likely won’t sit well with staffers of the incoming Biden administration. 

It’s not lost on anyone that this bill is the result of many years of work by many advocacy groups who likely benefited from the same political speech this bill would reign in. Transparency, ethics, and election security are laudable goals, but should not come at the cost of the erosion of free speech.