Advocates of a bill to force more disclosure of the funding behind corporate campaign ads say that reformers should still support the bill even after a backroom deal that gave one of the largest special interest groups in the country its very own loophole.
"This is not fun for anyone, believe me," said Democracy 21's Fred Wertheimer, a longtime campaign finance reformer who supports the bill, known as the DISCLOSE Act.
Democrats unveiled the legislation to blunt the impact of the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United vs. FEC, which undid the Federal Election Commission's ban on corporations and unions spending money on ads directly endorsing or opposing candidates during election season.
The DISCLOSE Act, among other things, will require corporate CEOs to appear in any ads they bankroll, will ban foreign-owned companies and government contractors from electioneering, and will require ad-buying groups to disclose the identity of their donors -- but, as of Wednesday, that doesn't include the NRA's donors or the donors for any group that happens to have a million members, be 10 years old and not receive 15 percent of its funding from corporations.
"We do not like the exemption in this disclosure law," said Wertheimer during a conference call with Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), the bill's sponsor. "It's there because this legislation can't pass the House without it. We think the enormous amount of information that voters will lose if this legislation does not pass justifies passing this legislation even with this exemption in it."
Voters won't know the names of the corporations and the amounts they have given, Wertheimer said, citing the $50 million campaign announced by the Chamber of Commerce.
Van Hollen said the loophole would not benefit only the NRA -- the AARP and the Humane Society would also be exempt from the donor provision, he said -- but the NRA was the only group threatening to lobby against the bill, and the only group with a substantial number of Democrats in its pocket. Van Hollen stressed that the bill was designed to limit the influence of shady, fly-by-night front groups with innocuous names, not established groups like the NRA.
"Those organizations that have millions of members of citizens, are well-established, are not the kind of organizations trying to fool the voter as to who they are and who is funding them," said Van Hollen. "Whether it's the NRA, or another organization that's well-established... they're not trying to fool anybody."
As Van Hollen, Wertheimer and the Campaign Legal Center's Meredith McGehee explained the bill's virtues, an even broader coalition of largely progressive institutions was writing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Cali.) demanding that the deal be scrapped.
Signed by, among others, Alliance for Justice, Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, Consumer Action, Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund, League of Conservation Voters, Media Matters Action Network, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Sierra Club, and USAction, the letter urged the Speaker to "remove the offending language" that exempts the NRA and "restore the integrity" of the campaign finance reform effort.
"We must respectfully express our profound opposition to the effort to create an exemption from the disclosure requirements for large, powerful organizations, which, given the amendment's language, in reality only applies to one entity, the National Rifle Association.
It is unconscionable to create a two-tiered system of campaign finance laws and First Amendment protections, one for the most powerful and influential and another for everyone else. There is no legitimate justification for privileging the speech of one entity over another, or of reducing the burdens of compliance for the biggest organization yet retaining them for the smallest."
Such public airing of progressive opposition is relatively rare when it comes to major legislation authored by Democratic leadership, suggesting that Van Hollen's office came up short in its diplomatic outreach prior to the bill's unveiling. The main issue, however, seems to be the preferred status that a longtime Democratic foe received in order to secure the legislation's passage. The NRA may have immense legislative clout on the Hill. But it remains reviled within the progressive community.
That said, Van Hollen's office has one major ally. On Wednesday, White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer wrote a blog post urging passage of the DISCLOSE Act. The Huffington Post asked Robert Gibbs for the president's thoughts about the NRA exemption. The press secretary had no immediate comment, saying he hadn't had a chance to read the legislative language.
Here's the letter: