Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) began on Tuesday night the arduous process of selling and defending campaign finance legislation that he helped write, suggesting that the disclosure exemption added for the National Rifle Association is necessary for the bill's passage and raising the specter of shadow groups funded by BP determining elections if legislation is not passed.
"What would happen is that corporations could dump millions of dollars into campaigns without revealing their identity and hiding behind sham organizations and dummy corporations," Van Hollen said in an interview with the Huffington Post. "And so under this bill if you have got nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear. We believe voters have the right to know who is spending this money because there are lots of organizations who hide behind nice-sounding names, like Americans for Clean Oceans funded by BP."
"If this bill didn't pass, the voters would be left in the dark," he added. "They'd have no idea who was spending millions of dollars to influence elections."
The Maryland Democrat's invocation of oil giant BP meddling in U.S. elections is clearly intended as another selling point for campaign finance legislation that has received somewhat mixed reviews in the days since it was introduced.
On Monday, Van Hollen's office finalized a months-long legislative response to the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision. The bill, titled DISCLOSE Act, would require nearly all companies and organizations to include identification on the ads they sponsor and to provide shareholders with information on those political expenditures. But a notable exemption was granted to the NRA (though it would apply to a few other groups as well), which had lobbied heavily on the legislation in the past few weeks.
Pressed on the exemption, the congressman stressed that this wasn't about the gun lobby's preferred status in D.C. The caucus, he stressed, had literally gone as far as it could in laying down more stringent disclosure requirements before they sacrificed votes necessary for the bill's passage.
"[Rep.] Heath Shuler (D-N.C.) proposed an amendment that would exempt all 501c4 organizations," Van Hollen explained. "And that meant everyone would be out including fly-by-night organizations that tried to hide their identity. And so we had to find a clear rule to distinguish between organizations that could manipulate the process and long-established organizations with dues-paying members who are not trying to fool voters as to their identity. I mean everybody knows who the NRA is. Everyone knows who AARP is. Everyone knows who the Humane Society is. At some point, you had to draw the line."
Van Hollen added that several major good-government groups, including Common Cause, Democracy 21, and Public Citizen had all come out in support of his bill -- in the belief that good reform passing is better than perfect reform failing. But on Wednesday morning, a new wrinkle rankling Democrats emerged. Despite getting an exemption, the NRA announced that it is not actually going to help lobby for the bill's passage, just merely sit out the fight.
"As a result [of this deal], and as long as that remains the case, the NRA will not be involved in final consideration of the House bill," an unattributed statement from the group read.
UPDATE: Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the House Minority Whip, jumped on Van Hollen's remarks hours after they were posted, accusing the Maryland Democrat of using the BP disaster to advance campaign finance legislation.
"Congressman Van Hollen's comments are way out of line," Cantor's statement reads. "As a member of the Democratic Leadership, Mr. Van Hollen's attempt to use the crisis in the Gulf to push the partisan and controversial DISCLOSE Act is beyond callous. The DISCLOSE Act is a blatant attempt to sway the November election in the Democrats' favor, and has no relation to the oil spill whatsoever."
"Mr. Van Hollen owes an apology to the people who are suffering in the Gulf, those working night and day to help wildlife and the environment, and every Member of this House who represents them. I hope Speaker Pelosi agrees that any effort to use this crisis for purely political purposes is beyond the pale and unacceptable in this House."
Van Hollen, of course, was not using the tragedy in the Gulf as a means of advancing campaign finance reform. He was using the specter of BP forming a electorally-active shadow group -- and in that respect he will probably not be the last politician to paint the oil-giant as a boogeyman.
FURTHER UPDATE: Van Hollen spokesman Doug Thornell responds to Cantor's criticism:
This is textbook Eric Cantor - try to manufacture some bogus controversy by expressing phony outrage to distract from his indefensible position of standing with powerful special interests that are trying to purchase our democracy. The bi-partisan DISCLOSE Act increases disclosure and transparency, prevents foreign companies like BP from influencing our elections, and helps the American people follow the money in our political system. Using the environmental tragedy in the Gulf to try and score political points is pretty low, even for him.