Editorial: A lesson in writing for lawmakers
Every student learns the importance of clear writing. Vague language, imprecise sentence construction – even a misplaced comma – can lead to confusion and misinterpretation.
While a student may get marked down a letter grade for sloppy writing, lawmakers who fail to write with clarity and specificity risk creating loopholes that undermine the foundation of government.
Take, for example, New Hampshire RSA 664:4, which establishes the rules for political expenditures and contributions.
Last week, the attorney general’s office cited this particular law in explaining why the Friends of Maggie Hassan political committee did not act improperly when it accepted three five-figure donations from other political committees, including $25,000 from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
Attorney General Joe Foster, in a letter to state GOP Chairwoman Jennifer Horn, said: “While persons, corporations, partnerships and unions were all expressly enumerated and expressly limited or prohibited from making contributions to candidates, political committees were not.”
Foster’s thinking on this matter is based on two things: precedent and word choice. RSA 664:4 says (italics added for emphasis): “No contribution . . . shall be made to a candidate, a political committee, or political party . . . (V.) By any person if in excess of $5,000 in value, except for contributions made by a candidate in behalf of his own candidacy, or if in excess of $1,000 in value by any person or by any political action committee to a candidate or a political committee working on behalf of a candidate who does not voluntarily agree to limit his campaign expenditures.”
The key word here is “person.” As Foster sees it, by using the word “person” in the first clause and “by any person or by any political action committee” in the second, the Legislature “did not intend to restrict a political committee’s ability to make contributions to a candidate who has agreed to the expenditure cap.”
He goes on to write: “Accordingly, we interpret RSA 664:4, V as imposing no limits on contributions made by a political committee to a pre-candidacy exploratory committee, even if that candidate later does not agree to the spending cap.”
That’s a lot of legalese to digest, but in practice this is what it means: A PAC can give as much money as it wants to a candidate’s PAC, in this case the Friends of Maggie Hassan, right up until the point the candidate files for office. Hassan had to return $24,000 of the $25,000 given to her by the IBEW not because the amount exceeded campaign contribution limits, but because it arrived one day too late.
The question now is: Did lawmakers write a sloppy sentence or did the Legislature actually intend to allow PACs to give candidate committees as much money as they want?
If it’s a matter of poor writing, the solution is simple – for starters, a little editing in the form of new legislation to change the word “persons” to “persons and political committees” in that first clause of RSA 664:4 V.
If, however, the loophole created by the legislation was intentional, the task becomes more difficult. It involves voters explaining to lawmakers why it’s a bad idea to allow unlimited PAC to PAC contributions in the pre-filing period of a candidacy.
Should the need arise, we believe voters will rise to the challenge.