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Carve Out for the NRA Carves Up Democracy (UPDATED)

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In Washington, it's an article of faith that what the National Rifle Association wants, the National Rifle Association gets. But today, people are pushing back against what many feel is an abuse of democratic principles and the entrenched culture of special favors for the most powerful.

Alliance for Justice, along with 44 other concerned groups, has sent a letter to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi expressing deep disappointment about the exemption from key provisions of the DISCLOSE Act that has been offered to the NRA in order to discourage them from opposing the bill. The letter is signed by a wide variety of organizations, including the Sierra Club, the League of Conservation Voters, Center for Science in the Public Interest, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, US Action, Media Matters Action Network, and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, among others.

In the letter we say:

It is inappropriate and inequitable 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.

We also say that if the NRA carve-out stays in, we cannot support passage of the bill. In spite of our desire for reform, there is simply too much at stake.

Like many progressive organizations, Alliance for Justice was disturbed by the Supreme Court's decision in the Citizens United case. Decades of well-established legal principle limiting the influence of powerful corporate interests in our electoral process was tossed out the window.

The DISCLOSE Act was drafted to mitigate the damage of that decision by requiring that when vast sums are spent during campaigns by corporations, organizations, unions, and other groups, the public can know who is actually writing the checks. The bill's disclosure and disclaimer provisions are supposed to make campaign spending a transparent exercise where the wealthy and influential can no longer hide behind anonymous donations and fake front groups. Although we have concerns about some aspects of the Act, we applaud its purpose and respect the motivations of its sponsors.

But now, all those good intentions are being washed away by this cave-in to the National Rife Association. An amendment to the original language would effectively exempt the NRA -- and only the NRA -- from the disclosure provisions that are the heart of the legislation. The way the exemption is written, no other groups that typically do independent expenditures in political campaigns, would qualify. The political system would have two sets of rules: one for the gun lobby and one for the rest of America. Commentators have called this gift to the NRA a carve-out. But what are really being carved up are fundamental constitutional and democratic principles.

Alliance for Justice is eager to continue to work with Congress to find constructive ways to counter the Citizens United catastrophe. But this regrettable provision has made this much more difficult. It needs to go.

UPDATE: On Thursday, faced with growing opposition from all points on the political compass, the bill's sponsors in the House tried to appease some organizations by reducing the threshold for the exemption from disclosure requirements to groups with 500,000 members or more. (In the original version it was set at a million members, effectively limiting the carve-out to the NRA alone.)

Today's ploy didn't work. Alliance for Justice and 58 other groups, including some that might have benefited from the changed language, have sent a letter to the Speaker of the House of Representatives saying we are holding fast to the principle that there should only be one standard for disclosure, and that efforts to create a two-tiered system of regulation, one for the very biggest groups and one for everyone else, is not acceptable.

Lots of us in the progressive community want to continue to work with Congress to create a DISCLOSE Act that does what it was originally intended to do, but we can't accept the deliberate creation of inequities in the rules governing political speech. This bill is supposed to clean up our campaign finance system, but this proposal just makes it messier and reinforces the idea that the American political system is not a level playing field.

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