Who watches the watchmen? That was the question before the Montana Legislature yesterday as the Senate State Administration Committee held confirmation hearings for the Commissioner of Political Practices, Jonathan Motl.
Motl was appointed to this position by Governor Steve Bullock, and he’s been a highly controversial figure since day one. His hearing at the Legislature was one of the most highly contentious of the session.
All of this matters to the Montana Family Foundation because of the passage of the so-called “Dark Money” bill earlier in the session. Regular readers may recall that the “dark money” bill claims to prevent anonymous contributions to politicians. In fact, it places churches at risk of being defined as political committees, or possibly even having to publicly report every donation. At worst, every church member’s tithes might be posted on the internet for everyone to see. That so-called “dark money” bill would be enforced by none other than the Commissioner of Political Practices.
As our current Commissioner, Mr. Motl refused to offer any guarantees in law that churches would not be forced to report their tithes. Far from it, he allowed much of the bill to be defined not in law, but in rules that he himself sets. The mainstream media are wholeheartedly behind Motl, but after you get outside the media, the agreement ends. Individual citizens, candidates, and political party operatives rose up from both sides of the aisle to speak either in favor or against him. Proponents claimed he was good at his job. Opponents pointed out several previous complaints against Motl where his behavior had been called into question.
Whichever side people take, the more important point is that political contributions and freedom of speech are too important to let just one man control them.
The First Amendment guarantees every American the right to participate in politics. We have a right to speak out, write letters to the editor, or donate to candidates. The desire to make our political process cleaner and more transparent is laudable. But we must not sacrifice our constitutional rights on the altar of campaign finance reform.
Trusting our entire political process to a single man does exactly that. The Commissioner’s rule-making authority is vast and deep. Under the so-called “Dark money” bill, he makes rules about who is an incidental committee, when they have to report, and more.
That single man is appointed by a partisan political official. Is it any wonder that the commissioner is not trusted by candidates from the opposite party? How much better if those rules and decisions were being made in a bipartisan fashion? How much better if the protection of our constitutional rights did not come down to a matter of gamesmanship?
With the passage of the “dark money” bill, we are watching closely to see what happens. Will churches be forced to post every tithe on the internet? It might sound crazy, but something similar has already happened once before. Back in 2005 Helena’s Canyon Ferry Road Baptist Church was accused of being a political committee because they opposed same sex marriage. Fortunately the timely intervention of the courts prevented that tragedy but here is the bottom line.
Who pursued the complaint against the Canyon Ferry Road Baptist Church? It was the Commissioner of Political Practices.
That’s why we’re watching these confirmation hearings so closely and it’s why you should too.