When most people hear the names Benjamin Franklin or James Madison, they think scholars or luminaries. Oddly enough, if you were to put these very men in today’s political environment, they’d be criminals. Thank you, Federal Election Commission (FEC).
Under the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA), citizens who fail to register or report with the federal government can be imprisoned when they speak out about those running for office. More specifically, two or more citizens who manage to save up $2,000 or more for political ads and don’t follow the law can be imprisoned for up to a year. Save more than $25,000, and you can find yourself in the slammer for up to five years.
Under federal election law, whenever citizens band together to talk out about policies and politicians in a meaningful way the FEC imposes its copious rules on its next victim. And when citizens try to play ball with the Commission, they find themselves having to hire accountants, attorneys, and campaign finance experts to keep them out of prison. Being forced to register and report as a “political committee,” citizen groups must file monthly or quarterly reports, detail every disbursement they make in 12 different categories, list all receipts in 10 different categories, and much more. Muck up but one area of reporting and you can be caught in the FEC’s enforcement trap for years. Dare you speak?
While many are caught up in the buzzwords of “transparency” and “reform,” pause and consider the fate of Franklin or Madison had campaign finance reform been in place during the birth of our nation. In 1735, Franklin sent an anonymous letter to his own newspaper suggesting that Philadelphia improve its firefighting skills by licensing chimney sweeps and forming firefighting squads. In 1792, Madison drafted at least seventeen anonymous essays for the National Gazette during the first meeting of the Second Congress. His goal was to attack Hamiltonian sentiments and argue against a broad interpretation of the Constitution. Of course, neither gentleman did this wholly alone, and their banding together with others to create anonymous speech surely would have caused today’s media to label them “shadowy groups” destructive of our democracy. They might just have wound up in prison, too.
Most of us know better than to fear the vigorous exposition of others’ ideas, even when those ideas might aggravate or annoy us. Madison’s never-ending advocacy of ideals he believed in set the very foundation of our Republic – and he did so without registering with the government, reporting his spending, or otherwise sacrificing his anonymity to the state. Perhaps there’s a lesson to be found in the ideals set by our nation’s founding fathers. More speech, an open competition of ideas, and dramatically less government interference led to the creation of this great nation. Perhaps a return to those ideals just might save it.