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Has Lobbying Derailed the DISCLOSE Act?

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Nra-ad-480x321.jpg

A still from a TV ad by the NRA during the 2008 presidential campaign (YouTube)

As House Democratic leaders raced to round up votes before the Memorial Day recess for a pivotal economic aid bill, trimming it by more than $70 billion to avoid a revolt by members of the conservative Blue Dog Coalition, the party made another concession on its agenda to far less fanfare. Last Thursday afternoon, hours before the House Rules Committee was set to take up a measure aimed at mitigating the fallout from Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision — which allowed corporations to spend unlimited amounts of campaign cash — the meeting was scrapped.

[Congress1] Democratic aides depicted the delay as a consequence of a packed legislative calendar, predicting that the money-in-politics bill would come to the House floor after the recess. But some government watchdogs backing the majority’s effort saw a more dire sign in the Rules Committee postponement: that behind-the-scenes lobbying by some of Washington’s biggest campaign spenders, on both the left and the right, had spooked enough Democrats to make the legislation impossible to pass in its current form.

“I’m extremely concerned about what’s going to happen with this bill,” said Craig Holman, the longtime campaign-finance lobbyist at the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen. “It’s taken months to produce a bill that was reasonably good because a number of forces were whittling this one down. … Now, suddenly, it’s been pulled again.”

Upon hearing of the Rules Committee cancellation, Holman said, “I thought, ‘Oh, no. The NRA [National Rifle Association] succeeded.’”

The post-Citizens United bill, dubbed the DISCLOSE Act by its sponsors, sets a series of new disclosure rules to shed light on the sources of campaign commercials, issue mailers and other election-season speech. Corporations, unions and politically active non-profit groups would be required 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.

Lloyd Leonard, director of advocacy at the League of Women Voters, acknowledge the grim political reality the bill faced last week. “If you have the votes, vote; and if you don’t have the votes, talk,” he said. “Obviously, proponents of the DISCLOSE Act didn’t have the votes to move ahead, or not all the details had been worked out.”

Generally speaking, the principle of disclosure has broad support on the Hill and from the Supreme Court. While the justices voted 5-4 in favor of letting corporations go beyond political action committees (PACs) to pay for electioneering ads out of their general treasuries, they released a separate but less well-known 8-1 ruling in the Citizens United case that affirmed the constitutionality of campaign-finance disclosure requirements.

But the prospect of donor disclosure has proven unpalatable to the NRA, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Right to Life Committee, all of which fired off blistering critiques late last week in a bid to push the DISCLOSE measure from the House calendar. In a May 27 letter to lawmakers, the NRA charged that the legislation would force it “to turn our membership and donor lists over to the government” and decried the bill’s “byzantine disclosure requirements that have the obvious effect of intimidating speech.”

And conservative groups have not stood alone in chafing at the current scope of the bill’s new restrictions. As Holman put it, “Traditional Democratic allies provided the NRA with a great deal of credibility in this negotiation than they wouldn’t otherwise have.” Liberal-leaning advocacy groups reportedly expressing concerns with elements of the proposal include the Alliance for Justice (AFJ) and the Sierra Club. Though the AFJ’s president warned that Citizens United would likely unshackle far more campaign cash from the corporate world than from non-profits, the group still advised other eligible tax-exempt organizations to “take advantage of” the unlimited election-year playing field set by the high court.

Abby Levine, the AFJ’s deputy director of advocacy, underscored in an interview that her group is “in favor of meaningful disclosure.”

“The question then becomes, what is meaningful?” she added. “We want the relevant information without casting too wide a net.”

Meanwhile, the AFL-CIO, the country’s largest union federation, has so far declined to endorse the DISCLOSE bill and vowed only to “carefully review this complex legislation.” That reticence has not stopped the Chamber and other conservative critics of the bill from accusing its authors of handing a victory to unions by cracking down harder on corporate political activity.

“The Chamber has done a really good job of scaring people, saying this is somehow going to help unions, and when you look at the bill, it’s clear that it’s not,” said a spokesman for one union closely following the bill.

The broad array of potential stumbling blocks raised by individual non-profits — many of which are well positioned to punish or reward lawmakers for their votes by directing ads during the coming midterm elections — underscores the delicacy of talks now going on among Democrats and affected groups. “The thing about this bill is that there is disclosure that wasn’t required before of all entities” in the politically active tax-exempt world, said U.S. Public Interest Research Groups (PIRG) democracy advocate Lisa Gilbert. “These are things people aren’t accustomed to doing.”

Could the NRA or other groups succeed in watering down the bill enough to alienate the watchdog groups that now support it? Leonard, of the League of Women Voters, pointed to a proposed amendment from Rep. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.) as a possible deal-breaker for his group. The Shuler amendment [PDF] would exempt any 501(c)4 non-profit that finances election ads using only individual donations, as opposed to corporate money, from the bill’s disclosure and coordination rules.

Bridgett Frey, spokeswoman for the bill’s chief House sponsor, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), said via email that her boss would examine specific amendments after the details of the bill are finalized. “Throughout this process, Congressman Van Hollen has met with any group or organization that has had questions or concerns about the DISCLOSE Act, and he continues to do so. He is open to accommodating reasonable concerns, but is committed to a bill that ensures transparency and protects our democratic process.”

The office of House Administration Committee Chairman Robert Brady (D-Pa.), which sent the bill to the Rules Committee last month, also indicated that negotiations over the bill would continue during this week’s recess.

“There’s no hard and fast line at which point disclosure would be weakened to the point at which it would become irrelevant,” Brady spokesman Kyle Anderson said via email. “We’ve gone to great lengths to address concerns expressed by both House Republicans and the groups and organizations that raised them. That process is ongoing.”

The process, however, cannot go on for too long without the new campaign-finance rules having a diminished effect on this November’s midterms. The DISCLOSE bill includes language implementing its new rules within 30 days of passage, sidestepping the need for prolonged regulatory debate at the Federal Election Commission, but Senate Democrats have already vowed to approve their version by July 4 to set up a final vote before the month-long August recess.

“If they don’t make it by July Fourth,” Holman said, “the bill will lose a great deal of momentum.”

The Chamber, for its part, is already betting on Democrats to lose — if not in the House, then in the Senate. The first hint of the DISCLOSE bill’s fate could come as soon as next week, when Democrats are likely to know more about the time frame for a House floor vote.

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