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Senate Should Level DISCLOSE Act's Playing Field

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The DISCLOSE Act didn't have to go forward this way. Not with the outrageous exemption for the NRA, which was later softened so that it would cover the Sierra Club, which didn't even want an exemption, and the AARP, which doesn't endorse candidates for political office.

Congressional leaders had a reasonable goal of wanting to bring "transparency" to corporate and advocacy expenditures in federal election campaign activities. Rep. Chris Van Hollen's (D-Md.) proposal, known as the DISCLOSE (Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light on Spending in Elections) Act (H.R. 5175), sought to strengthen campaign finance disclosure rules in response to the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling in January which reversed decades of legal precedent by ending most limits on corporate election spending.

Congress worried that the new campaign ground rules set by the Court could make it hard for political campaigns and citizens groups to compete with the big money interests. They also worried that corporations would be free to pour money into non-profit organizations set up or resurrected from dormancy for the express purpose of attacking candidates whose ideas they didn't like, giving them an advantage over groups that are not financed largely or solely by big money interests.

But the bill that Congress passed 219-206 Thursday sidesteps many of these concerns. In fact, by keeping the exemption for the NRA, it assures that the nation's largest special interest group, representing those who make money manufacturing and selling guns, will be able to spend its big dollars, as well as be a conduit for other big dollar donors, without having to reveal contributor names. This gives this special money group an unfair advantage over just about every other.

What else could Congress have done?

Logically, it could have approved a proposed amendment by Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.) that would have exempted any advocacy group that had been around for at least 10 years, had members in all 50 states, plus D.C. and Puerto Rico, and that raised 15 percent or less of its money from corporations, unions, or big dollar ($100,000-plus) contributors.

That amendment would have exempted the NRA, and many other long-time advocacy groups of all sizes, and it would have made it much harder for a big corporation to set up a phony interest group just to undermine candidates who take positions with which they disagree.

But complaints by the NRA bosses, who don't want to play by the same rules as the rest of us, led House Democrats who take NRA money to insist on the "carve out" without voting on Edwards' amendment or any other that would have made this legislation a lot more equitable and sensible.

This kind of "special deal" law making is what keeps Americans disgusted with politics in Washington. And it ultimately could lead to the undermining of even more laws that are meant for the public's good.

There is still hope that the Senate will improve this bill. Call, write, and email your Senators. Let them know that there's got to be a much better path to fair disclosure of the role money plays in politics than the one the House chose that exempts one of the biggest players channeling money into politics.

Paul Helmke is president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. Follow the Brady Campaign on Facebook and Twitter.