In a recent article in National Journal, Jonathan Rauch explains that the “Tea Party” is not one organization run by a top-down command structure, but rather a large number of local organizations across the country. Almost all of them are completely run by volunteers, and they do a multitude of different things: recruit candidates for office, hold rallies, network with other activists, etc. Many do not even have a formal organizational structure, but are merely a band of interested people who get together to talk and strategize, then take it upon themselves to accomplish various goals and see if others want to help out.
One particularly telling anecdote is the following:
Asked how many neighborhood tea parties exist in the Dallas area, another citywide coordinator replied, “I don't even know.”
The coordinator does not know because “tea parties” are often just groups of people who get together and start engaging in political activism. Their existence ebbs and flows, with groups constantly forming and disappearing. Groups frequently coordinate, but often they do their own thing.
What the article does not mention is that much of what these various groups do is potentially subject to campaign finance laws. For instance, if the members of a small grassroots tea party group want to put up signs for a candidate they like, under federal law (for a Congressional race) and the law of most states (for state and local races), they need to report their spending on those signs. If the “group” (I use quotation marks as it could just be a few people who belong to a Meetup group or even an email list) is coordinating the effort with other “groups,” then all of the people involved may be subject to complex administrative and reporting requirements that can be navigated safely only with the aid of lawyers and accountants. Much of this activity, luckily, flies under the regulators’ radar, but the potential for liability is widespread and ominous.
All of this goes to show that campaign finance laws are not designed for a decentralized bunch of activists like the Tea Party movement. But the application of campaign finance laws to the activities of these citizens is more than just another example of the government applying antiquated laws to a world they weren’t designed for. More importantly, these laws threaten to wrap tea partiers—as well as activists of all political stripes—in so much bureaucratic red tape that they can’t speak. While that’s a result that most professional politicians facing reelection this November would probably like, it’s one that those of us who care about keeping political speech in this country robust should abhor.
Image source: Toronto Public Library Special Collections