MY LAST NERVE: ‘Reform’ Effort Would Squelch Right to Petition

October 27, 2014

Inside Insight

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top of sc state houseDISCLOSURE FOR CITIZENS, NOT FOR POLS

Some state lawmakers still think ethics reform is some sort of “gotcha” game. Last year, they used the public demand for ethics reform as a way to loosen ethics laws. This year, they want to use the issue as a way to silence their critics.

Or maybe I shouldn’t say “they.” Maybe it’s just one lawmaker I’m talking about.

At a recent meeting of the House Rules and Procedures Ad-Hoc Committee, Rep. Kris Crawford (R-Florence) proposed a rule that would require any individual testifying before a House committee to meet extensive disclosure requirements about the organization he or she represents. For the representative of a nonprofit organization to testify – if this rule were to pass – the House committee would demand the names, addresses and phone numbers of individuals or corporations that donate to the organization or group; and the source, type and amount of donations received in the previous twelve months.

Mind you, the scope of this committee is limited to the House rules – internal House rules. To try to interfere with private citizens’ right to petition their government – and to try to do it through an internal rule which would only require one vote by the 124 lawmakers of the body – is both absurd and unconstitutional. Under the First Amendment, citizens have a right to come together to petition their government without fear of retribution. (“Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”) Clearly, forcing citizen organizations petitioning their government to reveal their financials and donor lists would be an easy way to make the representatives of those organizations think twice before testifying. It would be like handing hostile politicians a list of your supporters and saying, “Here, guys. Use your power and influence to get these people to stop supporting us.”

Unfortunately, though, there’s more going on here than a lone politician trying to prevent citizens and organizations from formally and publicly addressing their government. The problem isn’t so much the politician. It’s the mindset he typifies. Does he think the role of elected officials is to hand down laws and regulations to the common folk, and that the common folk, if they want to raise questions, need to ask permission first? At a time when the leader of the very body Rep. Crawford represents was facing a nine-count indictment for violations of the state Ethics Act and misconduct in office – and subsequently pleaded guilty to six counts – one hopes not.

In fairness, some elected officials on and off this ad hoc committee are genuinely interested in reform. But it’s difficult to give lawmakers the benefit of the doubt when this isn’t the first time lawmakers have attempted to squelch free speech through an effort of “reform.” Earlier this year the omnibus “ethics reform” bill would have forced the same types of group leaders to register as lobbyists prior to testifying before a legislative committee.

I suspect – and hope – that the unconstitutional nature of Rep. Crawford’s proposal will prevent the ad-hoc committee from approving this recommendation. The House Rules and Procedure Ad-Hoc Committee will have its final meeting Thursday, when members will consider this and other proposals. You can watch this meeting live on the State House website.

Jamie Murguia is Director of Research at the S.C. Policy Council.