House Passes Political-Omnibus Bill H.R. 1

WALTER OLSON, CATO INSTITUTE

H.R. 1, the political regulation omnibus bill, contains “provisions that unconstitutionally infringe the freedoms of speech and association,” and which “will have the effect of harming our public discourse by silencing necessary voices that would otherwise speak out about the public issues of the day.” Don’t just take my word for it; that’s the view of the American Civil Liberties Union, expressed in this March 1 letter (more). For example, the bill would apply speech-chilling new restrictions to issue ads by cause organizations, should they happen to mention individual lawmakers.

The House of Representatives nonetheless voted Friday along party lines to pass the bill, which was sponsored by Rep. John Sarbanes (D-MD). For now, it has no prospect of passage in the Senate.

The issues raised in the ACLU letter aside, H.R. 1 contains many other provisions that likely are unconstitutional, unwise, or both.  Colleagues Ilya Shapiro and Nathan Harvey enumerate some of them (“If ever adopted, [HR1] would give power to one slice of Washington’s elite at the expense of American democracy’s carefully crafted checks and balances”). More criticism: Brad Smith on the bill’s restrictions on discussion and coordination of expenditures on speech; David A. French (“At its essence, the bill federalizes control over elections to an unprecedented scale, expands government power over political speech, mandates increased disclosures of private citizens’ personal information (down to name and address), places conditions on citizen contact with legislators that inhibits citizens’ freedom of expression, and then places enforcement of most of these measures in the hands of a revamped Federal Election Commission that is far more responsive to presidential influence.”)

On gerrymandering, an issue on which the Constitution does grant Congress a power to prescribe standards which I’ve argued it should consider using more vigorously, the bill takes the heavy-handed approach of requiring all states to create a commission of a certain format. Whatever the comparative virtues of one format or another, that would likely run into the Supreme Court’s doctrine against federal “commandeering” of state government resources. Electoral-process reform is an issue deserving of attention, but given its numerous infringements of individual rights and poorly thought out elements, this package doesn’t work even as a first negotiating position. [adapted from Overlawyered]


Walter Olson is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute’s Center for Constitutional Studies. His books include The Rule of Lawyers, on mass litigation, The Excuse Factory, on lawsuits in the workplace, and most recently Schools for Misrule, on the state of the law schools. His first book, The Litigation Explosion, was one of the most widely discussed general-audience books on law of its time. It led the Washington Post to dub him “intellectual guru of tort reform.” He blogs at Overlawyered.com.