Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Guess Who Wants Transparency

by Jack Kenny

Every once in a while the common platitudes of political discourse sound a jarring note, leaving the listener scratching his head and wondering: "What’s wrong with this picture?"

Take "transparency," for example, that benign justification for the many regulations of freedom of speech and other First Amendment rights for the sake of lofty goals like campaign finance reform. As long as your right to speak isn’t violated and only the reporting of your expenditures and other activities is required, then the law serves the interest of "transparency" and all is well, right? Wrong!

The problem with "transparency" is that it puts the ill-fitting transparent shoes on precisely the wrong feet. We have somehow been conned into believing that government may keep all manner of secrets from us, secrets regarding how they spend our money and soil our nation’s name to starve, torture, bomb or otherwise kill people, based on highly secret (and frequently suspect) "intelligence." Yet we are led to believe that transparency is required of us in the private sector – where you make decisions about how to spend your money, whether on a political cause or candidate or on books about the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The latter might bring your book purchases or library records to the attention of the government under the USA PATRIOT Act. But your political donations or activities come under government scrutiny in the name of campaign finance or "ethics" reform.

Legislation proposed by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi would define people and organizations at the grass roots level as lobbyists, who must, therefore, report quarterly expenditures of more than $50,000. Okay, so you don’t spend $50,000 in a quarter on grassroots political activity, so you can go back to sleep, right? Sure, if you prefer. As the bumper sticker says, "It’s okay, I wasn’t using my civil liberties anyway."

The Bill of Rights is truly impartial. It does not guarantee freedom of speech up to the level of $50,000 per quarter or $200,000 a year. It does not deny freedom to the rich any more than to the poor. If you can spend tens of thousands of dollars on a political ad saying your congressman doesn’t give a rat’s behind about the First Amendment, as witness his vote on the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law, neither your congressman nor Senators McCain or Feingold nor any combination of their colleagues in the Incumbents’ Rackets Club should be able to prevent you from doing so, right up to and including the day of an election. But, of course, McCain, Feingold and a majority of their colleagues in each house have done just that.

Now the Pelosi bill would define grassroots activity, such as organizing telephone or letter writing campaigns to your representatives in Congress, as lobbying. You may never go near Capitol Hill, not even know the name of your congressman. But if you lead a petition drive, take out issue advocacy ads in your local newspaper, organize a demonstration or buy air time on TV or radio to support a cause, be it the environment, the end of war or an end to the killing of babies in abortuaries, you may be a lobbyist under the Pelosi bill. Because if your activities and those of other like-minded citizens in your organization cost more than $50,000 in a quarter, you would be required to report those activities to the government.

Now this is an amazing thing! We the People have to report our political activities to the government. You might have thought the government would have to report its activities to us. Oh, no! The same Congress that puts reporting requirements on you can go into secret session whenever it likes. The executive branch that collects data on you and takes the nation to war in far off places based on frequently faulty "intelligence" it can’t disclose, demands to know what political action groups you are supporting with some of the dollars it lets you keep after taxation. And the Supreme Court, which won’t even tell us what part of the "make no law" phrase in the First Amendment it cannot understand, says (in its ruling on McCain-Feingold) that this sort of thing is Constitutionally permissible.

So what we have now is not a government accountable to the people, but the very opposite – a people accountable to the government. And most of the people don’t even see the contradiction. We are like the poor, manipulated creatures in George Orwell’s "Animal Farm" who awake each morning to find the rules have been rewritten during the night.

Oh, yes, we still have a Constitution – in writing. But so did the people of the Soviet Union. As Judge Learned Hand long ago observed,

"Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it." Or as the bumper sticker says:

"It’s okay, I wasn’t using my civil liberties, anyway."

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