In January’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision, the Supreme Court dramatically changed campaign finance rules, holding that “the constitutional guarantee of free speech means that corporations can spend unlimited sums to help elect favored candidates or defeat those they oppose.” In response, in April, a bipartisan group introduced the DISCLOSE Act, which would require corporations, unions, and politically active nonprofits to “report donors who finance such political activity above certain thresholds, and the company that primarily pays for TV or radio campaign ads would have to add a disclaimer message recorded by its CEO.”
Many groups set to benefit from Citizens United quickly voiced their opposition to reform. Unions such as the AFL-CIO said that the final bill “should treat corporations different than democratic organizations such as unions.” Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donohue called the bill unconstitutional and “a way to cut us out of the election.” But the loudest voice complaining about the DISCLOSE Act has been the National Rifle Association (NRA). In May 26 letter to Congress, NRA Executive Director Chris Cox argued that not only does the bill impinge on the group’s free speech and impose burdensome regulations, but that Congress should just trust the NRA:
The bill would empower the Federal Election Commission to require the NRA to reveal private, internal discussions with our four million members about political communications. … H.R. 5175 creates a series of byzantine disclosure requirements that have the obvious effect of intimidating speech. […]
While there are some groups that have run ads and attempted to hide their identities, the NRA isn’t one of them. … There is no reason to include the NRA in overly burdensome disclosure and reporting requirements that are supposedly aimed at so-called “shadow” groups.
Yesterday, House Democrats announced that they were caving to the NRA. The AP reports:
Under a change negotiated over the weekend, the NRA would be exempt based on its length in existence, size of membership and other factors — a concession demanded by the powerful lobby and sought by Democratic allies in the House led by Rep. Heath Shuler, D-N.C. Other organizations meeting the same set of criteria would also be exempt, but officials said late Monday they were not immediately able to name any.
CQ explains that the carveout would “exempt organizations from disclosure requirements if they have more than 1 million members, raise no more than 15 percent of their funds from corporations and have existed for more than 10 years.” Unions, however, are not included in the deal.
Campaign finance reform groups are sharply criticizing the deal. Center for Competitive Politics President Sean Parnell said Congress is essentially saying that “established, powerful interest groups should be exempted from the proposed draconian regulations, while small advocacy groups should have their voices silenced by the DISCLOSE Act.” ThinkProgress spoke to Lisa Gilbert, a money and politics expert at U.S. PIRG, who said that while her organization backed the DISCLOSE Act, it would be pulling its support unless the exemption changes. “It’s hard to take a look at a bill that’s supposed to reduce influence and see a carveout for a huge special interest and still support it,” she said, adding that they applauded “the initial reaction by Schumer/Van Hollen — and if the bill can make its way back to a place without these types of exemptions we would be again in support of it as an important disclosure measure.”
The NRA “has given almost $450,000 to congressional candidates for 2010 and the gun group has made about $520,000 in independent expenditures.” The lobbying organization also successfully killed legislation giving D.C. residents the right to vote by convincing the Senate to add an unrelated amendment that would wipe out the District’s tough gun laws.
ThinkProgress has also learned that the Sierra Club is pulling its support. “While we support its broader goals, we are opposed to the bill in its current state because it limits to our ability to conduct grassroots lobbying and because it creates two tiers of organizations,” said David Willett, the Sierra Club’s deputy communications director.
,Statement from the Sunlight Foundation:
There will always be loopholes in legislation, whether they are created inadvertently, or by clever lawyers taking advantage of the vagaries of the law, or by courts imposing their own spin on what a law should or should not accomplish. But the willful creation of a blatant loophole that entirely contradicts the intent of the underlying bill is almost too much to accept. Almost. Because in the end, Sunlight grudgingly — and fighting against all our instincts and knowledge of how reform legislation is only as strong as its smallest loophole — accepts that the DISCLOSE Act is still too important to crumble under the weight of the NRA exemption.
,Van Hollen’s statement:
I’m pleased with the progress that has been made on the DISCLOSE Act, as well as this morning’s joint statement by influential reform groups in support of this critically important legislation. Our key objective in responding to the Supreme Court’s radical ruling in Citizens United has been to increase transparency and disclosure, and the final bill achieves that goal. Reform in Washington is never easy — that is why powerful special interests are mobilizing against our effort to shine a light on campaign-related spending. The vast majority of Americans on the right, left, and in the center support these efforts and I am confident that when the bill comes to the House floor it will pass.
,The Hill reports that “Common Cause, Public Citizen, Democracy 21, the League of Women Voters, and the Campaign Legal Center are all supporting the bill.”
,Statement from the NRA:
On June 14, 2010, Democratic leadership in the U.S. House of Representatives pledged that H.R. 5175 would be amended to exempt groups like the NRA, that meet certain criteria, from its onerous restrictions on political speech. As a result, and as long as that remains the case, the NRA will not be involved in final consideration of the House bill.