Friday, August 21, 2009

HB 7 in Detail: Independent Expenditures

Today we resume our series on the problems with HB 7, beyond the astronomical dollar limits. Previous posts are here and here and here and here and here.

Independent expenditures are so common in federal elections that they are routinely referred to by the initials "IE." These IE campaigns spring up in part because federal law limits how much anybody can give to a candidate, so that groups that want to spend more in support or opposition to a candidate have to work outside of that candidate's campaign. And there are explicit disclosure and contribution limit rules for IE efforts in federal law.

It makes sense for Illinois to adopt rules for IE campaigns at the same time that we adopt limits on campaign contributions generally. But while HB 7 has a section on "independent expenditures," it uses the term in very different ways than federal law does. These differences threaten the effectiveness and legality of the bill.

While federal law applies to any organization, the provision in HB 7 dealing with independent expenditures applies only to those "made by a natural person," meaning single individuals acting alone. The immediate consequence of this is to suggest that no other entity can engage in "independent expenditures," and the consequences of that would be vast. It would turn the contribution limits into spending limits, for one, which would certainly draw a skeptical judicial eye in the inevitable challenge (note that the bill exempts parties and some other committees from this limit).

There are also apparent drafting problems in this section. The section ensures a modicum of disclosure from natural persons acting independently of any political committee. Individuals are required to report when they have spent $3,000 and again at $20,000. It is not clear that the bill would require any continuing obligation to report -- say, at increments of $20,000. Nor is it clear that the person would have any obligation to disclose at the time that they commit to making an expenditure. If they have to disclose only when they actually pay the bills, that disclosure may well come well after the ads have run, and long after Election Day.

To the extent that HB 7 tried to ensure that individuals making large expenditures in relation to candidates are covered by disclosure requirements, the bill is on a useful errand. But the section is drafted in ways that fall short of that goal and threaten the abilities of others to make their voices heard in the course of campaigns. It needs to be re-written.

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