Dick Durbin: Worse than stupid, part 6

When the IRS targeting of conservative groups first saw the light of day this spring, Dick Durbin intoned: “It is absolutely unacceptable to single out any political group — right, left or center — and say we’re going to target them. That is unthinkable. That goes back to some of the worst days of the Richard Nixon administration.” (Durbin could teach Uriah Heep a thing or two about false sincerity.) Last week the editors of the Chicago Tribune used the quote to preface its editorial “Durbin’s enemies list.” The editors paused to take note of the campaign of intimidation conducted by Durbin that we featured in part 1 and part 4 of this series:

Free speech isn’t always free. It gets downright cumbersome when Dick Durbin has you on his enemies list. Consider:

We were surprised in the early days of this spring’s Internal Revenue Service scandal to see Durbin voice indignation with the IRS for apparently behaving just as he had urged it to: In an Oct. 12, 2010, letter to then-IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman — we have Durbin’s press release, including his letter — the senator urged an investigation of “several 501(c)(4) organizations that appear to be in violation of the law.” But Durbin’s letter only cited one group by name: Crossroads GPS, a conservative group that has spent heavily on advertising to promote fiscal responsibility, limits to government regulation and national security.

Durbin said this year on Fox News that he hadn’t sicced the IRS on any liberal groups because … an investigation of Crossroads would put them, too, on notice. Crossroads says it scrupulously obeys the federal laws that regulate all such groups. We’ve seen no evidence that Durbin’s accusation of crimes was accurate, but he surely achieved one goal: He made potential donors think twice about contributing to a group a U.S. senator had publicly named as an illegal operation.

Now, though, Durbin has changed tactics. Rather than accusing political enemies of flouting federal law, he’s suggesting that he may publicly expose them to public outrage over the killing of Trayvon Martin. The editorial page of Thursday’s Wall Street Journal reported that the senator has sent letters to corporate and nonprofit supporters of the American Legislative Exchange Council, asking them to disclose their positions on “stand-your-ground” legislation that ALEC supported in Florida in 2005.

ALEC, which is holding its annual meeting in Chicago this week, is a conservative association of state legislators, foundations and businesses that advocate limited government and free markets. Many but not all of its areas of focus are economic. As Durbin writes in his letter to ALEC donors:

“… Although ALEC does not maintain a public list of corporate members or donors, other public documents indicate that your company funded ALEC at some point during the period between ALEC’s adoption of model ‘stand your ground’ legislation in 2005 and the present day. … I am seeking clarification whether organizations that have funded ALEC’s operations in the past currently support ALEC and the model ‘stand your ground’ legislation.”

Durbin adds that in September he will convene a subcommittee hearing “to examine ‘stand-your ground’ laws, and I intend to include the responses to my letters in the hearing record. Therefore, please know that your response will be publicly available.”

So while the letter acknowledges that recipients have a right to participate in policy debates, Durbin’s intent is transparent: Renounce ALEC, and quit donating money, or I’ll shame you but good.

The Journal notes that as Durbin well knows, companies that support ALEC’s economic initiatives don’t care about “stand-your-ground” laws: “His goal is to scare them with reputational damage by mentioning them in the same breath as Trayvon Martin.”

Durbin’s communications director, Max Gleischman, told us Thursday afternoon that the senator’s goal isn’t to silence groups he opposes, but “to find out if groups that support (ALEC) financially agree with (ALEC’s) position on ‘stand your ground’ laws. Simple as that.”

If only thinly coded letters from senators with as much clout as Durbin were that benign. Because it would be more than wrong for a U.S. senator to use the power of his high federal office as a cudgel against his enemies. We’ll give the last word on that to Durbin himself:

“It is absolutely unacceptable to single out any political group — right, left or center — and say we’re going to target them. That is unthinkable. That goes back to some of the worst days of the Richard Nixon administration.”

As the Tribune editors note, the Wall Street Journal also covered this story last week in the editorial “Durbin wants a list.”

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