The president of the Cato Institute, John Allison, is someone I respect, while the senator from Illinois Richard Durbin is someone I often disagree with. But it looks to me as if Mr. Allison overreacted a bit in his letter responding to Senator Durbin's inquiry about whether Cato had supported the American Legislative Exchange Council.
Senator Durbin wrote: "I acknowledge your organization's right to actively participate in the debate of important political issues."
Mr. Allison responded:
Your letter of August 6, 2013 is an obvious effort to intimidate those organizations and individuals who may have been involved in any way with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).
While Cato is not intimidated because we are a think tank—whose express mission is to speak publicly to influence the climate of ideas—from my experience as a private-sector CEO, I know that business leaders will now hesitate to exercise their constitutional rights for fear of regulatory retribution.
Your letter thus represents a blatant violation of our First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and to petition the government for a redress of grievances. It is a continuation of the trend of the current administration and congressional leaders, such as yourself, to menace those who do not share your political beliefs—as evidenced by the multiple IRS abuses that have recently been exposed.
Your actions are a subtle but powerful form of government coercion.
We would be glad to provide a Cato scholar to testify at your hearing to discuss the unconstitutional abuse of power that your letter symbolizes.
The constitution gives Congress the power to tax, and with that responsibility logically comes some oversight of non-profit organizations. The First Amendment begins, "Congress shall make no law," and Senator Durbin is not making any law. Sure, senators shouldn't menace, intimidate, or abuse power, but it seems to me there is a difference between those three things and simply writing a letter asking a question or two. If business leaders are so easily intimidated, the real problem is the cowardice of the business leaders (and the vastness of the regulatory complex that subjects them to arbitrary retribution) as much as the inquisitive senators.
In other words, there will come a time when Republicans (or, in the Cato Institute's dreams, Libertarians) control the Senate. They may want to send letters asking left-wing non-profits about their political activities. Not to intimidate them, but just to figure out what's going on and to make sure that the tax laws are keeping up with the reality on the ground. If it becomes a First Amendment violation to send this sort of letter, whole areas of sometimes fruitful congressional investigation and oversight would be shut down.