Public Interest Groups Call Dems’ Attempt To Appease Critics By Expanding Disclosure Carveout ‘Appalling’

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"Public Interest Groups Call Dems’ Attempt To Appease Critics By Expanding Disclosure Carveout ‘Appalling’"

This week, House Democrats have faced significant criticism from across the spectrum for caving to the National Rifle Association’s (NRA) demand that the DISCLOSE Act’s requirements on shedding light on funding of politically active corporations, unions, and nonprofits be weakened.

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.” Lawmakers insisted that this measure wouldn’t benefit just the NRA — the Humane Society and AARP also meet the membership threshold. However, campaign finance reform groups told ThinkProgress that those organizations aren’t politically active on the same level as the NRA, and the measure was pushed by Democrats who feared the NRA’s political power.

House Democrats are now responding to the criticism. However, instead of leveling the playing field by revoking the NRA’s special carveout, they have decided to simply to allow more groups to be exempt from the disclosure requirements. Roll Call reports:

The new standard lowers the membership requirement for outside groups from 1 million members to 500,000. Those groups would still need to have members in 50 states, have existed for 10 years and can accept no more than 15 percent of their funding from corporate or union sources. […]

A House Democratic aide said the change was not made with any particular groups in mind. “The number was reduced recognizing that there are groups out there that have a long-standing history of doing grass-roots work. We originally thought some of these groups would be covered, but they weren’t,” the aide said.

Interestingly, yesterday on a conference call about the DISCLOSE Act, Fred Wertheimer of Democracy21 — who was involved in the drafting of the legislation — told ThinkProgress that the carveout was written to be as narrow an exemption as possible (that’s why unions weren’t also included). It seems like House Democrats were trying to preserve the NRA exemption and also quell criticism from the left by broadening the carveout. However, the public interest groups ThinkProgress spoke with see this new deal as worse.

“In our view this exemption is no different,” said Lisa Gilbert of U.S. PIRG, which has pulled support for the DISCLOSE Act with the new exemption. “We still think the bulk of the bill is great reform, but the widening of a loophole is never a good thing.” The Sunlight Foundation still thinks a deal would be better than the current environment, but Communications Director Gabriela Schneider told ThinkProgress that the new announcement is “appalling”:

As we predicted, the appalling exemption demanded by the NRA has now been expanded. Even more groups will now elude public scrutiny, even as the Supreme Court recognizes that disclosure is the necessary response to expanded speech rights for corporations and unions. The only thing worse than this growing, egregious self-interested loophole would be the ignorance we’d be immersed in without the DISCLOSE Act’s transparency requirements.

With the expanded carveout, one group that would now be exempt from the disclosure requirements is the Sierra Club, which has a substantial membership base. However, Deputy Director of Communications David Willett sent ThinkProgress a statement saying that the Sierra Club still finds the carveout unacceptable:

As you’ve probably heard, D’s are saying they’re going to lower the threshold for the NRA carve-out on DISCLOSE to 500K members. While that would mean the Sierra Club would now qualify, we remain opposed. Many of our allies would experience the additional disclosure burdens that we would not, we feel a two-tiered system is unfair and undemocratic. Ironically it’s the larger organizations like NRA, Sierra Club, etc that actually would be better equipped to handle the additional disclosure requirements. We have large staffs and resources to deal with new regulations, more paperwork, more legal advice, etc. Smaller grassroots groups do not have these same resources, yet they would now be required to do more than groups like us.

We remain very supportive of the underlying goals of this bill — but we do not support the bill with this carve-out.

Lawmakers will put the measure before the House Rules Committee this afternoon and bring it to the House floor on Friday.

Update

Today, 59 organizations sent a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) “reiterating their adamant opposition to any effort to create exemptions for large groups from the disclosure provisions of the DISCLOSE Act,” since the original intent of the bill was to “add transparency to campaign communications.”

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