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Staff Columnist

Iowa Democrats sponsor bill to curtail political speech

'For the People Act' is not as simple as politicians claim

Rep. Abby Finkenauer arrives for the inaugural swearing-in ceremony for Gov. Kim Reynolds at Community Choice Credit Union Convention Center in Des Moines on Friday, Jan. 18, 2019. Gov. Reynolds was sworn in as the first female elected to governor in Iowa, after previously serving as lieutenant governor and finishing Gov. Terry Brandstad's term following his appointment as US Ambassador to China. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Rep. Abby Finkenauer arrives for the inaugural swearing-in ceremony for Gov. Kim Reynolds at Community Choice Credit Union Convention Center in Des Moines on Friday, Jan. 18, 2019. Gov. Reynolds was sworn in as the first female elected to governor in Iowa, after previously serving as lieutenant governor and finishing Gov. Terry Brandstad's term following his appointment as US Ambassador to China. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

Democrats in the U.S. House passed their first major legislation since they won the majority in last year’s elections.

House Resolution 1 is an election reform package approved by the House last week along party lines. Every House Democrat signed on as a co-sponsor, including Iowa’s U.S. Reps. Dave Loebsack, Abby Finkenauer and Cindy Axne.

The short title, “For the People Act of 2019,” perfectly reflects the populist platitudes Democrats use to promote it. They are employing language so agreeable one could hardly take issue with the bill.

Loebsack published a statement to say the legislation “returns our government to the people” and “begins to restore our democracy.”

Finkenauer said, “We need to stop political corruption and clean up our government so that it works for the people.”

And Axne celebrated the bill would “end the culture of corruption, get money out of politics and ensure that the voices of Iowans are heard in Washington.”

Indeed, some of the principles in H.R. 1 have strong support among the public, but at more than 400 pages, it is a complicated and sprawling set of reforms, not characterized as simply as politicians’ news releases would suggest.

The Institute for Free Speech, a group opposing H.R. 1, wrote lawmakers to warn the bill is “so complex and open to so many possible interpretations” that it’s effects cannot be fully anticipated.

It seeks to massively expand federal restrictions on political speech with a set of reforms known as the Disclose Act. Tax-exempt interest groups like the National Rifle Association and Planned Parenthood could be subject to some of the same disclosure requirements as groups that explicitly support and oppose candidates.

Independent organizations play an important part in educating Americans about the impacts of public policy. Under this proposal, those groups — perhaps even including community nonprofits — would be forced to restrict their own speech, break the law or comply with invasive, costly disclosure requirements.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which supports many pieces of H.R. 1, cautions that the Disclose Act provisions would apply “vague and subjective standards to regulations of political speech.”

Historically, organizations that do not engage in explicit electoral advocacy have enjoyed broad free speech and privacy rights. The U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted Constitution to protect Americans’ right to freely associate with one another and pool their resources.

In a landmark case from the 1950s, the Alabama state government filed a lawsuit against the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in response to the organization’s efforts to organize boycotts and protests. The state demanded the NCAAP file records with the government, including a list of its members.

The court unanimously ruled against the state in NAACP v. Alabama, citing the “vital relationship between freedom to associate and privacy in one’s association.”

In pursuit of good government, H.R. 1 would erode core American values. Senate Republicans are right to turn it down in its current form.

• Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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