Speaking the day after passing sweeping campaign finance legislation through the House of Representatives, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) scoffed at the Republican criticism that the DISCLOSE Act was down to simply institutionalize a Democratic electoral advantage.
"It's absurd," said the Maryland Democrat, "and it demonstrates a refusal to focus on the merits of the bill... The bottom line is that if you've got nothing to hide, you've got nothing to fear. And if they think this is going to disproportionately impact them, they must have a lot to hide."
In an interview with the Huffington Post, Van Hollen, who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, pledged to use the vote on his signature bill against the very same Republicans who are now demonizing it. Only two GOP lawmakers in the House supported the measure, an outcome which he predicted could be used to divide Republicans from their enthusiastic, anti-Wall Street, anti-corporate Tea Party backers
"You know, you have our Republican colleagues trying to pull the wool over the Tea Party activists' eyes on this one," he said. "In this sense: they're pretending that this is a limitation on what people can say. That's absolutely false. This let anybody say anything they want, on TV, on radio, on any ad they want to put on the air. What it requires is that they disclose who's paying for it. And this is an important distinction because our Republican colleagues are trying to fool voters on this. This legislation stands behind every American's First Amendment right to speak, but also stands for people's right to know who is pumping millions of dollars into elections."
Up until yesterday, the prospects of the DISCLOSE Act were unclear. The legislation had been written as a response to the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, which allowed for unlimited expenditures by groups hoping to influence elections, and it was framed as a way to keep special interests and foreign entities in check. Only, it was crafted with a major carve-out for perhaps the most powerful special interest in D.C.: The National Rifle Association.
Liberals in the House scoffed at backing a bill with such a glaring exemption. And Van Hollen responded by expanding it to include other organizations. But the final tally wasn't clear until Thursday morning, when House leadership whipped members of the Congressional Black Caucus to see if they'd drop their opposition. The final vote was 219 to 206.
The irony, claims Van Hollen, is that the bill actually will be much tougher on the NRA than the status quo. While the group won't have to reveal the identities of its funders (which other 501c4 organizations will have to do), it will have to endorse every ad it puts on the air.
"The debate became unhinged from reality because... the reality is that even for those groups -- the NRA, the AARP, the Sierra Club and other large citizen based organizations -- they are more constrained under the bill than without it," said Van Hollen. "Without the bill, they could spend unlimited amounts of corporate money in campaigns. They can't spend a penny of corporate money under this bill. Under this bill they have to keep their corporate money under 15 percent of the total. And number three, the CEO of the organization has to go on TV and stand by the ad. Without this bill, none of that would be the case."