PASO used to be my favorite place

Before Democrats used the poisonous acronym as an excuse to stifle speech

Credit: Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance

It’s no longer the hidden gem among California winemaking regions, but the Paso Robles area by the Central Coast is my favorite place to visit for reasonably priced big red wines,* outstanding food (tri-tip!!), and stunning scenery. (Some of the best cycling territory anywhere.) For the better part of a decade, before the “Sideways” craze spilled north to San Luis Obispo County, I lived only a few hours from Paso. I had the good fortune to have amazing friends who invited my SO at the time and me to crash at their awesome pad in Cambria, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Not far from Hearst Castle and Big Sur. Good times. 

Now the libruls had to ruin it. Well, not Paso Robles, which remains glorious though more congested than it was in the 1990s, but PASO, the acronym for speech that Promotes, Attacks, Supports, or Opposes political candidates. It’s embedded in H.R.1, “For the People,” the 780-plus page election regulation bill that’s a Democratic priority.

Democrats rolled out a brief, 480-page version of the bill in 2019. It passed the House. But then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell quashed it. Sadly, as with the PRO Act (see yesterday’s Deregulator), it’s back. And worse than ever.

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The bill is earning attention from conservatives and classical liberals. The meat of it would nationalize federal elections, having Washington decide everything from how to operate redistricting to the number of days of early voting every state must allow. (Seven states still don’t allow in-person absentee voting, and less than half of all states don’t allow early voting on Saturday or Sunday.)

The Cato Institute’s Ilya Shapiro and Nathan Harvey review several of the 2019 version’s problematic issues here. The notion that the federal government could run elections more fairly or efficiently than states is laughable, frightening, probably unconstitutional, and the topic of newsletters to come.

Shapiro and Harvey also touch on PASO, which the bill covers when discussing “Dark Money” actions by 501(c)4  social welfare and other tax-exempt groups. Basically, the bill would force C4s — whose donations are subject to taxes, unlike those of 501(c)3 charities — to disclose anyone who gives above a threshold if the C4 produces any materials about any politician if the content promotes, attacks, supports, or opposes that elected official.

The ACLU has trouble with this. In a March 1, 2019, letter to the top Democrat and Republican on the House Rules Committee, ACLU officials said the bill’s language 

would chill the speech of issue advocacy groups and non-profits such as the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, or the NRA that is essential to our public discourse and protected by the First Amendment.

The ACLU letter cited the landmark Supreme Court decision in NAACP v. Alabama. The justices said that attempts by the state of Alabama to force the NAACP to disclose its donors was little more than a campaign to identify the group’s supporters, intimidating them and others, hoping to bleed the organization dry by scaring away supporters.

Forcing nonprofit education groups and charities to disclose their donors under the guise of election reform opens all sorts of Star Chamber analogies.

I know. Been there, lived through it, got the virtual battle scars.

Six years ago, a group of 19 Democratic senators led by Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island went after more than 100 right-of-center organizations that had expressed skepticism of the most alarmist rhetoric of climate change activists. My former employer, the John Locke Foundation, was the only think tank focused on policies of one state, singled out. At the time, Locke was a C3.

The “demand letter” from Whitehouse and his gang ordered Locke to produce 10 years’ worth of details of funding sources and other records of JLF’s research and reporting on climate change. The campaign targeted Willie Soon, a vocal climate change skeptic. Republican leaders told Democrats to pound sand.

Locke continued doing its thing.

A year later, the Whitehouse gang came back, pushing a concurrent resolution, even bringing out scary-looking charts about Locke’s allegedly nefarious activities.

From my reporting:

The resolution officially “disapproves of activities by certain corporations, trade associations, foundations, and organizations funded by those corporations” to “deliberately mislead” the public “about the dangers of their products” — meaning fossil fuels, which JLF does not produce or market.

Using language once associated with Red-baiting U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy, R-Wisc., the Democratic resolution also demands information from these organizations about “what they knew about climate change and when they knew that information.”

Again, the bullies were rebuffed. If I’m not mistaken, the attacks on JLF raised Locke’s profile and helped us raise some money. I think it covered our legal costs. So thanks for that, I guess.

Conflating materials that discuss public issues with electioneering also opens Orwellian possibilities, as this memo from the Wagenmaker & Oberly law firm explains.

Given H.R. 1’s lack of clarity, the extent to which PASO-type communications may fall within regulated parameters — or not — seems inscrutable. Such uncertainty, along with the proposed mandatory donor disclosures and government reporting, would likely inhibit (or “chill”) advocacy efforts of 501(c)(4) and other affected organizations. As a result, they could well face reduced contributions from concerned donors and pressure to decrease such efforts, along with increased costs for legal counsel and compliance efforts.

The memo added that H.R. 1 fails to say its regulations wouldn’t creep over to C3s, which survive on tax-deductible donations, and also are designed for educational and charitable rather than political work. The bill is designed to protect incumbents from criticism and stifle (I loathe the term “cancel”) viewpoints that make politicians uncomfortable.

No telling how it’ll fare. And even though much of the legislation, including the parts Shapiro and Harvey discussed, seem unconstitutional, count on nothing.

Remember, President George W. Bush also thought parts of the McCain-Feingold Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act were unconstitutional. But he signed it anyway, figuring the courts would reject it. 

Oops.

*PRO TIP: If you’re a wine drinker and you patronize Trader Joe’s, quite a few of their house labels come from Paso. Check the bottles. Some great values in the $6-$16 range. Be sure to try the zin.